Susan B. Anthony
An Unequal Gender: America 1840
In 1776, in the opening of the United States Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
If “all men are equal” – where does that leave women?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, women were not permitted to attend college and had limited employment opportunities. A small number of women worked, yet earned only a fraction of what their male co-workers received. Women could not serve on a jury and were considered “incompetent” to appear in court. Women were not allowed to vote nor could they become licensed doctors, ordained ministers, lawyers, or elected senators. Even with these limitations, some women were still required, by law, to pay taxes to an oppressive government that clearly treated women as second-class citizens.
That world, absent of the women’s rights that are obvious and accessible in the United States today, was the world that Susan B. Anthony found herself. Because of Anthony’s relentless efforts, with the support of many inspired women who followed in her foot steps, many of the biases of that world were left in the past.
Miss Anthony: The Woman Behind the Movement
Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15th, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts. She was the second oldest of her six brothers and sisters, in a family with whom she remained close throughout her life, caring for her siblings when they needed her or were sick. Her parents were abolitionists, and believed that men and women were created equal in the eyes of God. Anthony’s father, Daniel, was a devout Quaker, who became known for his independent outlook when he married Lucy Read, who was a Baptist. The Quaker church considered this, along with the dancing school he opened in his own attic, to be a form of “misconduct” , and thus he was forced to apologize in front of the congregation at the Friends’ Meeting House. The church eventually accepted the marriage. Daniel’s independence and determination served as a model for Susan, who developed a strong commitment to equality and justice.
Anthony attended a one-room schoolhouse in Battenville, Massachusetts, where her father had moved their family in 1826 to run several mills for a local businessman. Intelligent and inquisitive, Anthony, who had learned to read before the age of four, was dismayed to discover that her male teacher refused to teach her long division. The teacher claimed there would be no reason for a girl to know long division, a point Anthony would later discuss during a speech ‘Why the Sexes should be Educated Together’, in 1856:
“…There are in all these institutions…some special restraints and limits for girls- Why is this so? -If they are afraid in the literary discussions, that the girls will outdo the boys, some teacher should prepare the dear fellows beforehand. –If they are afraid the girls will molest the boys in their solitary rambles, they ought to send some Professor to protect them; –or imprison the boys, at least, one half the time.–Common justice demands that the girls, however dangerous, should sometimes enjoy a little freedom.”
Anthony was also influenced by the Quaker church’s egalitarian views on men and women, where one of her aunts actually preached with the men at congregational meetings. She recalls, “I had all the freedom I wanted from the time I was a child.” For this reason, she could not understand why the only hope the future seemed to hold for women was to marry and have children. Contrary to popular belief, Anthony did not hate men. As a young schoolteacher in upstate New York, she had quite a few suitors and even several marriage proposals. Yet Anthony had made the conscious decision at a young age to remain single. She said in an interview in 1903:
“This idea that a young girl should look forward to marriage as the chief aim in life… is all wrong.”
Anthony did not object to marriage for love, but rather for the legal bondage into which it put women. In the world that she lived in, women who were married virtually ceased to exist in legal terms; they had no power to enter into contracts, could not buy or sell property in their own name, or even obtain a divorce without their husband’s consent. In a letter that Anthony wrote in 1888, she says:
“I would not object to marriage if it were not that women throw away every plan and purpose of their own life, to conform to the plans and purposes of the man’s life.”
By 1846, Anthony was a fiercely independent, thriving, young and single schoolteacher. Though always close to her family, Anthony deliberately took a path that they had not anticipated for her. She was aware of how different her life was becoming from what her family had envisioned. Anthony’s alternative views on marriage were partially influenced by interactions with her extended family. While living with her cousin, Margaret, in 1849 Anthony wrote a letter to her mother about Joseph, Margaret’s husband:
“Joseph had a headache the other day and Margaret remarked that she had had one for weeks. “Oh,” said the husband, “mine is the real headache, genuine pain, yours is a sort of natural consequence.”
About marriage, Anthony said in an interview in 1896:
“True marriage, the real marriage of souls when two people take each other on terms of perfect equality without the desire of one to control the other is a beautiful thing. It is the highest condition of life. But for a woman to marry a man for support is a demoralizing condition. And for a man to marry a woman merely because she has a beautiful figure is a degradation.”
Early Acts of Social Justice
Though Susan B. Anthony is most known for speaking out against the unmerited discrimination of women, she also expressed opposition to other social inequalities of her time, in particular slavery. Anthony always knew possession of humans as slaves was both reprehensible and immoral. She wrote in her diary in 1854:
“This noon I ate my dinner without once asking myself, are these human beings Slaves who can be bought and sold and hired out at the will of a master? …even I am getting accustomed to slavery, so much so that I ceased continually to be made to feel its blighting, cursing influence, so much so that I can sit down and calmly eat from the hands of the bondman, without being once mindful of the fact that he is such-
Oh Slavery, hateful thing that thou art, thus to blunt the keen edge of men’s conscience, even while they strive to shun thy poisonous touch.”
Reform was not unfamiliar to Anthony as she attended the anti-slavery meetings her father held in his farmhouse in Rochester, New York. At these meetings, she would become close friends with one of the attendants, Frederick Douglass, a former slave and revered statesman. Together, Douglass and Anthony were active members of the abolitionist movement. Ida Wells, who played a vital role in the women suffrage movement, writes:
“Miss Anthony said when women called their first convention back in 1848 inviting all those who thought that women ought to have an equal share with men in the government, Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave, was the only man who came to their convention and stood up with them. He said he could not do otherwise; that we were among the friends who fought his battles when he first came among us appealing for our interest in the antislavery cause. From that day until the day of his death Frederick Douglass was an honorary member of the National Women's Suffrage Association. In all our conventions, most of which had been held in Washington, he was the honored guest who sat on our platform and spoke in our gatherings.”
It was a pivotal era of American history, and with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in 1852, citizens were awakened to the horrors of slavery in the South. The book called attention to The Fugitive Slave Act and its brutal punishment of slaves who escaped their masters. Many northerners felt this law was inhumane and should be outlawed. Anthony voiced her concerns directly to the President, Abraham Lincoln. She was appointed by her fellow abolitionists to compose a “No Compromise with Slavery” lecture tour in upstate New York. Anthony assembled what she proudly dubbed “a tremendous force of speakers”; amongst them were Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Stephen Foster. Anthony was involved with abolitionism to such great extents that she worked on the Underground Railroad with its lead organizer, Harriet Tubman. She noted in her diary in 1861:
“Superintended the plowing of the orchard…The last load of hay is in the barn; all in capital order. Fitted out a fugitive slave for Canada with the help of Harriet Tubman.”
In addition to abolitionism, Anthony took a stand in the Temperance Movement. Her fervor for both the banning of slavery and abstention from alcohol would pave the way for the crusade she would become most well-known for leading: women’s suffrage. When Anthony was being interviewed for a newspaper at the age of seventy-five, she describes how she told her father of a temperance convention she labored to organize:
“…and at the close they drafted a resolution of thanks to various people, and my name was included. When the resolutions were introduced, a man rose and moved that my name be stricken out, as it was unbecoming in a convention to thank a woman, and, if she were modest, she would be offended by such publicity, and, therefore, my name was stricken out. I went home to my old Quaker father and said I had resolved that from that time on I would work for the cause of woman.”
Anthony knew the time had come for her to speak out and be heard:
““...the hour is fully come, when woman shall no longer be the passive recipient of whatever morals and religion the trade and politics of the nation may decree: but that she shall now assume her God-given responsibilities and make herself what she is clearly designed to be, the educator of the race...And now, women of the North, I ask you to rise up with earnest, honest purpose, to speak the true word and do the just work, in season and out of season. I ask you to forget that you are women, and go forward in the way of right, fearlessly, as independent human beings, responsible to God alone...”
Anthony dedicated her efforts towards women’s rights, travelling the country to empower women to strive for equality. Frances D. Gage, her travelling companion on the trail to women’s equality said in 1856:
“Susan…stands before her audience, setting forth the necessity of woman’s taking hold of industrial employments; of living an independent living; of working because it is right to work, and a disgrace to be idle…If they don’t take her advice, it will not be because she does not tell her story well, or fails to give it all the force of her earnest and unselfish womanly interest…Her labors in her own State are wonderful; and the time will come when her sex will reap the fruit from the seeds of her planting, whether they recognize the hand that strewed them or no.”
Suffrage: The Impact of Voting
Among the numerous women’s rights Susan B. Anthony pursued, it was the vote, which she recognized as central to women’s plight. In the 1860s, She said:
“Disenfranchisement means inability to make, shape, or control one’s own circumstances. The disenfranchised must always do the work, accept the wages, occupy the position the enfranchised assign to them. The disfranchised are in the position of the pauper… It is in order to lift the millions of our wage-earning women into a position of much power over their own labor as men possess that they should be invested with the franchise.”
On December 30th, 1900, the New York World asked Anthony, “What is the chief danger, social or political, that confronts the new century?” She responded:
“You may pet us and worship us, and all that; but if you don’t recognize our womanhood, you have done nothing.”
In the spring of 1851, Anthony attended an anti-slavery meeting in Seneca Falls conducted by William Lloyd Garrison and George Thompson, both prominent abolitionists. While in Seneca Falls, Anthony stayed at the home of Amelia Bloomer, a fellow American women’s rights and temperance advocate. Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the company of Garrison and Thompson. From this meeting, a vital friendship for the progression of women’s suffrage was born. The skills of both Anthony and Stanton were crucial in building a movement from nothing. Stanton recalled:
“I am the better writer, and the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I, the philosophy and rhetoric, and together we have made arguments that have stood unshaken by the storms of…long years; arguments that no man has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains. So entirely one are we that…not one feeling of envy or jealousy has ever shadowed our lives.”
Together, Anthony and Stanton would collaborate to create the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), one of the oldest women’s groups of the United States. Established in 1869, the NWSA typically organized conventions twice a year to inspire patronage of the campaign for women’s right to vote. Men were welcome to participate, as long as they paralleled the movement, but it was primarily women’s work. Anthony served over many years in various capacities, including the corresponding secretary, vice president, chairman of the executive committee, and president. Anthony conducted the meetings with a masterful grace. A reporter’s description of her reads:
“Miss Anthony is the ruling spirit of the convention. She dominates. She is constantly on the alert and has a keen appreciation of every point made by a speaker. She lets no point pass without emphasizing it and impressing it upon the convention. She talks a great deal, but never without having something to say. From the woman suffrage standpoint she is a tower of strength.”
Anthony, though now well armed with a loyal band of suffragettes to reinforce the cause, was growing impatient with ineffective state campaigns and an indifferent Congress. She decided to take matters into her own hands. On November 5th, 1872, Anthony gathered a few followers to set out for a nearby barbershop where they were going to register to vote, along with men, for the upcoming presidential election. Despite disapproving glances and sneers, Anthony commanded the women be registered as they were United States citizens and had a right to vote according to the first clause of the 14th amendment. The men acquiesced, allowing Anthony to cast the first and only presidential ballot of her life; she voted for Ulysses S. Grant and two congressmen. This brave deed, the embodiment of her efforts for equality, would, ironically, make her a convicted criminal. Lynn Sherr, Susan B. Anthony’s biographer, describes:
“More than three weeks later - it was Thanksgiving Day - a tall, nervous U.S. marshal…showed up at the Anthony home. Summoned into the parlor, he said, blushing, “The commissioner wishes to arrest you.” She was, after all, a very famous lady. Then he suggested that she call at the commissioner’s office when she had a chance…“ Is this your usual method of serving a warrant?” she asked. And after making him cool his heels while she changed her dress, she thrust out her hands and demanded he put her in handcuffs. The poor soul refused but did agree meekly to escort her downtown…When the streetcar conductor asked for her five-cent fare, she replied… “I am traveling at the expense of the government. Ask him for my fare.””
Anthony and her comrades were taken to trial. Each woman plead not guilty, calling themselves victims of political slavery. When the judge notified Anthony of the Court’s sentence, to pay a one hundred dollar fine as well as the prosecution costs, she replied:
“All the stock in trade I possess is a $10,000 debt, incurred by publishing my paper - The Revolution - four years ago, the sole object of which was to educate all women to…rebel against your manmade, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison, and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the Government; and I shall work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
Anthony’s journey produced abundant accomplishments. She wrote the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1878, which would later become the 19th amendment that afforded women the right to vote. She developed the International Council of Women in 1888, which became the International Woman Suffrage Council in 1904, attracting global attention to suffrage. In 1890, she helped launch the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), an extension of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, and served as its president until 1900. Anthony also penned and published “The History of Woman Suffrage”, a four-volume chronicle of works from 1881-1902, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Joslyn Gage.
The fortitude and persistence of Susan B. Anthony paved the way for the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote in 1920. Despite the trials and public criticism Anthony endured, she knew one day her struggles would add empowerment and meaning to the lives of women in America. She said:
“[Women] shall some day be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people believe that all the privileges...which woman now possess always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained from the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.”
The Legacy Lives On
Susan B. Anthony’s life labors reverberated long after her death in 1906. She is widely regarded as an organizational genius given that her canvassing plan is still utilized by many political organizations today. During her seventy-two year plight, Anthony witnessed many of the revolutions she advocated. Regrettably, she did not live to see her dream of women’s suffrage realized. On August 18th, 1920, fourteen years after Susan B. Anthony’s death, the 19th Amendment was ratified, stating:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Anthony’s aspirations for a statelier future are pivotal in American history. In an interview in 1883, she projected:
“The woman of the future will far surpass her of the present, even as the man of the future will surpass him of to-day. The ages are progressive, and I look for a far higher manhood and womanhood than we have now…When women associate with men in serious matters,…both will grow better and the world’s work will be better done than it is now. I look for the day when the woman who has a political or judicial brain will have as much right to sit on the Supreme Bench or in the Senate as you men have now; when women all over this country will have equal property rights, equal business rights, and equal political rights with men; when the only criterion of excellence or position shall be the ability, honor, and character of the individual without regard to whether he or she be male or female. And this time will come…The woman of the future will be a better mother, a better wife, and a better citizen than the woman of to-day.”
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