Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, to a liberal Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts. The family moved several times before settling in Rochester, New York, in 1845. Anthony worked on and off as a schoolteacher between 1835 and 1849, after which she transferred her educational zeal to the public sphere as a social reformer in a life of ceaseless activity, only partially chronicled here. Already in 1848 she had joined the Daughters of Temperance and was chosen secretary of her local chapter; by 1852 she and others had formed the Women's State Temperance Society (WSTS) after Anthony was not permitted to speak at a Sons of Temperance convention. Anthony traveled statewide on a petition campaign and organized the society's first convention, but the change to a more conservative leadership for WSTS prompted her resignation in 1853. Afterward, her work concentrated on abolition and women's rights.
Anthony met leaders of the women's rights movement in 1851, including Lucy Stone ( 1818–1893 ), notorious for retaining her birth name after marriage, and especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( 1815–1902 ), who was to become Anthony's lifelong friend and collaborator. Outwardly conventional in marriage and motherhood, Stanton was an intellectual firebrand whose radical ideas caused frequent discord within the women's rights movement. It was Stanton who insisted on the inclusion of woman suffrage in the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments from the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, an idea then so extreme that it almost failed to win approval. In later years the practically minded Anthony served more than once as apologist for and defender of Stanton to her peers.
In Anthony, Stanton found the perfect partner for her work. Anthony was not only a superlative and tireless organizer she was unencumbered by domestic obligations. She rapidly assumed a major role within the movement, having greater freedom to travel than most women. She put together the annual conventions, traversed New York State and lobbied the state legislature in a six-year campaign to expand the 1848 Married Women's Property Law ( finally achieved in 1860, guaranteeing more rights for women regarding their children, property, and employment ), and accompanied fellow activist Ernestine Rose ( 1810–1892 ) on a women's rights lecture tour to Washington, DC, and the South in 1854.
Anthony's commitment to abolition deepened through her direct exposure to slavery on her lecture tour. In 1856 she became the New York general agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society and was responsible for coordinating peakers across the state. Braving angry audiences, Anthony herself lectured on abolition throughout New York before and during the Civil War.
In 1863 Anthony and Stanton created the Women's National Loyal League, the first national women's political organization, in support of the Thirteenth Amendment. Their petition drive, the largest up to that time in American history, demonstrated public support for the amendment as well as the ability of a women's organization to function effectively on a national scale.
Train also provided the initial funding for The Revolution, the radical women's rights journal founded by Anthony and Stanton that published material on suffrage, divorce rights, prostitution, women's labor unions, equal pay, infanticide, and other previously off-limit topics. The journal first appeared in January 1868 and brought renewed attention to a movement that had been quiescent during the war. Anthony continued the journal until it was no longer financially feasible, a period of little over two years.
In 1869 the AERA foundered over the Fifteenth Amendment, with Anthony, Stanton, and others refusing to support the amendment owing to what they viewed as its exclusion of women. In contrast, the majority of AERA's members supported the amendment, believing that suffrage for African American men was a more pressing need given the dangers they faced as Reconstruction progressed.
Disillusioned with the AERA, Anthony, Stanton, and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869, an organization that Anthony essentially led though not formally as its president. The organization welcomed male members but barred them from leadership positions. Lucy Stone and others created the rival American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in November 1869. AWSA's less radical membership permitted male leaders. The two organizations remained separate for the next twenty-one years.
In the early 1870s the NWSA adopted the New Departure strategy, which was based on the arguments of the Missouri suffragist Virginia Minor ( 1824–1894 ) and her attorney husband. The reasoning behind the strategy was that women were clearly citizens by the definition of citizenship in the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments prevented states from abridging the rights of citizens. Because those rights included the right to vote, women should simply do so. The NWSA pursued this strategy with the result that at least 150 women voted in the 1872 presidential election, including, most famously, Anthony.
Anthony was arrested shortly thereafter, indicted in January 1873, and brought to trial the following June. In complete mockery of the law, the presiding judge ordered the jury to declare Anthony guilty before their deliberations. Anthony was fined $100, which she vowed never to pay, delivering instead a stinging rebuttal to the legal travesty. Various missteps on the part of Anthony's lawyer precluded her from taking the case to a higher court. The New Departure strategy ended for good in 1875 when the US Supreme Court, in Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 ( 1875 ), ruled that although women were citizens, nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment granted women an affirmative right to vote. Virginia Minor and other women who sought the right to vote would need to look beyond the boundaries of their current Constitution and Supreme Court.
Anthony continually refused the NWSA's presidency in favor of Stanton but nonetheless remained the principal organizer and ultimately the public face of the organization. The NWSA pressured Congress through lobbying, petitions, and position papers, holding one of its meetings each year in Washington and benefiting from Anthony's command of constitutional law. Owing to these efforts, an amendment for suffrage was introduced annually in Congress beginning in 1878. In 1882 Congress created the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage.
During these years Anthony traveled frequently to deliver the suffrage message. She presented the NWSA's Declaration of the Rights of Woman at the Centennial Exposition of 1876. In 1880 she began writing History of Woman Suffrage, ultimately a six-volume work coauthored by Anthony, Stanton, activist Matilda Joslyn Gage ( 1826–1898 ), and historian Ida Husted Harper ( 1851–1931 ). (The first three volumes were distributed free to hundreds of libraries, public schools, and colleges.) In 1888 the International Council of Women had its inaugural meeting in Washington, an event dreamed up by Anthony and Stanton but supervised by Anthony. Anthony later became honorary president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance ( 1904 ).
In 1890, after several years of negotiation, the NWSA and the AWSA merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Stanton as president. In 1892 Anthony took over the position, holding it until her resignation in 1900. Long an iconic figure, she continued to travel and advocate for suffrage until less than a month before her death on March 13, 1906.
Anthony's genius for organization, seemingly indefatigable energy, and decades-long involvement in women's rights made her literally a household name for the cause. In a period when travel was both inconvenient and uncomfortable, she crisscrossed the United States numerous times and made multiple trips abroad in her efforts to educate, persuade, and create allies. She faced practical questions that continue to confront leaders: How much and what kind of compromise is necessary for progress? Which takes precedence, race or gender? What pathway to social change is best? The numerous differences among her fellow suffragists and lack of support for women's rights by many contemporary women prefigure the conflicts about women's political and social goals today. Perhaps most impressive is Anthony's astonishing perseverance in face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, characterized by the very last words she spoke n public: “Failure is impossible.”
SEE ALSO Nineteenth Amendment ; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady ; Suffrage ; Women's Rights Movements .
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Sherr, Lynn. Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. New York: Times Books, 1995.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper, eds. History of Woman Suffrage. (1881–1922.) 6 vols. Vol. 4 edited by S. B. Anthony and I.H. Harper; vols. 5–6 edited by I. H. Harper. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.
University of Rochester