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August 13 2019

Celebrating 100 years of the Women's Vote: Susan B. Anthony

by Charlotte Hays

 

 

When the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, was adopted on August 26, 1920, it was dubbed the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” honoring a woman who had died in 1906. An “Anthony Amendment,” which was substantially similar to the 19th Amendment, had first been introduced in 1878.

Susan B. Anthony’s struggles over more than five decades of organizing, speaking out publicly, being shouted down, holding meetings, scrapping together money for the cause, and sometimes disagreeing with her fellow suffragists over strategy, helped make the 19th Amendment possible. Anthony and her friend and associate, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are today among the best-remembered of the indomitable nineteenth century suffragists.

Perhaps because of this Quaker heritage, Susan did not immediately see voting rights essential for equality. Indeed, Anthony came to believe “that the right which woman needed above every other, the one indeed which would secure to her all the others, was the right of suffrage.”

“I have encountered riotous mobs, and I have been hung in effigy,” she once recalled, adding that none of this could make her waver from her motto: “Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights, and nothing less.”

“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers,” Anthony said.

She was a stern-looking women, generally garbed in black, with, in later life, rimless glasses and her hair pulled back. Anthony radiated fearlessness. “Cautious, careful people,” she said, “always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequence.” (Assume that’s it?)

Susan B. Anthony was born into the high moral seriousness of a prosperous Quaker family in Adams, Mass., in 1820. Her father, Daniel, owned a mill. Her mother, Lucy, was not a Quaker but gave up dancing and other activities frivolous in the eyes of the Friends to marry Daniel. As a mill owner, Daniel Anthony made every effort to avoid buying cotton that had been produced by slave-labor. If it were not for a whim of the Anthony children, Susan would be known to posterity as mere Susan Anthony, but the middle-name-less brood, of their own accord, felt the need to bestow upon themselves middle names. Susan’s “B” is for Brownell, the name of her Aunt Susan’s husband.

Modern readers may be surprised at another cause that Susan B. Anthony embraced: temperance, which attracted the efforts of a number of suffragists. Susan became president of the Rochester chapter of the Daughters of Temperance. Many suffragists believed that divorce laws should be liberalized to take into consideration the plight of women married serious abusers of alcohol. 

Quakers believed in educating women and Susan was taught in a home school before being sent to a Friends’ women’s seminary near Philadelphia (until Daniel suffered financial reverses). It was at the Philadelphia school that she became friends with Lydia Mott, member of another prominent Quaker family, and cousin by marriage of the more famous Lucretia Mott. Both Motts worked with Susan in the movement for women’s rights.

After the Anthony family moved to Rochester, New York, their residence became a Sunday gathering place for the anti-slavery movement. Among the anti-slavery luminaries Susan met at the Anthony house were the former slave Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips, and perhaps the fieriest of them all, Parker Pillsbury, also an ardent supporter of women’s rights. They regarded the Constitution as pro-slavery and their cry was, “No Union with Slaveholders.” Daniel Anthony followed the Quaker custom of refusing to vote (Quakers did not want to be complicit in a government that waged war).

Perhaps because of this Quaker heritage, Susan did not immediately see voting rights essential for equality. Indeed, Anthony came to believe “that the right which woman needed above every other, the one indeed which would secure to her all the others, was the right of suffrage.”

Modern readers may be surprised at another cause that Susan B. Anthony embraced: temperance, which attracted the efforts of a number of suffragists. Susan became president of the Rochester chapter of the Daughters of Temperance. Many suffragists believed that divorce laws should be liberalized to take into consideration the plight of women married serious abusers of alcohol.

Supporting herself as a school teacher, Anthony also found herself learning about another cause, women’s rights. She was impressed with the high moral caliber of men and women who were taking part in this movement, according to her biographer Alma Lutz.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the one who provided the intellectual ballast for the movement, while Anthony’s organizational and oratorical skills led her to be called “the Napoleon” of the suffragist movement. Or as Stanton characterized the way they worked together, "I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them."

Anthony began to yearn to meet Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was author of the famous “Declaration of Sentiments,” a milestone document in the history of women’s rights, issued at a women’s convention held at Stanton’s Seneca Falls, New York residence. When the two women met in 1851, Anthony and Stanton instantly liked each other. Unlike the plainspoken, unmarried Anthony, Stanton came from wealth and was married to the abolitionist Henry Stanton, with whom she had seven children. Stanton became the one who provided the intellectual ballast for the movement, while Anthony’s organizational and oratorical skills led her to be called “the Napoleon” of the suffragist movement. Or as Stanton characterized the way they worked together, "I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them."

Anthony gave her first public speech on women’s rights at the National Women’s Right Convention in Syracuse, New York in 1852. She traveled extensively to speak on women’s rights, organized and spoke at numerous conventions, and campaigned for property rights for married women in New York.

Anthony disapproved of the Civil War but felt that, if it were being waged, complete emancipation, not preservation of the union, had to be the stated cause. When the Fourteen Amendment, which granted citizenship to those born and naturalized in the United States, and Fifteenth Amendment, which said that the right to vote should not be abridged by “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” were being debated, Anthony insisted that women should be included specifically. Anthony and Stanton, unlike some suffragists, had come to believe that women’s suffrage should not be fought primarily through states but that a federal amendment was the better path.

Stanton’s and Anthony’s newfound reliance on a federal amendment and insistence that women should be specifically named in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment split the women’s movement. When the Fifteenth Amendment was being publicly debated, Susan’s old friend Frederick Douglass quoted Julia Ward Howe, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, saying, “I am willing that the Negro should get the ballot before me. I cannot see how anyone can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the Negro.”

Despite their warm and longstanding friendship, Douglass and Anthony engaged in a fiery debate. Anthony’s protest against the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, unless is included women, earned a rebuke from the famous newspaper editor Horace Greeley. “This is the Negro’s hour,” he told her. “Your turn will come next.” Anthony, rooted as she was in the abolitionist movement, “saw no disloyalty” to the cause of enfranchisement of blacks, biographer Lutz notes, but she was convinced the amendments were inadequate because they overlooked women.

A significant portion of suffragists opposed Anthony and Stanton on the amendments and also disliked the fiery tone of their magazine, The Revolution. Meanwhile, Anthony and Stanton were embracing a new interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment under which a woman’s right to vote was tacitly upheld. Francis Minor, a St. Louis lawyer, argued that the Fourteenth Amendment did give women the right to vote, though it did not specifically name them. “To claim the right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment made a great appeal to both Susan and Elizabeth Stanton,” wrote Lutz.

Stanton’s and Anthony’s new-found reliance on a federal amendment and insistence that women should be specifically named in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment split the women’s movement. A significant portion of suffragists opposed Anthony and Stanton on the amendments and also disliked the fiery tone of their magazine, The Revolution.

This claim led to one of the most dramatic episodes on Anthony’s public life: her arrest and trial for voting in the 1872 presidential election. Anthony and several other female aspiring voters walked into the barber shop in Rochester, New York that served as a voter registration office on the first day of November that year. When election inspectors refused to accede to Anthony’s demands that she be registered to vote, under the Fourteenth Amendment, knew what to do. "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!" She added, "There is any amount of money to back me, and if I have to, I will push to the 'last ditch' in both courts."

The inspectors capitulated. A few days later, on November 5, Anthony and several other women cast their votes for president. “Well I have been & gone & done it!!--positively voted the Republican ticket--strait this a.m. at 7 O clock--& swore my vote in at that--was registered on Friday....then on Sunday others some 20 or thirty other women tried to register, but all save two were refused,” Anthony wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

On November 18, a U.S. Marshall knocked on the door to fetch Anthony to the office of the commissioner who would formally arrest her. "I sent word to [the commissioner] that I had no social acquaintance with him and didn't wish to call on him," the spunky gray-haired lady with a shawl recalled saying. Anthony ended up going to the office to be arrested. She saw it as a publicity bonanza for the cause. While awaiting trial, Anthony embarked on a frenetic lecture tour. Her talk was entitled “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?”

When the trial opened on June 17, 1873 in Canandaigua, the courtroom was packed. The defense argued that Anthony sincerely believed that she was entitled to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment and thus she could not be prosecuted for “knowingly” committing a crime. But it hardly mattered what the defense said. After the arguments, the judge reached in his pocket for a prepared statement. The judge said that the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t apply and directed the jury to return a guilty verdict. After the verdict, Anthony’s lawyer requested that the jury be polled but was turned down. Anthony, after making a passionate statement, over the judge’s orders to sit down, was sentenced to a fine of $100. Anthony said she would never pay the fine and she did not.

Many observers in the courtroom judged that Susan B. Anthony had more than held her own and that she had carried the day. True to form, Anthony regarded the proceedings as a good way to publicize the suffrage issue and made sure transcripts found its way onto the desks of opinion makers of the day.

Susan B. Anthony’s oft-repeated rallying cry was, “Failure is impossible.” During the last months of her long life, she was asked if women would ever be able to vote in the United States. “It will come, but I shall not see it,” she said. “It is inevitable.” Her faith was justified on August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment proved that for Susan B. Anthony failure was really not an option.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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