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Bloomer, Catt + More: Iowans in the Suffrage Movement

Iowa Suffragists

August 7, 2020

This year, 2020, marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended voting rights to some 27 million American women. Iowans were at the forefront of the suffrage movement, nationally and regionally. It was ratified after a 72-year struggle that began with the Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.

Amelia Bloomer + Carrie Chapman Catt

Two nationally-prominent suffragists have Iowa ties. The first is Council Bluffs’ resident Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894). Bloomer attended the Seneca Falls convention and in 1851, introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Together Stanton and Anthony led the suffrage movement for over 50 years. Bloomer was also an advocate of dress reform. The corsets, petticoats and long skirts of the day were uncomfortable, dangerous and even injurious. The costume that bears Bloomer’s name was a mid-calf length dress worn over loose trousers that were tied at the ankle. This outfit allowed for greater mobility and safety, and led the way for women to wear pants.

Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) grew up on a small farm outside of Charles City, Iowa. At age 13, Catt discovered her life’s work when she learned that her intelligent and well-informed mother could not vote. Carrie Chapman Catt first became active in the Iowa suffrage movement and by 1893 became a field organizer for the country’s largest women’s suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Catt served as president of NAWSA from 1900-1904 and again from 1915-1920. In 1916, Catt unveiled NAWSA’s “Winning Plan,” which was ultimately successful in securing the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Women’s Voting Rights

Iowa suffragists were not timid. In 1908, Boone was the site of one of the nation’s first suffrage parades. Foreshadowing the larger and more famous parades in New York and Washington, D.C., Iowa suffragists used their bodies and their numbers to show their desire to be full citizens. In 1916, a second march was held in Buxton, where African American women, men and children expressed their support of women’s voting rights. In 1912 and 1913, Iowa suffragists conducted two automobile tours, stopping in town along the route to advocate for women’s suffrage.

Like the national movement, the women’s suffrage movement was diverse and included women from many walks of life. Some were well educated and socially prominent. The Grange, an agricultural lobby prevalent in the Midwest that embraced suffrage, brought farm women to the cause. African American Iowans were also involved, especially after the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs was formed in 1902. Men were also engaged, and in 1910, the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was organized in Des Moines.

Iowa women secured partial suffrage in 1894, when tax-paying Iowa women were allowed to vote on bond issues. Yet efforts to extend full suffrage to Iowa women failed repeatedly. Iowa ratified the 19th Amendment on July 2, 1919, and Iowa women secured their voting rights in 1920. African American women and Native American women who did not live on reservations were also enfranchised in 1920.

Centennial Celebration Exhibit

As part of the centennial celebrations of the women’s suffrage movement, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, the Office on the Status of Women, and the Central Iowa Community Museum collaborated on a unique exhibit, Toward a Universal Suffrage, which tells the stories of six African American Iowa suffragists. This exhibit is will tour the state through 2021. To find out when it’s coming to your community, or to schedule the exhibit, please visit the Central Iowa Community Museum website.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership calendar of events is a one-stop resource for activities taking place throughout the region. Find networking information for Greater Des Moines (DSM) businesses or events specific to Downtown DSM.

Header image of Carrie Chapman Catt from the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

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