Susan B. Anthony Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

ph_0111205023-Anthony_SB.jpg Susan B. Anthony Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A gifted and relentless worker for feminist causes, Anthony was for five decades the preeminent voice and inspiration of the women’s suffrage movement.

Early Life

Susan Brownwell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, in Adams, Massachusetts, the second child of Daniel and Lucy Read Anthony. Her mother, a sullen, withdrawn woman, grudgingly accepted her domestic role as housewife and mother of six. The girl loved but pitied her mother, and learned from her more what to avoid than emulate. Her father, in contrast, always loomed large in his daughter’s eyes. A radical Quaker, Daniel Anthony was liberal in creed and illiberal toward those who tolerated the social evils that he so adamantly despised. Strong-willed and independent of mind, Daniel Anthony taught his children to be firm in their convictions and to demonstrate their love for God by working for human betterment.

As an owner of a small cotton mill, Daniel Anthony had the means to provide for his daughter’s education. A precocious child, Anthony took full advantage of her opportunities, first attending the village school and later receiving private instruction from a tutor hired by her father. At age seventeen, Anthony left with her older sister Guelma for a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia. Anthony’s seminary training, however, was cut short by the Panic of 1837. With mounting business debts, Daniel Anthony was forced to auction his cotton mill, homestead, furniture, and even his personal belongings, and to relocate as a dirt farmer on a small tract of land outside Rochester, New York.

In response to the family crisis, Susan Anthony left boarding school, secured a teaching position, and began sending half of her two-dollar weekly salary home to the family. For the next decade, Anthony remained in the classroom, instructing her pupils in the three R’s, even as she augmented her own education with extensive reading and study. Intelligent yet unpretentious, Anthony matured into an athletic, tall, and slender woman with thick brown hair and warm blue eyes. Hardly the ugly, unsexed “battle-axe” her future enemies portrayed her to be, Anthony was courted by several suitors and remained single largely because none of her admirers, in her opinion, equaled her father in character or conviction.

Like her father, Anthony was a reformer who yearned for a society free from the evils of slavery and alcoholism. An idealist but not a dreamer, Anthony worked actively in these reform efforts, serving during her twenties as president of the Canajoharie Daughters of Temperance. In 1849, at her father’s request, Anthony resigned from teaching to take over management of the family farm near Rochester. This relocation enabled Daniel Anthony to devote his full attention to a new business venture (an insurance agency that eventually made him prosperous again). The move also allowed Anthony to commit herself more fully to reform activity.

Life’s Work

While still a teacher in Canajoharie, Anthony read a newspaper account of a meeting in nearby Seneca Falls, where a group of sixty-eight women and thirty-two men issued a Declaration of Women’s Rights. This declaration demanded free education, equality of economic opportunity, free speech, the right to participate in public affairs, and the right to vote. As a schoolteacher making only one-third the salary of her male colleagues, Anthony sympathized with many of these demands for equal rights. Her Quaker upbringing, however, had convinced her that no person should participate in a government that waged war or condoned slavery, and she was thus not yet ready to take up the cause of women’s suffrage.

In 1851, while attending an antislavery lecture in Seneca Falls, Anthony met the renowned Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two women developed an instant friendship which led to a strong partnership in reform work. Together they organized the Woman’s State Temperance Society of New York and petitioned the state legislature for a prohibition law. On numerous occasions during the 1850’s, Anthony left Rochester for Seneca Falls to care for Stanton’s children while their mother was away on speaking tours.

While agreeing with Stanton on most issues, Anthony for several years refrained from embracing Stanton’s call for women’s suffrage. Gradually, however, the arrogance and disregard of many male reformers for the rights of women altered Anthony’s view. Finally, in 1853, after the male delegates of the New York Woman’s Temperance Society monopolized the annual convention and rudely ousted Stanton as president, Anthony declared her full allegiance to the women’s crusade for equal rights and political equality.

Anthony’s political conversion brought new life to the fledgling women’s movement. An experienced worker willing to assume the time-consuming chores that no one else wanted, Anthony labored around the clock for feminist causes, organizing women into local associations, scheduling conventions and arranging speakers, seeking contributions, and paying administrative expenses. During the winter of 1854-1855, Anthony personally visited fifty-four of the sixty New York counties, collecting signatures in support of legal rights for married women. When the legislature failed to act, Anthony promised to return with petitions every year until the inequities were rectified. For five years the tireless Anthony kept her promise, and in 1860, following a stirring address by coworker Stanton, the New York legislature granted property and guardian rights to married women. Much to...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)