Susan B. Anthony is frequently recognized as the most influential leader in the struggle for women's suffrage in America.
Acclaimed suffragist Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, in Adams, Massachusetts. She was the second oldest of Daniel and Lucy Read Anthony’s eight children. Anthony grew up in a Quaker household, although her mother was not a member of the religion. Anthony’s parents and several of her siblings were lifelong progressives who, like their more famous sister, supported abolition, temperance, and equal rights for women.
When Anthony was six years old, her family moved to Battenville, New York, where she attended the local district school until her father established a more rigorous private school. In 1837, Anthony traveled to Philadelphia to attend Deborah Moulson’s Female Seminary until her father’s financial ruin during the Panic of 1837 cut her education short. Anthony returned to New York in 1838 and taught school for the next few years to help support her struggling family.
In 1845, Anthony’s family purchased a farm on the outskirts of Rochester, New York. Local reformers, including black abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, soon began gathering there on Sundays to discuss the issues of the day. One product of these meetings was a lifelong friendship between Anthony and Douglass.
Anthony got her first extended exposure to life outside of Quaker society in 1846 when she accepted a position as headmistress of the female department of the Canajoharie Academy, in eastern New York. While living there, she abandoned the austere living habits of the Society of Friends, and she became increasingly active in the temperance and abolitionist movements.
While Anthony lived in New York, her father, mother, and sister Mary attended the Rochester Women’s Rights Convention of 1848. They had signed the Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1847. Crafted primarily by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that seminal document—modeled after the American Declaration of Independence—enumerated multiple injustices suffered by American women, and proclaimed that it was the “right and duty of woman” to strive for political and social equality with men.
Meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Stanton’s views kindled Anthony’s enthusiasm for a new cause, and her desire to meet the author. In 1851, she traveled to Stanton’s hometown, Seneca Falls, where a mutual friend introduced the two women. The introduction marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship and a milestone in the history of the women’s rights movement. The two like-minded women possessed disparate but mutually complementary skills. For the next sixty years, Anthony, the superior speaker, vocalized the pair’s collaborative thinking as expressed on paper by Stanton, the more accomplished writer.
As Stanton recalled nearly a half-century later:
We never met without issuing a pronunciamento on some question. In thought and sympathy we are one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains.
Their collaboration also proved to be beneficial on another, more practical, plane. The demands of raising a large family often placed severe limits on Stanton’s time. It was not unusual for Anthony to visit the Stanton home and tend to her children while Stanton drafted new essays supporting women’s rights. When Stanton’s family responsibilities prevented her from attending rallies or conventions (as they often did), the more-effusive Anthony proved to be the perfect messenger for presenting their shared convictions. As Stanton later succinctly described her partnership with Anthony,
I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.
Other Reform Movements
Although Anthony is best remembered for her prominent role as a suffragist, she was also active in other reform movements. In 1851, she helped organize an anti-slavery convention in Rochester. Five years later, she became an official agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. While fulfilling her duties, which included organizing anti-slavery meetings, distributing pamphlets, and making speeches, Anthony was sometimes the target of hostile mobs that called her vile names, threw garbage at her, and hung her in effigy.
Civil War Service
During the Civil War, Anthony and Stanton collaborated to form the Women’s Loyal National League, focusing on passing the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery in the United States. It was the first national women’s political organization in the United States.
American Equal Rights Association
Following the war, Anthony helped organize the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, held on May 10, 1866, in New York City. During the proceedings, delegates voted to create the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). Under the guidance of Anthony, Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone, the new organization worked to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.” Within three years, however, AERA members were at odds with each other over support for the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution because the proposed reforms established voting rights for African American men, but did not enfranchise women.
National Woman Suffrage Association
The rift spurred Anthony and Stanton to leave the AERA and found the exclusively female National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869. In November of the same year, more moderate women’s rights advocates, led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). For the next two decades, the two organizations operated independently of each other to secure equal rights for women.
From 1868 to 1872, Anthony and Stanton published a weekly newspaper entitled The Revolution. Printed under the masthead that read “Justice, not Favors.—Men, their Rights and Nothing More; Women, their Rights and Nothing Less,” the periodical featured articles concerning sex education, rape, domestic violence, marriage, divorce, oppressive women’s fashions, prostitution, and reproductive rights. Because of its limited readership, by 1870 the paper was operating in the red. Anthony stepped forward and assumed the publication’s $10,000 debt, which she paid off using proceeds from her lecture fees.
Daring to Vote
Following ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments (July 28, 1868, and February 3, 1870), Anthony adopted the position that the changes to the Constitution enfranchised American women, in addition to former male slaves. Anthony reasoned that the 14th Amendment cited no exceptions (including gender) when affirming that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens.” Therefore, women had a right to vote because the amendment also stated that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Using that logic, Anthony registered to vote in Rochester. On November 5, 1872, she and fourteen other women (including three of her sisters), met no resistance when they went to the polls to cast their ballots in the general election.
Arrested for Voting
On November 18, 1872, a United States deputy marshal appeared at Anthony’s door with a warrant for her arrest charging that she had voted in violation of Section 19 of an Act of Congress. That law stipulated that anyone who knowingly voted without having the lawful right to do so was guilty of a crime. On December 23, 1872, court officials arraigned Anthony, the other women voters, and the election inspectors who allowed them to vote, in Rochester’s common council chamber. Soon thereafter, a federal grand jury in Albany indicted her on the charge that she “did knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully vote for a Representative in the Congress of the United States . . . .” The presiding judge ordered her to stand trial in Rochester before the United States District Court, Monroe County, New York, in May 1873.
Anthony used the time before her trial to deliver speeches defending her right to vote in every district of Monroe County. Her arguments were so persuasive that the district attorney requested a change of venue, fearing that Anthony had prejudiced the jurists in Anthony’s home county in her favor. Officials subsequently delayed the trial a month and transferred to the United States Circuit Court in Canandaigua in Ontario County, New York. Anthony used the extra month to travel to Ontario County where she campaigned for an innocent verdict, suggesting that it should be “The United States on Trial, Not Susan B. Anthony.”
Susan B. Anthony v. the United States
The trial of Susan B. Anthony v. the United States began on June 17, 1873. Presiding was Judge Ward Hunt, an outspoken opponent of women’s suffrage. Perhaps fearful of Anthony’s compelling oratorical skills, Hunt refused to let Anthony testify on her own behalf. After the prosecutor and defense attorneys presented their respective cases, Hunt astonishingly announced,
The question, gentlemen of the jury, in the form it finally takes, is wholly a question or questions of law, and I have decided as a question of law, in the first place, that under the Fourteenth Amendment which Miss Anthony claims protects her, she was not protected in a right to vote.
He then ordered the jury to render a guilty verdict before they could even deliberate or vote. The next day, before passing sentence, Hunt dismissed a motion by Anthony’s attorney for a new trial because the judge had denied Anthony of her right to a jury trial.
When Hunt asked Anthony if she had anything to say before he announced her sentence, Anthony rose to her feet and lambasted the judge for the way he conducted her trial. What followed was a heated exchange between the two with Hunt repeatedly ordering the “prisoner to sit down.” Undeterred, Anthony continued until she had spoken her mind. Hunt then fined Anthony $100 plus court costs. Anthony defiantly responded that
I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.
The judge shrewdly announced that the court would not imprison Anthony pending payment of her fine. Hunt’s clever decision not to incarcerate Anthony prevented any attempts by Anthony’s legal team to file a writ of habeas corpus and appeal her case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anthony never paid the fine, but her attempt to use the judicial branch to sanction women’s suffrage fizzled. Three years after Anthony’s trial, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Minor v. Happersett, that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone.” The court’s decision nullified the strategy of seeking redress through the judicial system, thus forcing Anthony and other suffragists to set their sights on amending the Constitution to achieve their goal.
Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States
In 1876, the NWSA requested permission to make a formal presentation at the official celebration of the U. S. Centennial in Philadelphia on July 4. After the United States Centennial Commission denied their request, five NWSA members (Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sara Andrews Spencer, Lillie Devereux Blake, and Phoebe W. Couzins) interrupted the culminating Grand Ceremonies of the celebration. Anthony marched to the speaker’s platform and presented acting U.S. President Thomas Ferry with a four-page document entitled the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States. Meanwhile, the other four women distributed copies to surprised spectators. Expecting officials to arrest them, the group then moved to a nearby platform where Anthony read the entire document to a growing crowd.
Written by Stanton, with the help of Gage, the pamphlet mirrored the style of the Declaration of Independence of the United States by enumerating “a series of assumptions and usurpations of power over women.” Signed by twenty-four prominent suffragists of the day, the narrative proclaimed “full equality with man in natural rights” and concluded by requesting “that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” Although the performance did not launch any immediate legal reforms, it heightened public awareness of the struggle for equal rights for women.
History of Woman Suffrage
During the late 1870s, Anthony, Stanton, and Gage began collaborating to write the History of Woman Suffrage. The prolific work, published in three installments in 1881, 1882, and 1886, chronicled the annals of the women’s suffrage crusade from 1865 to 1885. Although scholars consider the work as a definitive primary source documenting the history of the cause, it does so at the expense of other groups and individuals who competed with the authors for the movement’s leadership. Three later editions, published in 1902 and 1922 (long after Anthony’s death) covered the years from 1885 until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 enfranchised women in the United States.
International Council of Women
Anthony traveled to Europe in 1883, where she and Stanton collaborated with leaders of European women’s movements to lay the groundwork for an international women’s organization. Five years later, delegates from fifty-three women’s groups, representing nine countries, met in Washington and founded the International Council of Women (ICW). Representatives from the NWSA and its rival, the AWSA, took part in the conference. Anthony was a prime organizer of the event and presided over many sessions. Anthony played a prominent role in the ICW’s three succeeding conferences (Chicago, 1893, London, 1899, and Berlin, 1904) and she remained active in the organization until her death in 1906.
National American Woman Suffrage Association
In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA reconciled their differences and merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). During the unified association’s first convention in February 1890, the delegates selected Stanton as their first president. At seventy-five years of age, Stanton’s election was largely symbolic. In reality, Anthony handled most of the organization’s administrative duties until 1892 when she succeeded Stanton as president. Anthony guided the NAWSA for eight years until retiring from the presidency in 1900.
The Woman’s Bible
During Anthony’s presidency, in 1895, Stanton published the first of a two-volume work entitled The Woman’s Bible, a commentary describing how male theologians used Christian theology and biblical dogma to relegate women to second-class status. Although the publication was a bestseller, many of the moderate members of the NAWSA did not receive it well. Anthony did not disagree with the premise of Stanton’s work, but she did not enthusiastically endorse the book because it detracted from the mission of securing the right to vote for women. Still, Anthony defended her friend, unsuccessfully arguing against a resolution approved by most NAWSA members disavowing any connection with the book.
Anthony’s official duties as president of the NAWSA, coupled with her expanded presence on the international stage, taxed her health, but they did not diminish her efforts or enthusiasm for securing women’s rights. After passing the leadership of the NAWSA to Carrie Chapman Catt in 1900, at age eighty, Anthony continued to campaign for women’s suffrage across the nation.
On October 26, 1902, Anthony, who never married, suffered a devastating blow when her kindred soul, Stanton, succumbed to heart failure. Commenting on the loss of her dear friend Anthony stated,
I cannot express myself at all as I feel. I am too crushed to say much, but, if she had outlived me, she would have found fine words with which to express our friendship.
Anthony lived another four years before she passed away from heart failure and pneumonia, at age eighty-six, in her home in Rochester, New York, on March 13, 1906. Her remains are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester.
Historians frequently recognize Anthony as the most influential leader in the struggle for women’s suffrage in America. Her tireless efforts were so significant that after the ratification of the 19th Amendment enfranchised women in 1920, the public commonly referred to the amendment as the Anthony Amendment. Anthony, however, understood that the achievement was the collaborative success of a dedicated group of women that included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells, Emmeline Pankhurst, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Burns, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and others. During her president’s address at the 1894 NAWSA convention when Stanton underscored her humility when she stated,
We shall someday 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 think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.