Susan B. Anthony
Famous For: Women's Suffrage Movement
Lived: February 15, 1820 - March 13, 1906
Immortalized On: Susan B. Anthony Dollar
With the 2008 Presidential election just around the corner, an e-mail has been circulating, entitled, “Why Women Should Vote.” In it, the plight of suffragists who were arrested for picketing the White House in 1917 is detailed. The women were arrested and subjected to what, by today’s standards, would be considered torture. The point of the whole thing is to make women aware of the sacrifices that our foremothers made, in order that we might have the right to vote, and to encourage women to remember that voting was once considered a privilege, one that was fought for, long and hard. The sacrifice made by the 33 women to whom that story refers is invaluable. They were following in the footsteps of one of America’s most famous suffragists, Susan B. Anthony, who had died more than a decade prior, and who paved the way for what would eventually become the 19th Amendment to the constitution.
Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, to Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read. She was the second of eight children, and, at the time of her birth, the family lived in West Grove, near Adams, Massachusetts.
Daniel was a cotton manufacturer and an abolitionist, a stern and somewhat strict parent, but a man with an open mind. He actively avoided purchasing cotton that had been produced as a result of slave labor. The family were Quakers, who followed the more liberal branch called the “Hicksite Friends.” In short, the Quakers broke off into two branches. The more orthodox of the two believed that the Bible should be considered the leading authority, while the more liberal branch believed that the “Inner Light,” or the source of personal guidance with which all humans are born, was more important, and that it would never lead a person to do anything inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible. As such, Daniel did not allow toys or games in the home, seeing them as distractions from the “Inner Light.” He guided his children to become self-disciplined, possessed of principled convictions, and to believe in their own self-worth. Whether it was the result of Daniel’s methods, or Susan’s own nature, she was a precocious child who, by the age of three, was both reading and writing.
When Susan was six, the family moved to Battenville, New York, where Susan went to public school. Susan was not taught long division because she was a girl, and when her father became aware of it, he pulled her out and started a home school so he could oversee and participate in her education. One of the teachers there, Mary Perkins, was instrumental in illustrating to Susan and her sisters a picture of progressive womanhood. In contrast with other teachers of the time, who were mostly men, Perkins taught her students to read, among them Daniel’s female factory workers (he believed that everyone should be able to read and write), using a book with small black pictures next to the words. She also had them memorize poems, and physical exercise was part of her curriculum.
When Susan was 15, she started tutoring neighborhood children, which stirred a bit of controversy. Her family was well off, so there wasn’t a financial need for Susan to work. Furthermore, the prevailing attitude was that it was improper for women to work, as their place was in the home. Daniel, however, thought women should be able to support themselves. More importantly, in line with his Quaker beliefs, he felt that everyone should work toward being useful, and Susan was doing just that.
When she was 17, Susan was sent to Deborah Moulson’s Female Seminary, near Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. There she studied mathematics (arithmetic, algebra and bookkeeping), literature, chemistry, philosophy, physiology, and astronomy. She excelled in her studies. The only thing that gave her real difficulty was that she had one crossed eye, which made it difficult for her to read aloud in class, as she would frequently stumble over words. She felt very self-conscious about it, and those feelings were compounded by the fact that Miss Moulson was quite demanding and critical of Susan. Miss Moulson explained that she had greater demands of Susan than of her sister, Guelma, because she saw Susan as capable of more, and she demanded that her students work to the best of their abilities.
How her studies there would have progressed is unknown, because in April of 1838, Daniel was forced to pull his two daughters out of the boarding school. The economic downturn of the time had forced Daniel Anthony out of business, and the family sold their possessions of value in order to buy food. The family moved to what is now Center Falls, New York. Susan went to New Rochelle to teach at Eunice Kenyon’s Friends’ Seminary, in an effort to help pay off her father’s debts. In 1846, she taught at Canajoharie Academy, and she eventually became headmistress of the Female Department, where she earned $110 per year, one fourth of the wages of male teachers with the same duties.
By the age of 29, Susan had moved back in with her family, who by that point had a farm in Rochester, New York. The year prior, on July 19-20, 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States had been held in Seneca Falls, New York. Lucy, Susan’s mother, went to Seneca Falls two weeks after the convention in order to sign its Declaration of Sentiments, a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence. It was described by Frederick Douglass as the “grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political and religious rights of women.” Susan became involved in the Temperance Movement, which attempted to curtail or abolish the consumption of alcohol. At the time, the reasons for such a movement centered around issues of domestic violence associated with alcohol abuse, and around the burden that alcohol consumption placed on the budgets of the low-income working class. For Susan, a driving force had been her observance of alcohol abuse by Quaker preachers, and perhaps as a result, she began attending the local Unitarian Church. Eventually, she would distance herself from organized religion entirely, which drew criticism. She once said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Though she was very self-conscious about public speaking, she did begin giving speeches regarding alcohol abuse, and that set the stage for her later public life.
In 1851, Susan was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is recognized as an architect of the cause for women’s rights. It would mark the beginning of a life-long relationship between the two women. Stanton, who was married and had children, did more of the background work, writing and drafting ideas, while Anthony, who was unmarried, traveled and spoke more often, thus bearing the brunt of the public’s animosity.
Susan first focused on equality in teaching and education. In 1856, at the state teachers’ convention, she argued for the inclusion of women in teaching, better pay for women, and the participation of women at the convention on committees. She argued for coeducation at conventions in New York and Massachusetts in 1859. She thought that all schools, colleges and universities should be open to women and ex-slaves, and she made efforts to gain opportunities for the children of ex-slaves to attend public schools. By the 1890’s, she had raised $50,000 in pledges to ensure the admittance of women into the University of Rochester, and even put into the pot the cash value of her own life insurance policy. In doing so, the university was forced to admit women for the first time in 1900.
In the beginning of her efforts, Anthony advocated for equal rights for both women and African Americans. In fact, she attempted to bring the two movements together. She was associated with figures such as Abby Kelley and Frederick Douglass, and at the Ninth National Women’s Rights Convention, on May 12, 1859, she is quoted as asking, “Where, under our Declaration of Independence, does the Saxon man get his power to deprive all women and Negroes of their inalienable rights?” On January 1, 1869, Anthony and Stanton began publishing a weekly journal called The Revolution, devoted to promoting the rights of women and African Americans. George Francis Train, and independently wealthy and eccentric man, backed the publication financially. The motto was, “The true republic-men, their rights and nothing more, women, their rights and nothing less.” Among the discussions in the publication were those of suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and more liberal divorce laws. It advocated an eight-hour day, and promoted a policy of purchasing American-made goods. In a strange twist, support by The Equal Rights Association for the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, caused Anthony to break ranks with the supporters of equal rights for African Americans. While the legislation granted suffrage to black men, it did nothing for women, black or white. It became clear to Anthony that her focus needed to be on the rights of women.
In 1870, Anthony formed and presided over the Workingwomen’s Central Association, which put out reports on working conditions, and gave working women educational opportunities. She was involved in the formation of a cooperative workshop, founded by the Sewing Machine Operators Union, and she gave jobs to women from the typesetters’ union at The Revolution. She continued her work in theTemperance Movement, and continued to impress upon people that, without the right to vote, women would continue to be unable to influence public affairs.
On November 1 1872, Susan B. Anthony, along with a group of women that she had organized, entered a barbershop in order to register to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. According to her argument, women were already constitutionally guaranteed the right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment, which said that “all persons born and naturalized in the United states…are citizens…” The women demanded that election inspectors register them to vote, and when the logic of Anthony’s arguments did not sway them, she said, “If you refuse us our rights as citizens, I will bring charges against you in Criminal Court and I will sue each of you personally for large, exemplary damages!” The inspectors consulted with each other and their supervisor, and decided that, by registering the women to vote, they would be taking themselves out of the legal battle, thus placing the entire offense on the shoulders of the women. The community expressed outrage in newspaper editorials, both at the audacity of the women, and at the capitulation of the election inspectors who registered them.
On the morning of November 5, Anthony and seven or eight other women cast their ballots, followed by about eight more women that afternoon. She voted a straight Republican ticket, based upon the party’s promise to respectfully consider the demands of women.
Susan was arrested on November 18, following the complaint filed by a Rochester salt manufacturer named Sylvester Lewis, who charged that Anthony had cast an illegal ballot. Though all of the women who voted, as well as the ballot inspectors who authorized their votes were arrested, Anthony was the only one brought to trial. At the end of the arguments, the judge drew from his pocket a previously drafted statement, in which he declared, “The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law…Assuming that Miss Anthony believed she had a right to vote, that fact constitutes no defense if in truth she had not the right. She voluntarily gave a vote, which was illegal, and thus is subject to the penalty of the law. Upon this evidence, I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.” In making this move, the judge took away from the jury the opportunity find Anthony innocent, and one juror was quoted as saying, “Could I have spoken, I should have answered ‘not guilty,’ and the men in the jury box would have sustained me.”
When it came time for sentencing, an exchange between Anthony and Judge Hunt ensued, in which she attempted to argue that her rights were being trampled. Hunt would hear nothing of it, and sentenced her to pay a $100 fine and court costs. In response, she openly refused to pay the fine, though she saw the court costs as honest debt. Judge Hunt cunningly declined to arrest her, knowing that by doing so, she would be unable to appeal his verdict. Ironically, the trial afforded her a measure of notoriety, giving her a much wider reach than she had previously had.
Political cartoon showing President Grover Cleveland, carrying a book entitled “What I know about women’s clubs,” being chased with a “Women’s Suffrage” umbrella by Susan B. Anthony, as Uncle Sam chuckles in the background. The cartoon was created by Charles Bartholomew sometime between 1892 and 1896, by which time Anthony’s work was known worldwide.
Susan B. Anthony continued in her work to obtain equal rights for women until the end of her life. In 1890, she orchestrated the merger between the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which was controversial because AWSA was a more conservative organization. Anthony believed that a more moderate approach had a better chance of success, which caused tension between herself and Stanton. She felt it more important to unite the various suffrage movements if they were to see success. In a letter to Stanton, she wrote, “We number over 10,000 women and each one has opinions…we can only hold them together to work for the ballot by letting alone their whims and prejudices on other subjects.” Though Stanton’s own, more radical views, were relegated to the fringe by the merger, Anthony successfully pressed for Stanton to be elected the first NAWSA president, and the pair continued working together toward a common goal.
Susan B. Anthony died at her Rochester, New York home, on March 13, 1906.
She did not live to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. She was the first woman to appear on a U.S. coin, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which was minted for only four years, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1999. More than a hundred years after her death, Susan B. Anthony remains controversial. Her childhood home in Massachusetts was purchased in August of 2006 by Carol Crossed, founder of the New York chapter of Democrats for Life of America, a pro-life organization. While Anthony was opposed to abortion, it is not known whether that had to with the fact that abortion was often life-threatening in the 19th century, or that contraception was primitive and unreliable. She argued against anti-abortion law, believing that legislation would not prevent unwanted pregnancy. Regardless, her name still carries with it the weight necessary to give validation to the organization’s cause.
So, with election day looming, we remember the fights that were fought so that all of us, regardless of race, religion, or gender, can cast our ballots. With this in mind, how can any of us neglect this privilege? We remember Susan B. Anthony for her courage and conviction, and for the battle that was concluded long after her death.