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.
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 Her mother, a sullen, withdrawn woman, grudgingly accepted her domestic role as housewife and mother of six.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.
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...
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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 Anthony’s and Stanton’s dismay, however, two years later the same body repealed portions of the marriage reform bill. This setback confirmed what Anthony had been saying for a decade: Benevolent legislation alone was insufficient; women would be fully protected only when they enjoyed full political powers.
For Anthony and her associates, the decade of the 1860’s was eventful but largely disappointing. Before the Civil War, Anthony campaigned hard for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and during the war she helped establish the Women’s Loyalty League to lobby for a constitutional amendment that would abolish slavery and guarantee civil and political rights for all Americans. Yet, despite her lifelong commitment to black rights, after the war Anthony opposed both the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it inserted the word “male” in reference to citizen’s rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment, for its failure to include the word “sex” in protecting voting rights for all citizens. Berated by her former allies, who insisted that women must not endanger the long-awaited liberation of blacks with additional demands for women’s rights, Anthony countered the accusations by asserting that if reformers linked these two great causes, then the moment in history called by some “the Negro’s hour” could be the woman’s hour as well. This controversy ultimately split the women’s movement. Following an explosive Equal Rights Association convention in 1869, Anthony and Stanton organized the National Woman Suffrage Association (a “for women only” organization committed to the passage of a national woman’s suffrage amendment), while the more conservative reformers established the American Woman Suffrage Association (a rival body that focused its efforts at the state rather than the national level).
At this time, Anthony’s commitment to feminist goals did not deter her from other reform activities. In 1868, Anthony organized the Working Woman’s Association in a futile attempt to unionize woman workers and build female solidarity across class lines. In the same year, Anthony and Stanton allied themselves with the eccentric millionaire George Francis Train and began publishing a radical newspaper entitled The Revolution. On its masthead was the motto: “Principle, not policy; justice, not favors. Men, their rights, and nothing more: Women, their rights and nothing less.” This paper, which opened its columns to editorials on greenback currency, divorce laws, prostitution, and a variety of other controversial issues, survived only two years, and left Anthony with a debt of ten thousand dollars. It took six years, but Anthony ultimately repaid the entire debt from income she gained delivering suffrage lectures on the Lyceum circuit. Following this experience, Anthony determined to disassociate herself from other controversial reforms and focus all of her energy on the crusade for woman’s suffrage.
In 1872, Anthony gained national media attention when she registered and voted in the presidential election. Several weeks later, a federal marshal issued her an arrest warrant for illegal voting. While awaiting trial, Anthony went on a whirlwind tour delivering the lecture, “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” Her defense was that the Fourteenth Amendment made her a citizen, and citizenship carried with it the right to vote. During her trial, the judge refused to allow her to testify on her own behalf, demanded the jury to render a guilty verdict, and fined her one hundred dollars. Outraged by this travesty of justice, thousands sent contributions to the NWSA treasury. Although she lost the trial, Anthony (who never paid the fine) won added respect for herself and her cause.
Anthony spent the last three decades of her life recruiting and training a new generation of suffragist leaders, including, among many others, Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt. In 1889, at age sixty-nine, Anthony worked to secure a merger of the rival NWSA and AWSA. Three years later, she accepted the presidency of the unified National American Woman Suffrage Association, and served in this capacity until 1900, when she passed her mantle of leadership onto her hand-picked successors. As honorary president emeritus, Anthony remained the dominant figure in the movement until the time of her death in 1906.
When Anthony joined the women’s rights movement at age thirty-three, women held little social, professional, or educational standing. They were denied the right to vote, to hold office, or to be tried by their peers. As wives, they lost their legal individuality, having no rights to inherit property, keep earnings, sign contracts, or claim more than one-third of their husbands’ estates. As mothers, they lacked legal custody or control over their own children. By the time of Anthony’s death, however, eighty percent of American colleges, universities, and professional schools admitted women. In many states women had legal control over their own earnings and property and, in case of divorce, generally were awarded custody of their children. Although much discrimination remained, reform legislation along with advances in the medical treatment of women had increased the life expectancy of women from forty to fifty-one years. In four states, women enjoyed full suffrage rights, and in the majority of the remaining states, women voted in school or municipal elections.
Many of these changes were in part a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, which freed many women from a portion of their domestic chores, created new opportunities for employment, and provided increasing numbers with the wealth and leisure to sponsor reform work. The improved status of American women, however, was also a result of the heroic efforts of individuals who endured decades of hardship and ridicule in their quest for equal rights. For more than half a century, Anthony campaigned tirelessly for feminist goals. A radical visionary, the “Napoleon of Feminism” was also a shrewd, practical politician who did more than any other reformer to change the minds of men toward women, and of women toward themselves. Although vilified throughout much of her career, by the time of her death Anthony was the heroine of a second generation of suffragists, who in 1920 would win the victory she had fought so hard to achieve.
Anthony, Katherine S. Susan B. Anthony: Her Personal History and Her Era. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1954. A detailed, although somewhat tedious, account of Anthony’s career, with lengthy descriptions of her family ancestry in England, her parentage, and her many friends in the battle for women’s rights.
Bryan, Florence H. Susan B. Anthony: Champion of Women’s Rights. New York: Julian Messner, 1947. The best of the many biographies of Anthony geared for younger readers. Not overly fictionized.
Buhle, Mary Jo, and Paul Bulhe. A Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Works of Stanton, Anthony, Gage and Harper. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. An abridged volume of the basic sources of the women’s suffrage movement. Provides useful selections from the writings of Anthony and other eminent suffrage leaders.
Dorr, Rheta L. Susan B. Anthony: The Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1928. A dated, warmly partisan, and undocumented biography that portrays Anthony as a radical heroine. Weak coverage of Anthony’s latter years. Despite its shortcomings, its lively prose makes this entertaining book worth reading.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. An overview of the women’s rights movement that offers insights into the intellectual origins of American feminism. It remains the standard history of the suffrage crusade.
Harper, Ida H. The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony. 3 vols. Indianapolis: Bowen-Merrill Co., 1898-1908. The authoritative biography, written with Anthony’s assistance. The only source for numerous Anthony papers that were destroyed after its publication.
Kugler, Israel. “The Trade Union Career of Susan B. Anthony.” Labor History 6 (Winter, 1961): 90-100. An interesting and informative account of a little-known aspect of Anthony’s career as a reformer.
Lutz, Alma. Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959. A well-documented, straightforward biography. Informative, but like the other dated biographies, it makes no attempt to penetrate beyond the surface record of events.
Riegel, Robert. American Feminists, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1963. This collection of biographical essays on pioneer feminists attempts to analyze the factors that contributed to the rise of American feminism. The sketch on Anthony accentuates her shortcomings, portraying her as physically, mentally, and historically inferior to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Truman, Margaret. Women of Courage. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1976. A popular collection of biographical sketches of noted American women. The Anthony essay concentrates on her arrest, trial, and conviction for illegal voting in the 1872 presidential election.