Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) advocated tirelessly and radically for the rights of women. Her attempt to vote ended with her arrest, and paved the way for the 19th Amendment. She was also an abolitionist, a supporter of temperance and labor rights, and an education activist.
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Today is Super Tuesday. That means for many people in the U.S., it’s voting time. If you’re over the age of 18 in the U.S., you may take the right to vote for granted. But for the vast majority of us, that right was hard won. And for many, the fight lives on. The woman we’re covering today advocated tirelessly and radically for the rights of women. Her attempt to vote ended with her arrest, and paved the way for the 19th Amendment. She was also an abolitionist, a supporter of temperance and labor rights, and an education activist. We’re talking about the one and only Susan B. Anthony.
Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, in Adams, Massachusetts, to Daniel and Lucy Anthony. Her father was a farmer.
Susan and her seven siblings were raised in the Quaker faith. Quakers believe that every person has a connection to God and therefore all people are equal. Susan’s religious beliefs would shape much of her life’s work.
During an 1837 financial depression, Susan’s family lost their farm. Susan was pulled out of school and started teaching to support herself.
In 1845, Susan’s family moved to Rochester, NY. There, the family farm became a gathering place for anti-Slavery activists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Susan was inspired by these luminaries and decided to get involved, fighting on a number of different fronts.
In 1848, Susan made her first public speech at a Daughters of Temperance event. Alcohol abuse was a major issue in the 19th century and the temperance movement was really about much more than a simple dislike or disapproval of alcohol. Many women, particularly married women, were victims of alcohol fueled violence. Women at that time couldn’t file for divorce and had no legal rights to their children or property. They were considered property themselves. Susan gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to limit the sale of alcohol in New York. But the petition was disregarded because the signatures included those of women and children. The people in power didn’t consider those signatures worthy.
In 1851, Susan attended an anti-slavery convention in Seneca Falls, NY. There she met kindred spirit Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two women would become a duo, working together for more than 50 years.
Starting in 1853, Susan began working diligently to expand women’s rights in New York state. She lobbied for women to have rights to property and legal custody of their children. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also fought to reform divorce laws. They were instrumental in the 1860 passage of the The New York State Married Women’s Property Bill.
Susan also fought for women to escape the era’s social norms when it came to dress. Alongside others in the movement, she tried wearing a shorter dress with bloomers and cut her hair, but succumbed to dress norms when she decided her alternative clothes were distracting from her work.
In 1856, Susan became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She made speeches, arranged meetings, and distributed literature across the country in favor of abolition.
During the Civil War, Susan and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Women’s Loyal League, which collected thousands of petitions to outlaw slavery. At the war’s end, and upon passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, Susan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many in the suffragist movement believed it was time to turn back to the rights of women. They advocated for women to be explicitly included in the 14th and 15th Amendments, which enfranchised black men. When that didn’t happen, they were devastated.
It’s important to note here that perhaps before and definitely after women were left out of those Amendments, Susan B. Anthony’s strategy -- and that of many of her peers -- was tainted by racism. Her efforts to expand the rights of women were really focused on the rights of white women, sometimes at the expense of people of color. Like all historical figures and humans generally, Susan was not entirely good or entirely bad and has to be understood within her specific historical context. It is very safe to say that she was a complex person with her fair share of flaws.
Susan was also a serious workaholic. She advocated for workers rights, educational opportunities for women, and equal pay for equal work, among other things. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded many organizations and publications relevant to their work.
Susan and Elizabeth, as well as many other women’s rights activists, continued to believe that the 15th Amendment should also give women the right to vote. In 1872, Susan decided to take matters into her own hands. On election day, Susan went to the front parlor of what was then 7 Madison Street in Albany and voted. She was subsequently arrested. Between her arrest and her trial, Susan spoke all over her county, questioning the idea that it could be a crime for a citizen to vote.
At her trial, the judge refused to let jurors deliberate. Instead, he demanded Susan be found guilty. For much of the trial, Susan was barred from speaking. When the judge routinely asked if she had anything to say, she gave a lengthy speech in which she said, “You have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.”
Susan was fined $100 for her crime. She refused to pay. Despite that refusal, the judge didn’t throw her in jail because he wanted to prevent her from being able to appeal the verdict.
Susan was not the only woman to vote, but she is the best known. Her trial gained national attention and brought the women’s suffrage movement into the spotlight.
In a decision a few years later, the Supreme Court said that while women were deemed citizens, that didn’t guarantee them the right to vote.
Even so, Susan didn’t give up on her work. She and her fellow suffragists organized protests, wrote now famous speeches, and lobbied Congress.
In the 1890s, Susan organized a committee to pay for women students to attend the previously all male University of Rochester. When the deadline nearly passed without enough funding, Susan pledged the value of her own life insurance to ensure women would be admitted to the school. The school followed through in 1900.
In 1905, Susan met with President Theodore Roosevelt to talk about submitting an amendment for women’s suffrage. The following year, at Susan’s 86th birthday party, she gave her final speech on suffrage. She famously remarked, “Failure is impossible.”
Susan died about a month later, 14 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, technically giving women the right to vote. The battle for voting rights would continue throughout the 20th century.
It’s particularly resonant today on Super Tuesday to pay tribute to a complicated woman who helped to reshape and reimagine the role and legal standing of women in the U.S.
All month we’ll be covering feminists from throughout history. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. This month’s group is not an exhaustive list by any means, and we’re sticking to a smaller time range in our regular weekday episodes so that we can really focus in. On weekends, we’re going to be highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love and modern feminists brought to you by our sponsor this month Fiverr. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter.
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Talk to you tomorrow!