University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Personal Sources: Bonds of friendship in the women’s suffrage campaign

Hannah Moase, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on a letter sent by women’s suffrage campaigner Carrie Chapman Catt for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Hannah reveals how the letter provides us with an insight into the important bonds of friendship that existed between the suffrage campaigners of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Carrie Chapman Catt is well known for the huge part she played in the women’s suffrage movement in America and other parts of the world due to her being one of the founders and the first president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. [1] This blog will focus on a letter sent by Catt to Dr Marion Edwards Park regarding the recent death of Dr Martha Carey Thomas, who was a fellow leading member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association along with Catt. This blog post shows how personal letters like this can give historians an insight into the more emotional, private thoughts and relationships of well-known, important figures such as Catt.

Carrie Chapman Catt. Image taken from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrie_Chapman_Catt

Mariam Dobson argues that personal letters allow historians to have an insight into the “raw experiences and emotions of actors in the past” and this can be seen with Catt’s letter. [2] This letter is written to Dr Marion Park who succeeded Dr Thomas as the president of Bryn Mawr College. In the letter Carrie mentions how she is “unacquainted with the family of Dr Thomas” and that is why she is writing to Park regarding her passing, as she considers her a close colleague to Dr Thomas with her being the successor to the presidency. [3] Although Catt’s letter is written in a formal tone there are feelings of sadness and admiration towards Dr Thomas running throughout it. This can be seen at the beginning of the letter when Catt explains she is writing it because she “wants to express to someone” her “sincere regret at her passing” and she mentions the “admiration” she had for Dr Thomas’ work. [4] The word “someone” suggests that she was not wholly concerned with who the recipient of the letter was, she just wanted the opportunity to express her feelings regarding Dr Thomas and she felt a letter to one of her colleagues was a good platform to express these emotions. [5] This further supports Dobson’s argument that letters were used as a platform for people to express their emotions. [6] This shows how letters can be useful to historians, as they allow them a window into the emotions and private thoughts of the person being studied.

There is also a feeling of regret from Catt in this letter because she did not get to express these feelings of admiration to Dr Thomas herself before she died. At the end of the letter Catt explains how “several times” she meant to write to Dr Thomas and “express her own personal appreciation”. [7] However, she never got around to it before her death because of how busy she was writing letters to strangers who would ask her for “information, advice or favours”. [8] This gives historians an insight into how busy Catt was in her everyday life and to the other types of correspondence she was constantly writing. This shows how a personal letter like this can be useful to historians. As Lindsey Dodd argues, letters give us an understanding of the everyday lives and work of “exceptional people who led exceptional lives”. [9] This letter shows historians the extent of the impact that Catt had on people. Catt is writing this letter in 1935, fifteen years after suffrage has been granted to the women of America. [10] Catt was still receiving countless letters from strangers many years later seeking her guidance and this can be used as evidence to show just how much of an impact she had as a lead figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. [11] Kevin Amidon and Leila Rupp explain Catt’s involvement in international women’s political activity. [12] Amidon shows that after 1920 Catt continued to support women’s suffrage internationally. [13] Catt’s important role in international women’s movements would explain why she still was receiving so many letters after 1920.

This letter also gives historians a contemporary view of the types of suffrage work that took place in America and its impacts. In the letter, Catt says how she feels Dr Thomas’ work as a leader of the Collegiate Equal Suffrage League made “it into a great, strong movement”. [14] She also explains how the “profitable results” from her work were not felt until “years later”. [15] This gives historians evidence that for leaders of suffrage movements, seeing results and the impact of their work was often a slow process. Katherine Adams and Michael Kenne explain that the women fighting for suffrage often had a lot of setbacks in achieving their goals and they argue that during this period the women’s suffrage campaign was seen as an example that political rights cannot be achieved without “insistent efforts to obtain it”. [16] Margaretta Jolley reveals how letters can be seen as  “a staple of any political movement,” and this demonstrates that even though this source is of a personal nature, historians can still pull information from it regarding the political movement and learn contemporary views of the campaign from a figure who played a key role. [17]

It must be mentioned there are limitations to using personal letters as primary sources. For example, they only give us a one-sided view of an event, topic or person. The intended audience can also be an issue when looking at personal letters. Dobson argues that sometimes a “letter’s apparently personal nature can be rather deceptive” and this can be seen with Catt’s letter. [18] Although it is a personal letter in which Catt reveals her emotions of sadness and regret, as well as her opinion regarding Dr Thomas, at the end of the letter she says, “I wish to express to Bryn Mawr, through you”. [19] This suggests that although the letter was sent to Dr Park, it was not just aimed at her and Catt wants to express her thoughts to the whole college. This should be considered by historians looking at this source as the intended audience of this letter could be argued to affect how true the emotions and views expressed in the letter are.

This blog has shown that there are very useful pieces of information that historians can pull out of personal letters. Catt’s letter is an example of how a personal letter can allow historians an insight into the private thoughts, emotions and everyday life of the author, and that this information can be used by historians to gain a broader picture of contemporary views of an event, period or person. If used alongside other sources, personal letters allow historians to get a more comprehensive view of the topic being studied and their usefulness should not be underrated.


[1] Trisha Franzen, Anna Howard Shaw: The Work of Woman Suffrage (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 89.

[2] Miriam Dobson, “Letters”, in Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth and Twentieth Century History ed. Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann. (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2009), 60.

[3] “Carrie Chapman Catt’s letter to Marion Edwards Park regarding the death of Dr. Thomas” (December 9, 1935) http://www.genderidentityandsocialchange.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/SearchDetails/BMC_M15_CattCarrieChapman_07, last accessed 2 November 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dobson, Reading, 60.

[7] “Catt’s letter”.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lindsey Dodd, ”Small fish, big pond: using a single oral history narrative to reveal broader social change”, in Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject ed. Joan Tumblety. (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2013), 39.

[10] Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State (New York: Cornell University Press, 2017), 13.

[11] Franzens, Anna, 90.

[12] Kevin S. Amidon, ”Carrie Chapman Catt and the Evolutionary Politics of Sex and Race, 1885-1940,” Journal of the History of Ideas 68, no. 2 (2007): 307; Leila J. Rupp, “Constructing Internationalism: The Case of Transnational Women’s organizations, 1888-1945,” The American Historical Review 99, no. 5 (1994): 1576.

[13] Amidon, Carrie, 307.

[14] “Catt’s letter”.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 154.

[17] Margaretta Jolley, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 2.

[18] Dobson, Reading, 57. [19] “Catt’s letter”.

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