Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Catherine J. Wester, 1886-1970

By Heaven Smith, adjunct instructor of history, LSU at Alexandria

Tennessee Eastern Grand Division Suffragist

Catherine J. Wester was a suffragist from Kingston, Roane County, Tennessee. She was born on August 17, 1886 to John Marshall Wester and Josephine Wester. According to the 1910 U.S. Federal Population Census, Catherine worked as a high school teacher in Kingston, Tennessee. According to The Herald of Gospel Liberty, "News of General Interest in the Secular World," Catherine worked for seven years as an architect specializing in bungalow and home-building before enlisting as a yeoman in the United States Navy Reserve Forces during World War I. In June 1917, Catherine was sworn in a chief yeoman, one of the highest non-commissioned ranks for women at this time, and served for 501 days. She was originally stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. In the U.S. Navy Reserve Forces, Catherine supervised and audited cost repair and building work during her time as chief yeoman. Just prior to her service and permanent move to Virginia, Catherine was an ardent suffragist, a member of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League, the Chattanooga Equal Suffrage League, and a delegate to the NAWSA National Conventions. Records do not indicate that Catherine ever married. She died on August 7, 1970 at the age of 83 in Norfolk, Virginia.

In October 1911, Catherine traveled with her cousin and fellow Chattanooga Equal Suffrage League member Margaret Ervin (later Mrs. Margaret Ervin Ford, Jr.) to the Forty-Third Annual Convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Louisville, Kentucky. She is listed in the Annual Report of the Convention as a Chairman for Tennessee, as a delegate from the state of Tennessee, as a member of the Executive Council for Tennessee in Chattanooga, and as a member of the Standing Election Committee. During this period, Catherine worked diligently within the women's suffrage movement with her cousin and other suffragists in Tennessee, while simultaneously pursuing her career in architecture. In November 1913, Catherine attended the NAWSA National Convention in Washington, D.C. Catherine and Margaret Ervin Ford "represented Tennessee on the 'committee of one hundred,'" calling upon President Woodrow Wilson for his assistance in the suffrage movement. In the United States 63rd Congress, 2nd Session, which lasted from December 1, 1913 to October 24, 1914, Catherine addressed the House of Representatives advocating for a Committee on Woman Suffrage. She argued southern women did in fact "want the vote" and that the true suffragist aimed to preserve the home rather than destroy it, as was alternatively believed. Catherine stated "We do not ask you to commit yourselves to woman suffrage, but we do ask that you allow the subject to come before the House that we may know just how many and which of our Representatives do believe in the preservation of the rights of half the people of the United States." Catherine joined the Nashville Business Woman's League, organized by Miss Mary Pleasant Jones, in December 1914 and delivered a speech. This League was then organized with 100 members into the Business Woman's Suffrage Club of Chattanooga and had 160 charter members. Catherine also served as treasurer for the State committee for women's suffrage from 1912 to 1915. This is corroborated by Catherine's mention in a newspaper clipping dated in October 1914 under the headline 'Rival Suffrage Conventions,' where she is listed as being re-elected as Treasurer for Chattanooga. She is mentioned in the same paper under the headline "Rival Delegation,"{ as being an alternate delegate to the National Convention in Nashville. Catherine is further mentioned in the paper under the "Afternoon Session" section as having been suspended as treasurer "for alleged violation of the constitution and insubordination to the President," but no other source mentions this or elaborates further. In the NAWSA's Proceedings of the Annual Convention for the Forty-Fourth held in Philadelphia, PY in 1912, Forty-Fifth held in Washington, D.C. in 1913, and the Forty-Sixth held in Nashville, TN in 1914, Catherine is listed as a delegate representing the East State Association for the state of Tennessee and as a member of the Executive Council at the Chattanooga headquarters in Tennessee. In 1915, Catherine served on the Legislative Committee in the state of Tennessee alongside other suffragists in an attempt to create a new State constitution to include women's suffrage.

In June 1917, Catherine enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve Forces at the age of 30. She is listed in The Nashville Tennessean and The Nashville American Sunday Morning paper, dated April 20, 1919 under the headline "How Fight For Woman Suffrage Was Won" with the subtitle "Women of Tennessee Who Have Helped to Make Suffrage History," alongside Will Allen Dromgoole as having been two suffragists who "served as chief yeoman in the United States Navy" in the First World War. In addition, the article states that Dromgoole and Wester "did valuable service for their country in that capacity and helped win the war."

After her service, census records indicate that Catherine remained in Norfolk, Virginia. She lived in a few different boarding houses and worked a number of jobs in her lifetime. The 1920 U.S. Federal Population Census has Catherine listed as a stenographer. The 1930 Census has her listed as unemployed. The 1940 Census has her listed as a clerk for an advertising company.

In a 1983 interview with Chattanooga suffragist Abby Crawford Milton, Milton credited Catherine Wester for her work in the suffrage movement. On August 26, 2006, the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial sculpted by Alan LeQuire was dedicated in Knoxville, Tennessee. The memorial features three leading Tennessee suffragists and a banner honoring all other Tennessee suffragists. Catherine's name is listed among other women suffragists from the state of Tennessee, under the Eastern Grand Division, on the banner.


1880 United States Census, Roane County, Tennessee, digital image "Josephine Wester,"

1900 United States Census, Roane County, Tennessee, digital image "Catharine Wester,"

1910 U.S. Federal Population Census, Kingston, Roane County, Tennessee, digital image "Kate Wester,"

1920 U.S. Federal Population Census, Norfolk City, Norfolk, Virginia, digital image "Katherine J. Wester,"

1930 U.S. Federal Population Census, Norfolk, Virginia, digital image "Catherine Wester,"

1940 U.S. Federal Population Census, Norfolk, Virginia, digital image "Catherine Wester,"

63rd Congress, 2nd Session, December 1, 1913-October 24, 1914 House Documents, Vol. 157, Washington. United States Congressional Serial Set, Volume 6754. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1914.

Anthony, Susan B. and Ida Husted Harper. History of Woman Suffrage. Vol. IV (1883-1900). Rochester, N.Y., 1902. [LINK]

Archival Material. Records of Ex-Soldiers in World War I. Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Carlson, Kathy. "Celebrating Chattanooga's suffragettes." Hamilton County Herald (Chattanooga, TN), November 8, 2019.

Belz, Kate Harrison. "How One Chattanoogan Helped Women Get The Right To Vote." Chattanooga Memory Project. Accessed February 14, 2020.

"Rival Suffrage Conventions." Woman Suffrage Collection. Lizzie Crozier French Scrapbook newspaper clipping. Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection. Digital Collection. Knox County Public Library. n.d.

Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville American. "How Fight for Woman Suffrage Was Won." April 20, 1919. From Accessed February 14, 2014.

Smith, Elias. "News of General Interest in the Secular World." The Herald of Gospel Liberty. Volume CIX, No. 1. The Christian Publishing Association (Dayton, OH), January 4, 1917. Social Security Death Index. Catherine Wester, Norfolk, Norfolk City, Virginia, USA. Aug. 7, 1970. TN Woman's Memorial. "The Women to be Honored." Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial. Accessed February 14, 2020.

The Hand Book of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Proceedings of the Annual Conventions, Volumes 43-45, 1912-1914.

World War Record of Ex-Soldiers of Hamilton County, State of Tennessee, Part 3, Page 249. Records of Ex-Soldiers in World War I, Tennessee Counties, 1917-1919. Tennessee Virtual Archive, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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