“On Women's Right to Vote” Summary
“On Women’s Right to Vote” is an 1873 speech arguing that denying women the right to vote is unconstitutional.
- Anthony bases her argument on the idea that women are included in the “we the people” who are guaranteed “the blessings of liberty” in the US Constitution.
- To pass a law forbidding women from voting would amount to creating a bill of attainder and an ex post facto law, both of which are unconstitutional.
- As US citizens, women have the fundamental right to vote, and until it is granted, Anthony says, the US will not be a true democracy.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“On Women’s Right to Vote” is a political speech made by Susan B. Anthony in 1873. Anthony begins by explaining the event that inspired her to make this speech: she was arrested and indicted for the supposed crime of trying to vote. Her goal in making the speech, she says, is to show that voting is her lawful right as an American citizen. This right is granted to her by the United States Constitution, according to Anthony’s argument. If the Constitution guarantees a right, no state can deny it to any citizen.
After quoting the entirety of the preamble to the United States Constitution, Anthony draws particular attention to two of its phrases. She explores the meanings of “we the people” and “to secure the blessings of liberty.” “We the people,” according to Anthony, includes not just white men or even all men, but every one of the human beings who formed the union that is the United States of America. The “blessings of liberty” are not granted by the government to the people. Rather, the Constitution says that they must be secured—meaning, in this case, made safe—for the people by the government the Constitution created. The blessings of liberty, she argues, belong to all, including women. Yet women cannot be said to have the blessings of liberty when they cannot secure them for themselves by voting. In the United States, a democracy, voting is the only way anyone can act on their own behalf to defend their liberty, by playing a role in choosing the government that will secure it for them. If women are not allowed to vote, the blessings of liberty are not secured for women, because they have no power in the government that is supposed to secure them.
Anthony argues that passing a law that forbids women from voting is prohibited by the Constitution for two reasons. One, it is equivalent to a “bill of attainder.” A bill of attainder is a law that declares someone guilty of a crime and declares their punishment, generally without any kind of trial. In effect, she claims, women have been declared guilty of being women. The punishment they were given is to have their votes withheld. She also considers the law she broke—and any law against women voting—an “ex post facto law.” An ex post facto law changes an action’s legal status after that action has already happened. Some women did vote in the United States prior to the passing of the particular law under which Susan B. Anthony was arrested. Therefore, she argues, that law transformed those women’s actions into crimes after the fact. Both bills of attainder and ex post facto laws are forbidden by the Constitution. Any law that prohibits women from voting, then, is doubly in violation of the Constitution.
It is unjust for the United States government to have power over women, she says, because they have not consented to that power. Consent of the governed is a key principle of democracy, so if women cannot vote, the United States is not truly a democracy. For women, the country is effectively an aristocracy or oligarchy. These terms have slightly different meanings, but both refer to a government in which a smaller body of people than the whole citizenry makes decisions for everyone. She argues that the educated people of the nation ruling the ignorant ones might be tolerable; she would not mind if ignorant citizens were unable to vote. Even the “Saxon” race (white people) ruling over the “African” race, with Black people unable to vote, might be acceptable to her. But, for...
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Anthony, the rule of men over women is intolerable. It brings anger into every household, because every man is a ruler over the female members of his family, who cannot help but resent his power.
Citing three popular dictionaries of the time, Anthony uses their definitions to establish a standard definition for a US citizen: “a person in the United States, entitled to vote and hold office.” If women are persons, then, they must be citizens. And no one, she says, will deny that women are persons. Therefore, since no state can make a law taking away citizens’ right to vote without violating the Constitution, no state can make a law taking away women’s right to vote. Just as Black men have the right to vote because they are citizens, women do as well. All laws restricting citizens’ right to vote are unconstitutional. Thus, the law under which she was arrested is “null and void,” because the Constitution prohibits any such law. It should have no power over her.