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Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony

Updated on March 13, 2016

Susan B. Anthony

Frances Benjamin Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frances Benjamin Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Things Would Have Been A Lot Different Without Her

It would shock many of you to know how badly women had been treated in America. It was true that at one time, if a woman worked and earned money for the good of her family, by law any money she made went directly to her husband, who could use it as he saw fit—for himself. Divorce laws were unfairly slanted towards the husband, making it almost impossible for a woman to escape an abusive husband and, if she did, was forced to abandon her children, who were considered part of her husband’s property. If she inherited property from her father, it immediately belonged to her husband. If she was put on trial or called as a witness, she was not allowed to testify before the court. She was not allowed to attend college, become a doctor or a lawyer. Among many, many, many other things, she was not allowed to vote.

Susan Bronwell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts into this world. Susan was more fortunate than most women of her time; she was born into a Quaker household, and since the Quakers tended to permit more freedoms and feelings of equality to women, Susan was allowed a proper education and was sent to Philadelphia to study at a Quaker school there. When her father’s cotton mill business failed in the 1830s, Susan left school and returned home to teach and help support her family.

In the 1840s, the Anthony family uprooted and moved to Rochester, New York, where Susan became the head of the Canajohnrie Academy for girls, serving for two years. During this time she and her family became more heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and the temperance movement (the crusade to outlaw alcohol.) Susan was passionate about both causes, but had a special interest in the temperance movement.

In 1848 from July 19th to the 20th, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott hosted the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. There were many speakers in attendance, and a Declaration of Sentiments was produced by Elizabeth, which outlined the grievances dealt against women and the demand that women be allowed to participate in all things as equals. Elizabeth modeled the Declaration of Sentiments after the Declaration of Independence, saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal …”

Susan was not present at the Seneca Falls Convention; at the time, she was heavily into the temperance movement, and didn’t seem to give the idea of woman’s suffrage more than a passing thought … until one night. At a local meeting, Susan stood up to speak and was abruptly told by a male member to sit down. She was informed that, “The ladies have been invited here to listen and learn and not to speak.”

Susan was shocked; they wouldn’t let her speak? She had worked long and hard for the temperance movement, and they were telling her to sit down? Because she was a woman? She had done just as much as any man present at that meeting, but they weren’t going to give her the same kind of respect because she was female?

Bitterling angry, Susan and a grouo fo other women resolved to form their own temperance movement, but all of their efforts and attempts were either mocked or ignored by the men they tried to speak to—they wrote up a petition only to have it laughed at because the signers were all women. While Susan had always been aware of the inequalities women faced, these new experiences truly opened her eyes, and she decided that these unfair laws and behaviors had to change.

And in order to do that, women had to vote.

Susan B. Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Susan B. Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony with Elizabeth Cady Stanton | Source

In 1851, Susan traveled to an anti-slavery convention where she somehow met Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan and Elizabeth, both being more dedicated to the cause of suffrage (the movement to win the right to vote) than Lucretia was, became good friends and soon founded the New York State Women’s Rights Committee. While Elizabeth was an astounding and passionate writer, she focused on article and essay writing while Susan traveled the country, giving speeches and passing out handbills.

Though they soon gathered a large following, the suffrage movement briefly ground to a halt when the Civil War broke out. All efforts were now turned to freeing and rehabilitating former slaves. Once black men got the right to vote, Susan, Elizabeth and their friends all assumed that it wouldn’t be long before they were granted the right as well.

Were they ever wrong.

Resistance to women’s suffrage became fiercer than ever following the end of the Civil War, and Susan and Elizabeth pushed back harder, soon establishing the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), of which Susan was president. She spoke every chance she had, addressing women’s labor groups, speaking at church meetings she was invited to, co-wrote The History of Women’s Suffrage, Vol. 1 with Elizabeth, barged in on every Congressional meeting from 1869 to 1906, and with Elizabeth launched the newspaper The Revolution. Its motto was, “Men have their rights and nothing more; women have their rights and nothing less.”

In 1872, Susan and her sisters stormed into a polling location in Rochester, N.Y. and convinced the bewildered registrar to let them register and vote. Two weeks later, Susan and her sisters were arrested and imprisoned. Susan refused to post bail, and was so outraged when her lawyer posted it on her behalf that she tried to get it canceled. Upon being brought to court, she said, “Here, in the Declaration (of Independence), is the assertion of the natural right of all to the ballot; for how can the consent of the governed’ be given, if the right to vote is denied?”

In response, the judge fined Susan $100, which she refused to pay. Susan expected to be put back in jail, but the judge released her anyway—a likely combination of “ladies don’t belong in jail” and fear of the publicity it would cause.

Soon, the younger suffragists began to kick it into high gear, with Alice Paul arranging a pro-suffragist parade in Washington D.C. (the crowd that turned out so big that newly elected President Woodrow Wilson was irritated that no one was there to greet him when he stepped off the train), followed by an eighteen-month long picket line outside of the White House (where the suffragists were shot, beaten, dragged, over 200 women arrested and in prison violently force-fed when they went on hunger strikes). Unfortunately, Susan became aware that these younger suffragists were mostly only interested in the right to vote, and not any of the other sweeping changes that she, Elizabeth and others were trying to make. Wilson continued to be fairly antagonistic toward the suffragists, so in a last ditch effort Susan approached presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to encourage him to make the law pass.

In 1900, Susan had been convinced that women’s suffrage would pass as the 16th Amendment, but her hope began to wane as time marched on with no amendment in sight. After writing her autobiography, Susan lamented to her friend Anna Shaw, “To think I have had more than sixty years of hard struggle for liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.” Fortunately her malaise seemed to be short-lived, and at her eighty-sixth birthday party Susan told her friends and admirers: “Failure is impossible.”

On March 13, 1906, Susan B. Anthony passed away. Fourteen years later, after much hardship and toil and a remarkable effort on the part of the House of Representatives, women’s suffrage passed as the 19th Amendment in 1920. It was referred to as “The Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” and in 1976 Susan’s image was imprinted on the $1 coin, the only American woman to ever have her likeness struck until the Sacajawea Dollar in 2000.

Susan B. Anthony works referenced:

They Went Whistling, Barbara Holland 2001

America’s Women, Gail Collins 2003

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s History, Sonia Weiss et al 2002

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony

Seneca Falls Convention

Declaration of Sentiments


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