Susan B. Anthony:
"Liberty and Justice for All"
By Matt McKeown
Is it merely coincidence that Lady Liberty is a lady?
Women’s suffrage is so ordinary to us, the very phrase “women’s suffrage” sounds a little old-fashioned. Naturally it would be impossible to put this change down to any one person: women like Emmeline Pankhurst, Harriet Tubman, Adella Hunt Logan, and Constance Lytton all played a part in promoting women’s suffrage in English-speaking countries; moreover, the movement was less linear than we habitually imagine (for instance, New Jersey explicitly allowed propertied citizens of either sex to vote from 1776 until 1807, when women were stripped of this right). But if there is any one woman who stood at the center of the movement, and helped an idea once dismissed as “fringe” be recognized as an authentic application of the principles of democracy, that woman was Susan B. Anthony.
The Anthonies were a radical family: Susan’s father was a Quaker minister and her mother a Methodist (then a fledgling denomination with a reputation for fanaticism). They were active supporters of the abolitionist cause and the Underground Railroad; two of her brothers moved to the Kansas Territory in the 1850s to fight alongside the famous John Brown in the conflict over the future state’s status as slave or free. The family’s New York estate also often played host to Frederick Douglass, who became a lifelong friend to Anthony. She also became active in the temperance movement, which was closely tied to the cause for women’s suffrage at the time. The laws of the day both placed a husband in charge of the family finances and made it extremely difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce—meaning that a woman who was married to an alcoholic (and alcoholism and domestic abuse were rampant) had almost no legal means of protection for herself or even for her children.
1848, later called the “Year of Revolutions,” was also the year of the first recorded women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls, New York. This was followed by a flurry of similar conventions, and in 1852, Anthony attended her first National Women’s Rights Convention. Just the year before, she had met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became a friend and ally to Anthony for the rest of her life. Stanton was an accomplished writer and thinker, but as a mother of seven had limited mobility; Anthony, by contrast, was unmarried and possessed a great talent for organizing. As Stanton herself put it, “I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.”
In her early days as a feminist activist, Anthony focused principally on the rights to property (particularly for married women, whose property was usually taken over by their husbands) and equal pay. At the same time, she pushed hard for both abolitionism and integration—the latter of which was about as unpopular in the North as it was in the South. In the leadup to the Civil War, angry mobs, brandishing everything from rotten eggs to pistols and knives, attacked her meetings all over New York state. She considered it wrong to subordinate the cause of women’s rights to that of Black rights, and even campaigned against the Fifteenth Amendment on those grounds, because, while it enfranchised men irrespective of race, it did so explicitly as men, to the exclusion of women.
As early as the late 1860s, Anthony and her allies saw some regional legal successes: Wyoming and Utah became the first two states to allow women to vote, in 1869 and 1870 respectively. Emboldened, Anthony and almost fifty other women cast votes in Rochester for the presidential election of 1872, planning (if challenged) to appeal to the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This was the core of her argument at every stage. She steadfastly refused to speak of the government granting women the right to vote; rather, as adult citizens, they had, by the very logic of the Founding Fathers, the right to participate equally with men in governing, and the refusal of the United States to recognize this right was an unjust and unjustifiable refusal.
Though the local officials had allowed Anthony to cast her vote, she was later arrested and charged with voting illegally; the ensuing trial was a national sensation, not least because the judge (who had recently been appointed to the Supreme Court, but was still acting in his capacity as a circuit court judge) would not allow Anthony to speak during the trial and instructed the jury to find her guilty! When asked, according to normal court procedure, whether she had anything to say before sentencing, the outraged Anthony answered with a rousing speech:
“Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, 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. … I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex … Had your honor submitted my case to the jury, as was clearly your duty, even then I should have had just cause of protest, for not one of those men was my peer; but … each and every man of them was my political superior … Yesterday, the same man-made forms of law declared it a crime punishable with $1,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment, for you, or me, or any of us, to give a cup of cold water, a crust of bread, or a night’s shelter to a panting fugitive as he was tracking his way to Canada. And every man or woman in whose veins coursed a drop of human sympathy violated that wicked law, reckless of consequences, and was right to do so. … So, now, must women, to get their right to a voice in this government, take it; and I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity.”
Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, recognizing the right of women to vote, in 1920—fourteen years after Anthony’s death. In 2020, in honor of the passage of the amendment, the President announced a plan to pardon Anthony of her conviction for illegal voting; the head of the Susan B. Anthony House, however, declined the offered pardon, saying that to accept it would validate the idea that she had done something wrong.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other author profiles, from ancient and Medieval figures like St. Athanasius and Geoffrey Chaucer to moderns like Marcel Proust. And be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 7th March, 2022.