The FBI Files
July 10, 1999
FBI Kept a Close Eye on Chapman Catt
Local suffragist was monitored for world peace activism
By David McCartney
Special to the Charles City Press
Copyright © 1999, Charles City [Iowa] Press. Reprinted with permission.
Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist whose efforts led to the adoption of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 guaranteeing women the right to vote, was later monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for her world peace activism and association with "radicals," according to documents obtained by the Charles City Press recently.
Catt, a native of Ripon, Wis., was raised in Charles City, graduating from the local high school in 1877. She graduated from Iowa State University in 1881 and, in 1900, succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She founded the League of Women Voters in 1920 following passage of the suffrage amendment. Her childhood home in rural Charles City is undergoing restoration.
File includes 57 pages
The FBI documents, totalling 57 pages, span over two years - from May of 1927 to July of 1929 - and were released in response to a request filed under the federal Freedom of Information Act. They consist mainly of memoranda prepared by FBI staff for internal government use. Prior to release, the names of the memos' authors were deleted from the files on grounds of confidentiality under terms of the federal Privacy Act.
Excerpts of Catt's speeches and related newspaper accounts of the day are intermingled throughout the files with observations and commentary by FBI staff or their informers.
In one instance, Catt's opposition to the Monroe Doctrine, a foreign policy she called "a sword suspended by a hair over the Latin continent" in a 1926 publication, prompted a denunciation in a May 9, 1927, FBI report: "Her connection with the National Council for the Prevention of War is sufficient to condemn her as a supporter and advocate of subversive propaganda. As vice chairman of this organization, she is associated with Jane Addams, John A. Lupp, Julica C. Lathrop, Bishop Francis J. McConnell, James G. McDonald, [and] Lucia Ames Mead, who are her fellow vice chairmen," the report said.
The FBI in 1927 was a new agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, formed only three years before, with J. Edgar Hoover as its founding director. Between 1919 and 1924, it functioned as the General Intelligence Division (GID) of the Justice Department, created during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The GID and, later, the FBI authorized secret investigations and intelligence reports on the political activities of numerous public and private U.S. citizens, including Catt.
During this period, considerable tension erupted in the United States over the perceived domestic threat of Communism. The Russian monarchy had been overthrown by Communists in 1917, and America confronted its own economic instability following the first World War. Under these circumstances, U.S. government officials regarded proponents of disarmament and world arbitration as particularly suspect following the war.
While the FBI documents did not identify Catt as a Communist, they characterized her criticism of U.S. foreign policy as "unpatriotic" and a threat to the nation's welfare. In 1925, Catt founded the National Committee on the Cause and Cure of War (NCCCW), an organization she chaired until the mid-1930s.
Among leading peace organizations of the time, including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women's Peace Union, the NCCCW was considered the most politically conservative. Nonetheless, Catt's public stance in favor of arbitration in lieu of armed conflict drew the wrath of the FBI.
Typical was "Bears, Giants and Mother Catt," a July 30, 1929 memorandum which sarcastically dismissed Catt's efforts to encourage international negotiation between Soviet Russia and China. "Now that ... the Red Bear is snarling at the Yellow Giant, Uncle Sam should commission 'Cause and Cure' Carrie Catt as unofficial peace ambassadress to compose the differences of the Bear and the Giant and, after 'causing them to be cured' of their penchant for committing a breach of the peace, handcuff them and bring them back as tame specimens for exhibit at her next Cause and Cure of War meeting. Carrie would confer a boon upon her sister feminists by accepting the assignment," the memo said.
In a March 20, 1928, document, the FBI noted the formation of the Foundation for Moral and Religious Leadership, a new international organization co-founded by Catt and other leaders of the world peace movement. The FBI decried its formation as "simply one more propaganda agency for the radical forces."
"Among those of America who are listed as members are Jane Addams; Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt; Herbert Croley, editor of The New Republic; John Dewey of Columbia University; Paul Monroe of Columbia University; Harry Allen Overstreet; Anna Garlin Spencer; and others," the report said. The same report described Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago and a close friend of Catt's, as "probably a member of more organizations international, socialistic or communistic in character than any other one individual in the United States." "It is Jane Addams who is directly responsible for the growth of the radical movement among women in America," the report continued. "It is Jane Addams who is in the forefront of the battle in the attempt to disarm our nation. It is Hull House, the institution of Jane Addams, that has time and again been the scene of radical meetings where Communists, I.W.W.'s [International Workers of the World], anarchists, socialists and all subversive breeds have found shelter."
'World's greatest crime'
Many FBI documents concerning Addams were released to the public during the 1970s following enactment of the federal Freedom of Information Act. FBI files concerning Catt, however, were not released until recently, and Catt, who died in 1947, probably never knew of the Department of Justice's documentation of her activities.
Such news may not have surprised her: In 1924, she learned of the Chemical Warfare Bureau's 1920 probe of peace organizations for the presence of alleged radicals. The disclosure prompted an indignant response, "Poison Propaganda," from Catt on May 31, 1924. Writing in The Woman Citizen, Catt said: "Here are women conducting themselves as they always have when they want something which can only be attained by political action, that is, speaking, arranging meetings, petitioning, reading, investigating, thinking how to abolish war, the world's greatest crime.
"Yet, in this supposedly most tolerant republic in the world, boasting of its free speech and liberty for all, they suddenly discover that a department of their own government is systematically discrediting them by the distribution of false and libelous charges," she wrote. "Is this America or Russia? Is this the 20th century or the Middle Ages?"
A biographer of Catt speculates Catt would have reacted with amusement had she known of the FBI's files on her own activities.
"It wouldn't have fazed her or scared her," said Booth Fowler, Ph.D., a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of political science who wrote a biography of Catt in 1987. "But I think the continued harassment of people like Jane Addams in anonymous FBI files would have irritated [Catt] quite a bit. She felt that people like Addams were persecuted as it was and didn't deserve any more troubles."