Hamel: The complexity of Catt Hall

Opinion editor Peyton Hamel unpacks the nuances and complexities surrounding the issue of renaming Catt Hall. 

Peyton Hamel

There are some things we will never truly understand, and Catt Hall may be one of them — along with Carrie Chapman Catt herself. We know concrete facts about who did what and how Catt Hall came to be named, but we will never truly know Carrie Chapman Catt’s motives, opinions or biases — unless we have primary documents and thorough research. 

The influx of letters, op-eds, guest columns and editorials concerning the born-again argument of renaming Catt Hall might seem rather confusing. Some wish to rename Catt Hall while others wish to maintain Catt’s legacy, and all with substantial reasoning. 

In truth, this topic deserves several theses and op-eds. No newspaper, person or institution will have all the facts and we have to accept that as fact. We can do our best to make sense of the facts we find, but how thorough is thorough enough? What facts are deemed important? Which perspectives should we consider? Relevant philosophies? Context? Time periods? Analyses and secondary evaluations? 

There is so much to consider when it comes to any fragment of history. Catt Hall is no exception to the rule. We cannot argue she wasn’t an impeccable advocate for women’s suffrage. Without her, the 19th Amendment might not have come to fruition. However, we can argue she was a “product of her time,” which might mean she uttered racist comments. 

Imagine I am interviewing you and I ask a few questions: 

Have you ever said something racist?

Does that define you?

Are you actually racist?

Arguing that she was racist is futile. We can claim she said racist things, yes. We do not have the capability to go back and ask her, “Are you racist?”

Catt died in 1947, and all we have left of her are her documents, relatives and Catt Hall. I don’t want to further complicate the issue because the renaming of Catt Hall is complex in and of itself. The history we cannot deny, but historians have to be wary of a single dilemma: can we judge history and historical figures based on modern morals? I would argue we can’t. 

As a nation, we have changing morals that need to be acknowledged and recognized. We have come a long way since 1947, but there are modern issues that require modern monuments to reflect what we do and want to value: the LGBTQ+ community is still finding their footing and fighting for their rights; Black and Brown Americans are still combating systemic racism, among other communities of people of color; religious groups that aren’t a part of Western Christianity are marginalized and demonized; although women can vote, they are still struggling in this patriarchy. 

If we were to change Catt Hall’s name, then I would call it modernization. This is not erasing history or disregarding the monumental changes Carrie Chapman Catt initiated in our society. We would disregard Carrie Chapman Catt’s legacy if we completely dismantled her contributions. Her legacy should not be completely removed from Iowa State if Catt Hall’s name were to be changed. 

If we were to change Catt Hall’s name, then I suppose the university would be listening to the student voices. The students would become the focus — as they should — instead of legacies, although I argue legacies drive focus. 

If we were to change Catt Hall’s name, then that would be acknowledging the social climate we are experiencing here and now. It’s an adjustment to what we need now as a society, and THAT would become a statement. That might be the statement the university needs to make in order to say, “Our Black students are our priorities now.” 

I am not veering one way or the other when it comes to the issue of renaming Catt Hall. I need to emphasize that, yes, we do need more thorough research, but we also need to not brandish the legacy of a woman who contributed so much for all women in the United States of America. However, we need to recognize that racist statements made, no matter who from, are not acceptable. 

The nuances surrounding Carrie Chapman Catt and Catt Hall drive deeply into issues and historical ledgers of which I don’t believe there is a right answer. 

All I know is something needs to be done.