Guest Column: Catt Hall from a public historian’s perspective


Photo: Jonathan Krueger/Iowa Sta

As LAS Reimagined addresses budget shortfalls within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, department faculty have expressed concern for the program.

Mark Barron

Based on nearly 20 years of experience as a public historian dealing with issues relating to historic sites, historical memory and cultural heritage, my professional opinion is that Catt Hall needs to be renamed.

The imbroglio that surrounds Carrie Chapman Catt and the neo-romanesque building that bears her name has raged for far too long. Misrepresentations of the historical past, the inaction of unyielding administrations and acts of silent complicity over the past 25 years have left us with a lingering mess. The structure known as Catt Hall is in desperate need of a metaphorical rehabilitation, its frame dismantled, its foundation rebuilt and its walls reconstructed. As it sits now, it is a moral wound upon the campus landscape. But it does not have to be so.   

When I taught at Iowa State, the Catt Hall controversy would sometimes come up in discussions with students, faculty and staff. I would like to acknowledge how much my conversations with people on campus have shaped my opinions, but I am hesitant to name them without consent (I had approximately 48 hours to prepare this piece before publication).

Although the words below are my own, my thoughts often owe an intellectual debt to others.  Two scholars who are part of the historical written documentation of Catt Hall that I can give proper credit to are Celia Naylor, a former director of the Sloss Women’s Center in the 1990s and Virginia Allen, an associate professor of English, also in the 1990s. I have never met either of the two, but as I followed the historical documentation of the Catt Hall controversy, I found their opinions on the subject to be insightful and nuanced.

What follows is a brief summation of how I feel about the subject as a professional, practicing historian. As I have watched the controversy escalate once again, I do not believe I can continue to measure my speech on the issue. I am a professionally trained public historian and the Catt Hall issue is plainly situated within the wheelhouse of my expertise.

Public historians are community centered, we are expected to wade into historical matters of contestation and controversy. In addition to personal conversations with people familiar with the Catt Hall controversy, primary documents including newspaper articles, letters, speeches and various correspondences (mostly through email) have guided my interpretation of the issue. While documents are facts, I recognize that my interpretation is subjective, influenced by training, personal relationships and the lived experiences of my own life. What makes Catt Hall a source of controversy is that many of us are in disagreement in how to interpret the facts before us. Like any historian, I hope this essay will sway opinion, but if it does not, I welcome dissent.

How did we get to this point in time? 

It is important to recognize the historic name of the building in question was Agriculture Hall until the 1920s, and Botany Hall afterward. The name of the building was changed to Catt Hall in 1995. The historic name attached to the building’s 1985 National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) nomination is Agriculture Hall. The NRHP nomination on file with the National Archives and Records Administration does not mention Carrie Chapman Catt in its statement of historical significance for Agriculture Hall.

So, how did Catt’s name become attached to the building? In the 1980s, Iowa State President W. Robert Parks and the State Board of Regents supported the demolition of the hall. Iowa State had allowed the building to fall into disrepair and the school was unwilling to allocate funds for its rehabilitation.

As Iowa State pondered the destruction of Agriculture Hall (at that point known as Old Botany), a grass-roots campaign began a push for the school to honor Carrie Chapman Catt, an Iowa State graduate and a leader in the national suffragist movement. The grass-roots campaign turned its attention to saving the derelict Agriculture/Botany Hall as a commemorative site dedicated to Catt’s legacy.

Eventually, the group raised enough money to help offset the rehabilitation costs and the building was rechristened as Catt Hall. As a side note to the issues, I would like to state my opinion that the building is an outstanding piece of architecture and that Iowa State and the Regents should have advocated for its rehabilitation due to its historical significance on campus. 

Based on the evidence I have seen it is unclear exactly when documents highlighting controversial remarks and writings from Carrie Chapman Catt came to light. I am uncertain if they appeared in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s. My position is that this needs further exploration.

Was it before or during the renaming process? This is very important because it calls into question whether Iowa State was a good faith actor in the renaming or if the school chose to ignore inflammatory remarks to appease Catt’s supporters and their burgeoning chest of rehabilitation money. In any case, it is clear, based on documented evidence, that copies of the remarks and writings were being circulated by 1995, when the building was officially renamed.  

What is it that Catt is purported to have written?

The most high profile document that showcases Catt’s remarks on race in the United States is her essay “Objections to the Federal Amendment” that appeared in a 1917 collection titled “Woman Suffrage by Federal Amendment.” The full text of Catt’s chapter is available for viewing from the Catt Center here.

In a rhetorical style commonly used in the era, Catt attempts to persuade southern states to support woman suffrage by offering a general question followed by her response. Why would the American South be opposed to woman suffrage? Catt sets up her argument by offering the following statement: “Southern members of Congress very generally urge that they will oppose the Federal Amendment because it will confer the vote upon the Negro women of their respective states; and that that will interfere with white supremacy in the South.” Catt then offers three responses as to why the South should support a federal amendment for woman suffrage.

First, she attempts to assuage the fears of southern states by reminding them “woman suffrage secured by Federal Amendment will be subject to whatever restrictions may be imposed by state constitutions.”

Restrictions on voting in southern states often involved literacy tests, poll taxes and white-only primaries — sometimes all three. These restrictions were designed to prevent African American men from exercising their right to vote, as was supposed to be guaranteed under the 15th Amendment. Catt is reminding southern states they already have ways to disenfranchise African American men and those tactics could easily be applied to African American women as well. The ability of states to offer white-only primary elections was challenged in court rulings from the 1930s to the 1950s. A state’s use of poll taxes to keep voters from the polls would not end until passage of the 24th Amendment (and a later Supreme Court ruling in 1966). Literacy tests remained until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We should also recognize that while literacy tests and poll taxes were legal methods used by the South to keep African Americans from voting, there were also extra legal methods including intimidation, assault and lynching.

Her second response to the question is a direct appeal to white solidarity.

Catt again reminds the South that a federal amendment would not change a state’s authority over voting access. She then claims white southerners would prefer a federal amendment to a state level amendment because in the “former method, it will come by the votes of white men in Congress and legislatures.” By her estimation, many “women of the highest families” in the South were working tirelessly to secure the right to vote. It would only be a matter of time, she posits, before a state level amendment for woman suffrage would occur. If that happened, Catt writes, white supporters of woman suffrage might “be forced to appeal to the voting Negroes to elevate them to their own political status.” Her warning is that African Americans and woman suffrage supporters may form a political alignment if voting rights were left up to southern states and not a federal amendment.

Catt’s last response directly follows up on her second, writing “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by woman suffrage.”

Out of all the southern states, Catt concedes that only South Carolina and Mississippi have more African American women than white women. She rationalizes that demographic disparity by again reminding readers of the various restrictions southern states already impose on voting access, including having to “own and pay taxes on $300 worth of property” and being able to “read the Constitution.” Catt finishes her rhetorical exercise with a last statement: “If the South wants white supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

For anyone willing to read the chapter in question, there is no ambiguity in what Catt is arguing. Yet, ever since this chapter and other works have come to light, a number of Catt’s present-day supporters have attempted to muddy the comprehension of her own words with a series of counterarguments. The most outrageous of which is that when Catt wrote of white supremacy, she was not referring to a system of discrimination based on a racial hierarchy where whites control a society’s political, social and economic capital, but was referring only to demographic numbers measuring white with Black voters. This is absurd. Within John C. Calhoun’s secessionist rhetoric, Henry Grady’s ideation of a New South, Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman’s and Eugene Talmadge’s racial demagoguery and for present-day malcontents, white supremacy has and always will mean white supremacy. I present the argument that has been made in defense of Catt’s words — that white supremacy does not mean white supremacy — constitutes a deliberate misrepresentation of the document.   

My interpretation is Catt looked at the political calculus of a federal suffrage amendment in 1917 and saw she needed the South to secure women the right to vote. To achieve that, she jettisoned any notion of women’s equality in order to gain rights for white women, such as herself. This is not surprising. It is not even controversial. There are countless books and journal articles that discuss the racial fissures evident in women’s suffrage and within the historical woman’s movement, in general. Further exploration into Catt’s writings may reveal more about her feelings of race and suffrage.

After women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920, did Catt petition the South to end restrictions on voting access? Did she champion an end to literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised Black citizens? Perhaps a series of documents exist that prove just that. If they do exist, I would argue that while they do not negate her earlier writings, they could show a more complex historical figure worthy of continued debate.

As a historian, I often hear the refrain of she/he being a product of their time. This is true. In history we tend to call it context, the intersection of time and place. It does not, however, excuse bad ideas, loathsome practices or the promulgation of racist ideologies. If we merely acquiesce to the product of their time argument and move on, we are surrendering our duties as scholars to document, interrogate and interpret the past. In public history we realize that monuments, commemorative markers and historic buildings and houses inhabit both our public spaces and our imaginations of the past. When people visit a historic house, for instance, they expect the story to be true, the narrative correct.

What happens when the story is incorrect or is told in a misleading way? We get a Catt Hall.

The moment to confront how white suffragists such as Carrie Chapman Catt broke equality and citizenship along racial lines was when this controversy first became known. How different would the naming of Catt Hall turned out if those in charge had been honest brokers in historical documents and memory? In the two decades the Catt Hall controversy has enveloped Iowa State University, however, silence and subterfuge of the historical past have carried the day. Silence from those in power and subterfuge from those looking to protect a legacy at the sake of honest debate. History does not need heroes enshrined in marble, brick and granite in order to celebrate the past, it needs truth to lighten a path forward.

Have there been voices in protest of the naming of Catt Hall? 

Of course. 

The latest protest just occurred. I arrived at Iowa State four years ago and I believe there has been an organized protest for every one of those years. I would like to call particular attention to the protests of the 1990s, however, as I think they offer a good vantage point to access how dissent is often handled on campus.

The campaign to rename Agriculture/Botany Hall to Catt Hall began in in the late 1980s and continued into the early 1990s as Catt supporters continued to raise money for the rehabilitation of the hall. By 1995, the building officially became Catt Hall. Examples of Catt’s ideas on race were widely circulated at the time of the official renaming.

A student-led movement under the name September 29th began to organize with the goal of creating a new committee to decide if the hall should still be named for Catt. In addition to dealing with Catt Hall, the group asked for increased funding for existing Cultural Studies programs, the creation of an LGBT studies program, better representation of minority faculty on campus and scholarship aid to students in need, among others. In November 1996, members of the September 29th movement held an unauthorized protest in Beardshear Hall to call attention to their concerns.

I present that the administration under President Jischke reacted heavy handedly. Documents show student protestors were threatened with suspension and some received conduct review hearings that would remain on their permanent records. The administration’s response to the protest was disproportionate to what occurred. The threat of initiating a conduct review hearing could directly impact a person’s school transfer and/or an application to graduate study. The threat was clear, continue to challenge the naming of Catt Hall and you will be punished.

It is important to note that based on documents housed in Parks Library’s Special Collections and University Archives, the September 29th movement was not calling for an outright change to the name of the building (this is from a 1998 document), but rather the creation of a new committee to reexamine the naming process and make a decision on a final name for Agriculture/Botany Hall. As proposed by movement members, the committee would consist of eight members named by the administration and eight members chosen by the September 29th movement. A seventeenth member selected by the new committee was to preside as chairperson and would vote in case of a tie. Unless a tiebreaker was needed in the final vote, the chairperson was expected to remain impartial to the committee. The new committee was also to hold public meetings, choosing to meet in private only when necessary.

The formation of a new committee as outlined by the September 29th movement was completely reasonable. In public history, we sometimes think of such committees as stakeholder’s meetings, where parties with vested interests in a particular project or subject get together and discuss issues and problems (a discussion of who qualifies as a stakeholder would require much more space than I have).  Such meetings can be contentious as they reflect the realities of America’s contested histories — especially where race is concerned — but are needed as outlets for grievances and concerns, and hopefully, as sites of understanding. Reaching a consensus is not necessarily the goal in such meetings. The objective is to practice shared authority, the creation of a space where stakeholders and community members can sit and talk as equals.

The students of the September 29th movement and the community that supported their efforts were right. They were right in their interpretation of Catt’s language in “Objections to the Federal Amendment” and they were right in proposing the creation of a fair committee. But where did fairness and reasonableness get the movement? Without meaning to sound too polemical, the answer is a chair before a conduct review board. Instead of listening and dialogue, the administration chose intimidation and censure.

The silencing of Black voices who enter into political spaces to advocate for equality and justice has a long and disturbing history in the United States, stretching from the Antebellum Era to the present day. We should also remember the “restrictions” southern states used to disenfranchise African Americans, the same restrictions Catt claimed would still exist if a federal amendment for woman suffrage were to pass. Is there much difference in restricting the right to vote to silencing dissent? It is also important to note that many members of Iowa State faculty routinely used their academic positions to show support for the naming of Catt Hall in the 1990s. Why were their uses of free speech never called into question?

The school did form a 13-person committee in 1998 on Catt Hall, but its mission, like the mission of subsequent committees, was to “review the controversy.” To my knowledge, a committee explicitly tasked with deciding if the Catt Hall name should continue to be used has not been created.

My opinion based on the evidence at hand is members of the September 29th movement and the Iowa State community that supported them deserve an apology. I contend that an injustice was done and the wrong must be righted. On this I want to be clear: In my reading of the Catt Hall controversy, the treatment of dissident voices such as those raised by the September 29th movement and the failure to reopen the naming process in the 1990s are my primary reasons for changing the name of Catt Hall. The controversy may well have ended 25 years ago if the administration had only chosen a different path. From a public historian’s perspective, the school must admit this wrongdoing before any healing can occur. 

Is choosing a commemorative name really that important?


The name that appears on a building is decontextualized from the history of the person who is being honored. The name conveys significance and meaning, and if that significance and meaning is openly contested, the building itself becomes a disputed site. While Catt Hall supporters likely see the building as a monument to women’s suffrage (albeit from a firmly entrenched position of second wave feminism), its detractors see something else. Based on my readings of the issue and in hearing from people on campus, I would argue Catt Hall has become a symbol. A symbol of defiance to Catt Hall’s supporters; a symbol of marginalization to Catt Hall’s critics.

As a scholar, I can see the case for viewing the building as a site of marginalization. Since at least the mid-1990s, Catt Hall’s adversaries have tried to work both inside and outside of the institutional system to affect a change (an unauthorized protest is an example of working from the outside, while a call to create a new committee devoted to reopening the naming process is an example of working from within). At each turn, they have been turned away. As Catt Hall presently sits, it is a symbol of an institution that does not take seriously the lived experiences of African Americans or anyone else who does not identify as white.

Even for me, the building has taken on a symbolic meaning, having come to signify a kind of moral wound. I have known since first learning of the controversy the name should be changed, but there is always a job to do, a future to think about. The blind eye only signals complicity. Iowa State University is a Research 1 institution, chock-full of Ph.Ds, doctoral candidates and graduate students. How can white scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, continue to ignore these kinds of issues as they develop within their own backyard?

Symbols are powerful things in their ability to unite or divide. When a symbol emerges, we should take care of what it is being expressed, of what is being signified. That Catt Hall has likely developed multiple symbolic meanings is a problem and it should be treated with the seriousness the issue demands. From what I have seen over the past four years, the administration seems to be hoping the controversies over Catt Hall will disappear. In my field of work, I have never seen a magical device that can make something like this go away.

I would like to close with what will likely seem odd given what I just wrote in this essay — and that is a defense of Carrie Chapman Catt.

One of the primary problems of naming things after historical figures is that they are not around to defend themselves if damaging elements from their life come to light. Catt put terrible ideas to paper and she willingly offered up Black disenfranchisement to secure her own right to vote, but to my knowledge, she never asked to have a building named for her. Historical figures were real people, full of faults and ambiguities, just as we are today. I often hear those of us who support changing the name of Catt Hall have tarnished her reputation. I do not believe that.

If anything, those who have knowingly misrepresented Catt’s words, while ignoring the valid criticisms of groups ranging from the September 29th movement to the present day have inflicted the greatest damage to Catt’s legacy. Like many white suffragists from her time period, Catt chose to either ignore racial discrimination or abandoned her principles to achieve woman suffrage when expedient to do so. Yet, when Catt wrote in the very same chapter that women’s suffrage would strengthen white supremacy, she also proclaimed that “suffrage is a question of righting a nation-wide injustice, of establishing a phase of unquestioned human liberty and of carrying out a proposition to which our nation is pledged.”

Catt, as did many of her white contemporaries (including the president at the time, Woodrow Wilson), walked a crooked line, jutting between racist ideologies and aspirational prose. She can be remembered for both. Why is Catt being denied the complexities of a lived life? Why do so many people need Catt to be above reproach? Catt was a key part of the women’s suffrage movement and that cannot be taken away. I would argue that it is better to present her as complete person. We can recognize her acquiescence to white supremacy in 1917 while also working to achieve her aspirational prose. If supporters of Catt Hall had accepted the meaning of her harmful words 25 years ago and embarked on a project to secure equality for all and for righting racial injustices, how different would things be on campus today? 

I would also like to acknowledge the difficult position of President Wintersteen. Wintersteen did not create Catt Hall, but she has certainly inherited its troubles. Protests against the naming of Catt Hall will likely not go away. We are, after all, entering 25 years of controversy. There are hard choices to be made. I realize numbers of people in Iowa and across the United States made monetary contributions in the late 1980s and 1990s in order to have Agriculture/Botany Hall renamed in honor of Carrie Chapman Catt. But as I have argued, the campaign for the commemorative name was not properly vetted or the controversy confronted in good faith once it became known.

Across the country, communities are grappling with what to do with inappropriate monuments that champion historical myths and disturbing legacies. Many of the monuments have stood for decades without generating much concern from the majority share of the general public. The reappraisal of their worth in the public sphere is long overdue and a cause for great debates, in which community stakeholders, institutions, governments and academics hash out what to do with them. Unlike many of the monuments and commemorative markers being disputed around the country in the news today, Catt Hall was a public controversy from the very beginning. The school knew the issues from the outset, but thought bullheaded stubbornness, intimidation and deflection would make it go away. It is time to change the name. 

As a public historian who specializes in historic sites and the built environment, I am often drawn back to historian Tiya Miles and her 2010 book “The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story,” which offers a searing examination of the overlapping, interconnected histories of Native Americans, African Americans and whites who once inhabited a historic landscape in northern Georgia. Drawing upon Toni Morrison’s usage of the “racial house” to describe how formulations of race have attempted to ground and confine both the lived experiences and imaginations of African Americans for hundreds of years, Miles challenges her readers to create a new, subversive space within the house that race built. “Working together…we can unwrap the grand home’s glittering façade, open wide its multistoried windows and doors, and allow the memories and meaning of all who dwelled there to flow through our understanding like a cleansing breeze. In the resonant words of southern writer Alice Walker, the way forward is with a broken heart (p. 197, paperback edition).”

Mark Barron, Ph.D.