Turning a Crisis into an Opportunity: Carrie Chapman Catt 

Although delivered almost fifteen years apart, Carrie Chapman Catt’s two speeches, “Presidential Address” and “The Crisis” both work toward the same goals: motivating the dissatisfied and disillusioned women still fighting for the right to vote, and securing the equal voting rights of women among male legislatures. Catt’s Presidential address focuses the fury of the exploited and abused women with appeals to logic and patriotism to harness their energy toward that final goal in a time of fatigue and defeat. And having initiated that appeal, she is able to use “The Crisis” to begin the final campaign, resulting in the passage of the nineteenth amendment.

These two speeches use similar rhetorical devices and rely on the same reactions to elicit the enthusiasm needed for success, and the span between their deliveries indicates an overarching feeling of dissatisfaction and impatience among these women, which is continually taken advantage of to elicit action.

Beginning with Carrie Chapman Catt’s Presidential address, Catt immediately compares the women of the movement to a “phoenix rising out of the ashes” and a “little band of misfits” fighting against the “sovereign will of men.” (464-5) The women listening can immediately identify as a patriot with a duty to continue moving forward, and Catt implies success in her speech by alluding to the difficult but ultimately successful war with England (465). She continues by appealing to the crowd’s logic, remaining as disassociated and dispassionate as her patriotic rhetoric was inflamed. She successfully identifies the women’s movement as logical, and all in opposition as consequently illogical. Catt transforms impatience into eagerness, and frustration to action, during a “period in which the domestic movement was becalmed…and [the organization] was confronting an…anti-suffrage opposition and a climate…more hostile to reform.” (462) By using sex-prejudice and logical appeals, Catt arms those listening with reason and purpose, rather than the feeling of fighting an uphill battle. This attitude shift helps to bring women together, and move toward social changes that eventually lead to an elevated role in World War One, as outlined in her speech before NAWSA.

Catt’s four main causes of the subjection of women from her address are then carried over to her speech, “The Crisis,” and disproved as no longer an obstacle in a country again in the midst of war. Women’s supposed ignorance and lack of skills are no longer an issue, and women are suddenly “war assets.” (488) Catt builds on these accomplishments to rally the women toward final emancipation out of the chaos of the war. In her urgency, she states that the “time for final action is now” (501) in the midst of new forms of independence and success, propelling the movement forward in the final push. Catt encouraged women to take advantage of the social changes taking place as the opponents of the women’s suffrage movement slowly diminish. Women again found strength in the midst of doing their patriotic duty.

Carrie Chapman Catt’s well-structured and logically tight speeches managed to—without using a directly emotional appeal—affect the sentiments and drive of the women involved in the suffrage movement. Her urgency, arguments, and implicit feelings of success and near execution conveyed a passion and contagious sense of duty. And her efforts were rewarded with the ratification of the nineteenth amendment.

Catt’s skills as a leader and a speaker as so great, she twice successfully turned a practically defeated crowd into impassioned women ready to continue to fight. Yet this skill at coercion seems almost counter-intuitive to the message Catt conveys. Among the four chief causes of submission Catt cites are obedience and ignorance, which Catt depends on to convince her audience to continue forward. Although the end result is clearly successful, I keep noticing a pattern among educated rhetors using limitations to fight for freedom.

Turning a Crisis into an Opportunity: Carrie Chapman Catt 

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