Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Catherine Caborn Van Meter, 1874-1948
By Kevin R. Hanken, historian, New Orleans, LA
Clubwoman, community activist, journalist, and stenographer
Catherine Caborn Van Meter (1874-1948) lived in New Orleans from 1897 until late 1918 as stenographer, clubwoman, civic activist, journalist and wife. She served presidential terms for the city's three most powerful women's clubs, including the Era Club, the cornerstone of the Louisiana suffrage movement from 1895 to 1913. Born June 16, 1874, in Mt. Vernon, Posey County, Indiana, a hotbed of reconstruction-era racial violence, her mother died when she was six. She was educated in public schools and a commercial college in and around Evansville, Indiana and attended the University of Illinois. In 1897, at twenty-three, Kate Caborn attracted notice of the New Orleans press as a creative, energetic member of the Stenographers' Association, indicating arrival to the city a single, working woman at a time when the rights of married women, under Louisiana's Civil Code, were grossly non-existent. The Association was part employment bureau, part Chautauqua, its meetings a blend of business, civics, art study and entertainment. The Era Club had put the "Woman's Question" squarely within city politics by 1897 when Caborn, at a November meeting, performed a dramatic recitation of "The Ride of Jennie McNeil," a tale of a feminine Paul Revere. On May 11, 1899, Caborn married William W. Van Meter (1871-1942), a fledgling contractor who would become a successful architect in the city. They would have no children.
Though her early club years focused on civic and church work, Mrs. Catherine Van Meter's attendance as delegate to the 1907 State Federation of Women's Clubs' convention demarcates the widening of her activities. She studied oratory, mastered parliamentary procedure. By May 1912 Van Meter became both member of the Era Club and president of the Woman's Club of New Orleans (NOWC), the city's oldest, most powerful woman's club. In late November she would be appointed to the executive board which defined the newly formed City Federation of Women's Clubs. As NOWC president, she fused the suffrage fight into her celebrated 1912-13 Woman's Club program via a course on law and citizenship conducted by Francis Loeber, Era Club President. 1912 was a pivotal year in Louisiana's New Orleans-led suffrage movement. The Era Club published the first issue of "The New Citizen," with Sake Meehan, future state organizer of the Woman's Suffrage Party of Louisiana (WSP), as one editor. The Club forced Louisiana's U.S. senators to make public their views on suffrage when it called on them to amend the proposed federal amendment enacting direct election of senators by adding a clause that gave women the vote in senatorial elections. By March, hoping to bring a vital suffrage contingent to the annual convention of the State Federation in April, the club commenced a renewed statewide suffrage campaign. Also, in April, Representative Martin Manion converted to the suffrage cause, becoming the first state legislator to do so. By May's end the Era Club provided Manion drafts of bills to introduce at the next legislature to permit women to vote in the primary; to make women eligible to election on school and state boards; and to give women the ballot. But as 1912 closed, a prominent faction of the Era Club prepared to defect to form the WSP and the Era Club discussed forming the Louisiana State Suffrage Association (LSSA). In November 1913 Van Meter was elected LSSA auditor, and in May 1914, she succeeded Loeber as Era Club president.
Van Meter is of interest to Louisiana's suffrage history as contra-Gordon. Thirteen years Kate Gordon's junior, Van Meter also used widely acknowledged accomplishments to build a loyal following, then emerge a strong leader in Louisiana's progressive women's movement. Known for her “aggressive leadership” and “desire for practical accomplishment,” Van Meter won the respect and cooperation of the business community, garnering commercial endorsements while earning genuine admiration from both supporters and critics. An ardent suffragist, like many of her peers she viewed suffrage as plank in a broad platform for woman's citizenship, which included civic improvement, civic benevolence, municipal reform, and which was predicated on education and demonstrative citizenship.
Gordon fractured the Louisiana suffrage movement she helped build by opposition to the federal amendment, an autocratic leadership style and the restrictive membership demands she forced on Era Club members. She publicly pulled the Club out of the City Federation much valorized by Van Meter for its broader vision, flexibility, cooperation and collaboration. Van Meter spoke to African-American women's clubs and promoted their development. She involved herself in a broad spectrum of cooperative civic improvement activities and won general acclaim for such projects as a Penny Lunch program; way stations in every city depot for traveling mothers with infants; and, The Catherine, a home for working women, named in Van Meter's honor. She planned and organized a successful Woman's Fair, allowing club women of the city an opportunity to display their many skills. Her lauded efforts in the Buy-in-New Orleans and Made-In-New Orleans campaigns meshed the city's clubs with the influential Association of Commerce. She was actively involved in the City Federation's campaigns to reform an antiquated, unregulated market system, rid the city of its billboard plague, and establish parks. She worked to establish self-governing civic leagues in every city ward.
Van Meter's presidency serves as an important barometer of the Era Club, which by May 1914 was fractured and adrift, in many ways secondary to the ascending WSP. Gordon, defacto leader, deeply involved in organizing a Southern suffrage party, fostered a disruptive rivalry between the two organizations, even as each struggled to be recognized as separate entities in the minds of Louisiana's voting public. Although Van Meter's presidency was an effort to rehabilitate the image of the Era Club, her tenure was brief and contentious. In August 1914 the Gordon faction defeated a heated motion to send President Wilson condolences over the death of his wife, who was viewed as an opponent of suffrage. Van Meter refused to affirm it. The city newspapers harshly criticized the Club, and Gordon specifically, for disrespecting the President. Gordon accused Van Meter, who worked as journalist, of leaking details behind the defeated motion and demanded her resignation. The divisive episode dragged on in the press for months, undercutting the Louisiana suffrage fight well into 1915. Van Meter resigned her presidency on October 11, 1914, and the Era Club voted to dissolve October 24.
Following the tumult of the Era Club, Van Meter sought leadership in the WSP but was rebuffed. She helped launch a new suffrage organization but by 1917 was an active worker in the WSP after it successfully merged much of the fragmented movement into a renewed campaign. In November 1918 Van Meter abruptly resigned as president of the City Federation. She left New Orleans and her husband, and relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she spent the remainder of her life. She died March 24, 1948.
Cleveland, Barry. "Seven killed in Posey County violence", Carmi Times, 07 February 2011; accessed 31 May 2018 // https://www.carmitimes.com/article/20110207/NEWS/302079940
See also: Redwine, Jim. Judge Lynch! (2008) [Publisher Unknown] and https://www.mvdemocrat.com/content/law-life-judge-jim-redwine
Faxon, Grace B. Popular Recitations and How to Recite Them: A Collection of the Best Selections for Recitations, Including Several Pantomimes, with Complete Directions for Their Delivery. F.A. Owen Publishing Company, Dansville, NY, 1909. [Free eBook on Google: pp. 51-59: “The Ride of Jennie McNeil”]
Gilley, B. H. "Kate Gordon and Louisiana Woman Suffrage," Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 289-306
Leffel, John C., ed. History of Posey County, Indiana. Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL., 1913.
Lindig, Carmen. The Path from the Parlor: Louisiana Women, 1879-1920, University of Southwestern Louisiana Center for Louisiana Studies, Lafayette, LA., 1986
Smith, Armantine M. "The History of the Woman's Suffrage Movement in Louisiana," Louisiana Law Review, Volume 62, Number 2, (Winter 2002)
Spiers, Patricia Loraine. The Woman Suffrage Movement in New Orleans, Masters' Thesis, Southeastern Louisiana College, 1965
U.S. Census, 1890
New Orleans Item, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Orleans Times-Democrat. From 1897 to 1919 each of these city papers reported on Van Meter with fair regularity. The role of the press in the New Orleans' women's movement is important. Ethel Hutson, Helen Pitkin, Inez McMartin Myers, Eleanor Graham, Judith Hyams Douglas, Gordon and Van Meter were among the Orleanians who had women's columns and/or bylines at times in these papers. Only the New Orleans States, of the city's major papers, declined to report on women's activities. In 1912 the ITEM was made official organ of the State Federation of Women's Clubs and Myers edited an informative woman's page. For a broader read on the impact of the woman's suffrage press, see Solomon, Martha M., ed. A Voice of Their Own, University of Alabama Press, 1992.
Specific News Articles:
New Orleans Times-Picayune:
"Stenographers Association," June 14, 1897, p3.
"Stenographers: First Meeting Held in Some Time Proves Interesting," November 14, p9.
"Mrs. Van Meter Heads Era Club: Well Known Club Woman is Elected President, Miss Loeber Vice President," May 24, 1914, p9.
Van Meter, Mrs. WW. "Many Attentions Shown Louisiana Women in Chicago," June 17, 1914, p6.
"New Catherine Club Formally Launched," August 15, 1914, p17.
"Miss Gordon Gives Her Side of the Row: Says Resolution Presented to Era Club was an 'Indelicate Intrusion," August 15, p9.
"Gordon Followers Now Center Fight on Mrs. Van Meter: Internecine Strife of Era Club Assumes New Phase at Caucus Saturday," August 17, 1914, p8.
"Era Club Meeting Soon to be Called by Mrs. Van Meter: Makes Tart Reply to the Gordon Caucus Statement Published Monday," August 18, 1914, p9.
"Era Club's Official Report," August 18, p9.
"Era Club Board After President: Committee of Two Appointed to Ask Mrs. Van Meter to Resign," August 23, 1914, p9.
"Vote of Confidence in Mrs. Van Meter by the Era Club: Most Exciting Session in History of the Organization Test of Strength," August 29, 1914, p5.
"Era Club Wrecked by Dissensions, Will Be Dissolved: Mrs. Van Meter Sends Resignation: Severs Connection with Club Both as President and Member," October 11, 1914, pg. 1
New Orleans Item
"Women Begin New Year Under Bright Auspices: Mrs. W. W. Van Meter Made President of Woman's Club at Annual Session," May 7, 1912, p4.
"Our Lawmakers and the Disabilities of Married Women," June 2, 1912, p19.
"Woman's Club New President Active," June 30, 1912, p20.
"Women Plan Mass Meeting to Form a Federation of Clubs in New Orleans," November 13, 1912, p4.
"Many Delegates Will Discuss Plans for City Federation," November 22, 1912, p13.
"Mrs. Van Meter Again Made President: 100 Members in Woman's Club," May 6, 1913, p6.
"Women Want Clean Food and No Restrictions: Club Women Call for Many Market Changes," May 21, 1913, p1 and p7.
"Commissioners Are Silent on Report: Will Not Comment on Action Taken by City Federation," May 21, 1913, p2.
"In High Dudgeon Era Club Quits City Federation," January 11, 1914, p13.
"Show Northern, Eastern and Western Sisters That Southern Women Want Suffrage and That They are Working for Cause," June 21, 1914.
"Fall Buyers' Convention and Mino Week Open Together: MINO Week Proves Surprise to City," August 18, 1913, pl & p3.
"Federation Takes Up Improvement Campaign," October 22, 1913, p9.
"Orleans Women's Club Plans Year's Activities," October 5, 1913, p4; October 13, 1912, p20.
"Era Club Calls Mass Meet to Fight Races: Elect Mrs. Van Meter President for Year," May 24, 1914, p4.
"Women and Pulpits Join in Fight on Race Gambling: Era Club and Other Organizations Join Movement," May 25, 1914, p1. [This fight, which women won, is later conjectured as the reason why the suffrage bills at the next legislature were defeated.]
"Public is Appealed to, to Suspend Judgment Against the Era Club: Mrs. W.W. Van Meter Asks Organization Be Not Condemned for 'Intemperate Attitude of Dominant Few' Led by Miss Gordon," August 18, 1914, p7.
"Mrs. Van Meter Not Invited to Attend Era Club Session: Friends Assert That a Small Handful Will Ask Her Removal as President," August 23, 1914, p39.
"Mrs. Wilson Not an 'Anti,' Says Writer: Era Club to Have Another 'Strictly Executive Business Meeting,'" August 25, 1914, p4.
"Era Club Meeting Question of Hour: Refusal of Letter to Wilson Problem," August 27, 1914.
"Women Will Fight to Make Era Club Meeting Public: Battle Also Waged Over Request for Mrs. Van Meter's Resignation," August 28, 1914, p3.
"Era Club Vindicates Mrs. W. Van Meter: President Completely routs Opponents who Would Have Her Resign -- No Action on Condolence to President," August 29, 1914, p14.
"Compares Era Club's Actions to Wild Pack: First Authentic Story of Meeting: Mrs. Van Meter Stood the Abuse Like General and Awaited Victory," August 30, 1914, p8 and p14.
"Era Club Plans to Disband: Action on Matter is Delayed: Mrs. Van Meter Victor, Resigns Presidency." October 11, 1914, p1 and p19.
"Era Club May Not Vote to Disband: 'Woman's Privilege' of Changing Mind May Be Exercised," October 12, 1914, p7.
"Suffragists Form Branch, Miss Sabourin Chairman," October 18, 1914.
"'Federation' Subject of Social Meeting," October 22, 1914, p8.
"Regrets Mix with Tears as Era Club is Dissolved: 324 Vote to Disband with Only 19 Opposing -- 'Excluding Newspapers Sounded Organization's Death Knell,' Is Asserted," October 25, 1914.
New Orleans Times-Democrat
"Stenographers Association," November 21, 1897, p23.
"Louisiana Affairs: Suffrage Ordinance Universally Condemned," April 2, 1898, p11.
“Review of Era Club Year,” June 0, 1913, p19.
"Will Form Federation: Preliminary Meeting Held by Club Women," November 27, 1912, p5.
"New Yorker at Era Club: William Hard Discusses the Condition of Women: Declares Laws of Louisiana are the Most Remarkable," April 14, 1913, p29.
"Launch Suffrage Party: Plan is to Get Three Hundred Adherents," May 8, 1913, p5.
"Indignant Housewives Are Ready for Revolt," May 19, 1913, p1 and p4.
"Building Woman's Party: Mrs. Meehan is Back from Trip Through State," June 15, 1913, p9.
"President Outlines Programme; Industrial Home to Open Soon: Promises Meetings of Great Interest," October 6, 1913, p4.
"Victory is Sure, Say Suffragists in Conference: States' Rights Suffrage Meeting Composed of Typical Women of Section," November 11, 1913, p1 and p8.
Ethel Hutson Papers, 1879-1957, Louisiana Research Collection, Manuscripts Collection 14, Tulane University, Box 1 through Box 4. Hutson worked as reporter for the New Orleans Item and as publicity chairman for the Women's Party of Louisiana. Box 2, folder 6 contains numerous drafts of, and correspondence regarding, a History of the Louisiana's Suffrage movement which was being submitted to NAWSA for publication.
Alma L. Sabourin to Ethel Hutson, 29 November 1916, Box 2, Folder 6, Ethel Hutson Papers, 1879-1957, Louisiana Research Collection, Manuscripts Collection 14, Tulane University.
Ethel Hutson to Alma L. Sabourin, 30 November 1916, Box 2, Folder 6, Ethel Hutson Papers, 1879-1957, Louisiana Research Collection, Manuscripts Collection 14, Tulane University.