Suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt and Ripon

This week marks the 155th birthday of Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the leading figures in the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. She headed the successful effort to secure passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Afterward, she founded the League of Women Voters.

She was born Carrie Clinton Lane on Jan. 9, 1859, in Ripon. Her father, Lucius Lane, was raised in Potsdam, New York. At 18, he joined the California gold rush and did well. He returned east to marry his childhood sweetheart, Maria Clinton, and set up business. Quickly tiring of city life, he and his wife followed members of the Clinton family in 1855 to newly created town of Ripon, Wisconsin, and bought a small farm just outside of town. They lived in a house in town. After the Civil War, the family moved to Iowa to take advantage of land becoming available under the Homestead Act.

Thus, Carrie Clinton Lane lived in Ripon only until she was 7 years old. Nevertheless, there were two major influences on her childhood that were important in shaping her later outlooks and character. The first of these was her mother to whom she was very closely attached. Maria Clinton had been educated at the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. The school, at that time, had a distinctly feminist outlook and was strongly dedicated to the principle that women could perform as well as men if they were given the right educational opportunities. Maria Clinton absorbed these ideas and passed them along to her daughter.

The second influence was her experience at the one-room schoolhouse where she received her first education. In a one-room school, with its mixed age levels, students had to be proactive to get the teacher’s attention while girls often found themselves bullied by male students. Carrie Lane quickly learned to become active in the assertion of her own rights and the rights of other girls in the school and was not bashful in standing up to either her older brother or older boys in school. On one occasion, when she was in first grade:

“(We) were lined up with our toes touching one straight crack. Suddenly, while the teacher was talking to us, one of the girl’s hoopskirts became lose and slipped down to the ground. The little girl blushed and the boys all began to giggle out loud. The teacher tactfully gathered up the girl and her hoopskirt, and repaired the damage. At noontime those boys came up to the girl and poked fun at her, and as they continued their annoyance, I went up to the leader and slapped his face! They had more respect for us girls after that!”

Ripon remains proud of Carrie Chapman Catt. A large plaque dedicated to her is located at the corner of Union and West Fond du Lac Avenue.

By William Woolley
Professor of History Emeritus

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