Carrie Chapman Catt — Leading Suffragist


So, here’s another of those mysterious driveway pillars that I pass by all the time.  This one’s in Briarcliff Manor on North State Road, just about opposite the ASPCA.

“Juniper Ledge” has an intriguing, slightly dangerous ring to it, doesn’t it? Yet it’s took me years to get around to googling it and once I did, I fell down an Internet hole that led past Seneca Falls, the League of Women Voters, Prohibition and the Nineteenth Amendment.   Juniper Ledge, you see, was the country home of one of our most dedicated suffragists, Carrie Chapman Catt.  Even though it’s privately owned today, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is listed on the National Park Service website — see here for more information.)

Carrie Chapman Catt, c. 1913  
Credit: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Hmm, wait, now who exactly was she? She’s up there with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, right? Ladies whose names get trotted out every Women’s History Month.

And now, thanks to this simple driveway pillar, I know all that there is to know about the early feminists and the early 20th century fight for women’s rights. Okay, no, not true, but I certainly know more than I did.

(As a side note, isn’t it hard to believe that American women have only been allowed to vote for just a little more than one hundred years?   But it’s true – the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920.)

Carrie Chapman Catt (nee Lane) was born in Wisconsin in 1859. Unusually for that time and place, she went to college (Iowa State) and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 1880. She became a teacher, then a principal, then Superintendent of her Iowa school district. Pretty groundbreaking stuff for the Gilded Age, when women were just supposed to wear bustles and corsets, get married and have babies.

She did marry, though, twice. In 1880, she married husband #1, Leo Chapman, a reporter, who died of typhoid fever within a couple of years. In 1885, she married husband #2,  George Catt, a wealthy engineer and fellow Iowa State alum. He apparently was quite supportive of her involvement in the fight for women’s rights. So she threw herself into the fray.

She took over the Iowa Women’s Suffrage Association and ran it with great skill. From there, Catt came to the attention of Susan B. Anthony, the Grande Dame of suffragists (so grande that she was awarded with her own US coin! Only minted for about three years though, due to its poor design and the opposition of Big Vending, but I am getting way off topic here.)

In 1900, Catt succeeded Susan B. Anthony as President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and was still its President when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Arguably, it was her stewardship and steady hand that helped unite all the different factions and win the vote for women.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Catt then started the League of Women Voters to give women information to help them make informed voting decisions.

Back to Briarcliff — while Juniper Ledge is listed on the National Historical Register, Carrie Chapman Catt really only lived there from 1919 – 1928. With her partner Mary Garret Hay (Mr. Catt having died in 1905.)

The story goes that the estate was named Juniper Ledge because of its abundance of juniper trees.  And, as we all know, juniper berries are the main ingredient in gin.   In a New York Times article from 1921, Catt asserted that she bought Juniper Ledge to keep the juniper berries from “wet” use. (She and Hay only served their guests coffee and orangeade. And maybe water.)

I suppose I should mention that many of the suffragists were also big on Prohibition.  We won’t hold that against them, though.  Things were different then. Did you know that Ossining had about 50 active saloons at the turn of the 20th Century? So yeah, maybe there was a good reason for the anti-booze crusade.

According to another New York Times article, this one from 1927, Juniper Ledge was quite impressive: “The estate is one of the show places of Northern Westchester, and includes sixteen acres of extensively developed land fronting on two roads. The residence, on a knoll overlooking the countryside, is a modern house of English architecture containing fourteen rooms and three baths. A gardener’s cottage, stables, a garage and a greenhouse are also on the property.”  Catt affixed brass plaques with the names of famous suffragettes to fourteen trees – and some of those plaques are now in the archives at Harvard.

Catt sold Juniper Ledge in 1927 to a “Manhattan banker” (according to the Times) and purchased a home at 120 Paine Avenue in New Rochelle. Sadly, her companion Mary Garret Hay died shortly after they moved.

Catt lived on, staying active right up until her death in 1947. She and Hay are buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The inscription on their joint tombstone reads, “Here lie two, united in friendship for thirty-eight years through constant service to a great cause.” (Here’s Catt’s obituary if you want to learn more about her life.  It makes me tired just to read about all the things she accomplished.)

So, the next time you drive on North State Road, keep an eye out for that old driveway pillar and know that a very influential and historically important woman once lived up there.

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