Letter: Recognize reinforcing racism and white supremacy as oppression

Letter writer Katy Swalwell reinforces the naming of Catt Hall.

Letter writer Katy Swalwell reinforces the naming of Catt Hall.

Katy Swalwell

For over 15 years, I have been a social studies educator in K-12 and university classrooms. My current position is associate professor of social and cultural studies in the School of Education at Iowa State University. The focus of my research is on anti-oppressive history education, which includes teaching a course on the history of anti-Black racism in Iowa. I add my name to the many others over the decades who have called for Catt Hall to be renamed.

I proudly stand with the September 29th Movement, an incredible organization led by students of color who have thoughtfully and relentlessly pursued justice on this issue since the naming of Catt Hall. The reasons outlined in recent public statements by public historian Mark Barron, September 29th Movement member Bob Mohr and Ruxandra Looft, director of the Margaret Sloss Center for Women and Gender Equity, compounded with the decades-long diligent research conducted by Black students and scholars on campus, ought to be enough to convince those in power to change the name. Below, I share my experiences with this “controversy” with the hope of providing an additional perspective that helps tip the scale in favor of changing the name.

In 2018, RAYGUN published a children’s book I wrote entitled “Amazing Iowa Women.” Carrie Chapman Catt is one of the many women featured in that book, along with the acknowledgment she was “an important national leader who fought for women but, like many white suffragists, also supported racism.”

To any professional historian, this is not a controversial statement. In fact, it is not nearly as forceful as it could or should be. For the second edition of my book, I include the fact she also supported xenophobia, classism and anti-Indigenous sentiment. For example, in a lecture Catt gave on January 1, 1888, she argues women should get to vote given that the U.S. government granted suffrage to men who also happen to be, in her words, “the alien,” “the idle, the ignorant and the unworthy,” “the polluted … criminal,” “the uncivilized Indian” and “the little less barbarous Mexican [American].” Basically, if the U.S. lets all of these “unworthy” men vote, then why not women? Here are her exact words:

The secret of America’s shame lies with the interpretation of her principles, the flaw is in the false basis of her citizenship. Under this system, the government crowns with sovereignty the alien fresh from foreign lands; which bestows upon the idle, the ignorant, the unworthy, the dignity of citizenship; which places the ballot in the polluted hands of the criminal; which grants the franchise to the uncivilized Indian of the Western prairies and the little less barbarous Mexican of the Southmost but all these years has denied it to intelligent American wives and mothers born and bred beneath the stars and stripes. It lies in the inconsistency with which admits to the suffrage, crime and vice and illiteracy when they come as the attributes of men but refuses admittance to purity and virtue and intelligence and patriotism and honesty of purpose when they crown as the attributes of women.

It is hard to believe the argument that repeated language like this indicates anything other than disdain for many marginalized groups of people. Regardless, knowing what was in Catt’s heart of hearts is simply not relevant when we apply a sociological understanding of how racism functions.

Historians have documented how Catt (and many other white suffragist leaders) deliberately deployed strategies like the rhetoric of this speech to play on the bigotry of those in power as a means of furthering their goal. That she had Black friends and collaborated with women of color in other countries does not erase that.

If anything, it makes it worse.

Catt is an important figure to study for many reasons, one of which is she brings into relief the deeply problematic strategy that white women have rightly been criticized for throughout the struggle for gender justice: utilizing racism (and xenophobia and classism) to protect their interests above those with different intersecting identities. No one who is asking for the name of Catt Hall to be changed is advocating that she be erased from history — just that we not venerate someone who used these strategies. When we think about the leaders of social movements who we want to hold up as models, I hope it would not include anyone who willingly throws their friends and fellow movement members under the bus or who in any way supports systems as heinous as white supremacy.

After “Amazing Iowa Women” was published, I was contacted by university marketing to schedule a shoot for a video press release to help publicize the book. Under its former leadership, this offer was rescinded after a defender of Catt’s legacy called to complain about what I had written.

At a meeting that included the president of the Faculty Senate (there at my request) and members of the marketing team, I heard many arguments made to justify their decision. Most consistent was the belief that the university ought not “take a stand” on Catt. I explained there was no neutral ground — to not include that information about Catt was to deny the pain of Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color. Given that my book intentionally centered stories that challenge the dominant historical narrative focusing almost exclusively on white, European American, wealthy, cisgender, straight, able-bodied men, I simply could not omit it.

I was told the university would have publicized the book if only I had not written the last eight words of the sentence about Catt. I suggested what a bitter irony it would be, if Catt was indeed such a bastion of support for all women, to not aid the spread of a children’s book intended to celebrate local women from diverse backgrounds. Needless to say, the video press release never happened.

This meeting with marketing took place amid a flood of emails in my inbox from a senior colleague about how misguided I was with demands to know where I had gotten my information about Catt (facts, remember, that are not controversial among historians).

After receiving official confirmation from ISU’s Human Resources that this barrage constituted harassment, this colleague went on to harass a Black graduate student on campus and was involved with another case of intimidating a leading scholar at another university. These are likely not the only cases of concern and are unacceptable.

After reporting these incidents and having sympathetic hearings from some in leadership, we have been told the university has met with this colleague to ask them to refrain from contact with us and remind them of the principles of academic freedom.

While I appreciate the no contact order, this is a gross misunderstanding of the protections academic freedom actually affords scholars — first, it should not be used as cover for harassment. Second, it should not protect members of our university community from clinging to antiquated, debunked understandings of how the world works.

Imagine an astronomy professor claiming academic freedom while teaching students the universe revolves around the Earth. To perpetuate the belief that racism depends on individual acts of bad intentions is educational malpractice. Again: Catt supported racism by knowingly utilizing rhetoric that endorses racism, xenophobia and classism. And that is wrong. Full stop.

The experiences I share here clearly go well beyond the issue of the naming of Catt Hall. In the context of the university’s historic maltreatment of students involved with the September 29th Movement, they are relevant because they highlight the ways in which ISU leadership has yet to recognize how white supremacy operates or to take active steps against it.

When the university frames a serial harasser on issues related to racism as someone who simply needs reminders about academic freedom, it reinforces white supremacy.

When the university supports scholars espousing debunked understandings of racism, it reinforces white supremacy.

When it rescinds an offer to promote anti-racist work after one complaint citing the need to stay “neutral,” it reinforces white supremacy.

For me, then, putting together a commission to rename Catt Hall would be an indication that leadership is finally coming to understand how racism actually functions and that the continued protection of abusive policies and people who distract us from this understanding is untenable.

I don’t share any of this out of pettiness and hesitate to air our university’s “dirty laundry” knowing some may accuse me of being unprofessional. But exposing mechanisms that silence those in our community who are trying to make this a less oppressive place is not unprofessional, keeping incidents like this behind closed doors as a way to avoid dealing with the deeply rooted racism within our institution is.

Katy Swalwell is an associate professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University.