Reflections on the birthday of Carrie Chapman Catt from “suffrage buff” Nate Levin
The importance of visiting historic sites associated with the suffrage movement can be seen in Nate Levin’s response to visiting the Carrie Chapman House.
“I stepped out of my car and looked across the prairie, at the countryside–the same view, give or take 150 years, that Carrie Lane had seen every day as a girl and young woman. I felt like a pilgrim arriving at a long-desired destination, joy, a sense of a dream becoming a reality.
“The house itself did not disappoint. With their limited resources the people of Charles City have done a fine job of weaving Carrie’s story together with those of the suffrage movement and the even larger currents of history. CCC’s home upholds the suffrage spirit like few other places on earth.”
Nate Levin is upfront about his passion, to the point where he created a Facebook page called “Suffrage Buffs of America.” Nate created the online space in the hope of attracting others. His interest in the suffrage movement grew out of his involvement in the League of Women Voters. “I’m a second-generation League member –my mom was active in the League for decades and served on the board of LWVNYS for a short time,” he said. “I was an active member of my local chapter for six or eight years, rising to president.”
The intense interest in Catt stirred after Nate did some background reading on the League and was struck by the compelling personality of the League’s founder, Carrie Chapman Catt (who of course was a key suffrage leader before founding the LWV as a successor to the main suffrage organization).
“I asked myself why I hadn’t learned about her in school, and conceived the idea of writing a book for kids about her (there was no such book at the time, though three adult-level biographies of her existed). This was back in 1994. My plan of research was simple and doable –just to read those three books for adults. At the time, my job was quite demanding, but I soon changed to a somewhat easier job, and had a burst of energy which I devoted to writing the book. I did a lot of the work on the commuter train.”
It took Nate five years for the book (Carrie Chapman Catt: A Life of Leadership) to get into print which opened up a window into the suffrage movement. He calls Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner, a must read, and an immersion into subject matter that led him to the lecture circuit, including such provocative topics as “Crunch Time in the Woman Suffrage Movement,” and more recently on “What Fox News Would Have Said about Carrie Chapman Catt.” You can find interviews with Nate online about the suffrage movement, including this piece on YouTube.
“So you see this was kind of a solo path for me,” Nate continues. “I don’t believe there is or recently has been any national network of suffrage enthusiasts, but there are a fair number of individuals or ‘clumps.’ This is changing. “The centennial of suffrage is ‘walking’ across the country. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the successful referendum campaign in California. The year before it was Washington State. This year Oregon and Arizona join the spotlight. These centennials are observed to a greater or lesser extent on a local basis. Of course, 1913-1917 were the key years in New York, and there is perhaps an opportunity to build some momentum to 2017 and then beyond for the climax of the national suffrage battle in 2020.”
But it’s more than history that’s part of these observances, Nate continues. “Young girls still face great barriers in achieving leadership positions. The leadership at the end of the movement was really great, and the ‘followership’ was even greater. Women had achieved ‘agency’ to some extent in the abolition and temperance movements, but never before as much so as at the climax of the suffrage movement.
“I’m most curious about what it was inside the suffragists that drove them so. My working theory is that it was anger, righteous indignation, even rage, at being relegated to the place of those deemed less than fully human. I’m also fascinated by the internal battles and contradictions within the movement. It’s a dynamic time, and I find that if I can get in front of an audience, both men and women are taken up by the huge scale and passion of the movement.
“The U.S. suffragists were a big part of a much larger movement. Of course, the militants in the U.S. were greatly influenced by the militants in Britain. In the period 1904–1923 (except during the war) Catt was the key leader of the international movement as a whole, in addition to being the key U.S. leader.”
Nate Levine says he likes the information generated by Suffrage Wagon News Channel. He’s also appreciative of the park rangers at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, the members of the National 19th Amendment Society who have beautifully preserved Carrie Catt’s girlhood home in Iowa, the staff at the Sewall-Belmont House in D.C., Robert P.J. Cooney, Jr., who is the author of the massive, beautiful coffee table book entitled Winning the Vote, and Ellen Carol Dubois, who’s a leading academic expert on suffrage.
“I’m also a big fan of Ken Burns, but not particularly because of his documentary Not for Ourselves Alone. This telling of the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony seemed rather bloodless to me. How do we increase the number of suffrage buffs? I wish I knew how –I’m not the greatest marketer. All I can think to do is to keep plugging away. And why is this important? Like the civil rights movement, the suffrage movement was one of the most magnificent chapters in American history. It was a huge story, a huge part of the public consciousness back then, and has mainly been lost for the current generations. There are good reasons to be proud of being an American (as well as fake reasons), and the suffrage movement is one of the best reasons.”