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date: 19 September 2019

Anthony, Susan

(15 February 1820–13 March 1906)
  • Ann D. Gordon

Susan B. Anthony.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-23933).

Anthony, Susan B. (15 February 1820–13 March 1906), reformer and organizer for woman suffrage, was born Susan Brownell Anthony in Adams, Massachusetts, the daughter of Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read. Her father built the town’s first cotton mill. When Susan, the second of eight children, was six, the family moved to Battenville, New York, north of Albany, where Daniel prospered as manager of a larger mill and could send Susan and her sister to a Friends’ seminary near Philadelphia. His good fortune, however, collapsed with the financial crisis of 1837; the mill closed, Susan left boarding school, the family lost its house, and for nearly a decade the family squeaked by, assisted by Susan’s wages as a teacher. Looking for a new start in 1845, Daniel moved to a farm near Rochester, the city that would be Susan’s permanent address for the rest of her life.

Susan taught for ten years in district schools, private academies, and families, concluding her career as head of the female department in the academy at Canajoharie, New York, from 1846 to 1849. This work had a lasting effect on her ideas as a reformer and on her views about equality. Having experienced women’s unequal wages, she gave primacy, in later years, to their need for economic equality; “Woman Wants Bread, Not the Ballot” was the title of her best-known and favorite lecture about woman suffrage. She approached working women not as a philanthropist curious about their plight but as a veteran of their tribulations.

When she quit teaching in 1849 to run her father’s farm, Anthony had already moved tentatively into the arena of women’s reform. At Canajoharie she delivered her first speech to a meeting of the Daughters of Temperance. At home, however, her family introduced her to their new friends—including Frederick Douglass, Isaac and Amy Post, and others—who formed the core of Rochester’s antislavery and women’s rights radicals. These members of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and participants in the women’s rights convention at Rochester in 1848 conducted their private, religious, and political lives by a code of sexual equality that presented Anthony with unimagined alternatives for her own life.

The New York State Temperance Society (1852)

In 1851 Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and over the next year the two women discovered the sort of liberating partnership they could forge. Their ideas were converging. Anthony had found women welcome in the temperance movement as long as they confined themselves to a separate sphere and did not expect an equal role with men, while Stanton had focused her attention on the need for women to reform law in their own interests, both to improve their conditions and to challenge the “maleness” of current law. In 1852 Anthony and Stanton founded the Women’s New York State Temperance Society, which, even in its name, claimed an equality with the leading male society and featured women’s right to vote on the temperance question and to divorce drunken husbands. Beginning as an agent for this society, Anthony became a full-time reformer.

Through the 1850s Anthony and Stanton made New York State the nation’s showpiece of women’s rights agitation. To the struggle for equality in the increasingly political temperance movement, they added campaigns for coeducation, modeled “Bloomers,” a costume that freed women from the constraints of fashionable dress, and, through their New York State Woman’s Rights Committee, presented the legislature with demands for suffrage, married women’s property rights, mothers’ custody rights, liberalized divorce laws, and rights associated with specific jobs performed by women.

Anthony proved to be an effective organizer and fell into a style of life centered on the demands of reform politics. On the road most of each year for the next four decades, she avoided keeping house and supported herself by work for her political causes. This willingness to live in perpetual motion made her a perfect partner in the 1850s for Stanton, whose children and household tied her down. Anthony supplied legs and voice for Stanton’s ideas, or in Stanton’s phrase, “I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them” (Eighty Years and More, p. 165). Anthony’s persistence as a traveler and organizer was legendary; William Henry Channing dubbed her the movement’s Napoleon. In an 1855 tour for women’s rights she met her goal of lecturing at least once in every one of New York’s sixty-two counties. (At age seventy-four, she insisted on repeating that feat in the service of a suffrage amendment to the state constitution.) Recognizing her talents, the American Anti-Slavery Society signed her up as its principal agent in New York State from 1856 until the Civil War.

The political methods that Anthony worked out in New York set the pattern she would follow nationally for the rest of her life. Her objectives were to change laws, and she took her arguments to the public through lectures, pamphlets, subscription newspapers, and personal appeals for signatures on petitions. Each year had its cycle: fieldwork with education and petitions paced to produce an annual presentation of opinion to the legislature. At Albany she would schedule the best speakers in a large meeting to coincide with the start of the legislative session in order to attract politicians and the press. As the movement gained importance, she could schedule hearings as well. When she left a town, she sought to leave behind some “wide-awake” individuals who would carry on the education. She did not, however, build organizations or solicit memberships.

Debut as a National Reformer

With the start of the Civil War, advocates of women’s rights put their cause on hold and devoted their time to abolitionism. In 1863 Anthony, again with Stanton, founded the Women’s Loyal National League to engage women in the political debates prompted by war, and for a year and a half Anthony circulated a national petition that urged Congress to abolish slavery by constitutional amendment. Employing a loose network of individuals and soldiers’ aid and antislavery societies, the league gathered petitions with 400,000 signatures, which were presented to Congress by Senator Charles Sumner. This effort marked Anthony’s debut as a national reformer and was also the advent of a focus on the federal government for women’s rights. The Thirteenth Amendment and subsequent debate about securing citizenship for freed slaves introduced Anthony and her co-workers to the potential for sweeping change through amendment to the national Constitution.

Anthony spent much of 1865 in Leavenworth, Kansas, at work on her brother’s newspaper. Carefully following congressional debates, she became convinced that universal suffrage was the only just solution to the challenges of Reconstruction, yet Congress intended to limit rights by introducing the word “male” into the Fourteenth Amendment. With a lecture on universal suffrage, she worked her way east. By year’s end, the core of women’s rights activists in the Northeast had reassembled to launch their first national campaign for woman suffrage, petitioning Congress for an amendment to “prohibit the several States from disfranchising any of their citizens on the ground of sex” (Stanton et al., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 2, p. 91).

Hopes for universal suffrage from Congress bound former abolitionists together in the American Equal Rights Association, established in 1866. As its corresponding secretary Anthony oversaw petitions to Congress and coordinated several campaigns to amend state constitutions. She divided her time in 1867 between campaigns in New York and Kansas. Kansas voters defeated proposals for African-American and woman suffrage, but the campaign itself exposed profound differences within the equal rights coalition and drove a wedge among woman suffragists that would divide them until the end of the century. Republican party leaders and the reformers they influenced withdrew support for the woman suffrage amendment midway through the campaign, aligning the party’s stance in Kansas with its national advocacy of suffrage for black males. Grasping for any support, Anthony accepted the assistance of George Francis Train, showman, financier, Democrat, and blatant racist, to complete the tour of Kansas. Moreover, while traveling home with Train, she and Stanton accepted his offer of capital to launch a newspaper. The Revolution, published in New York City by Anthony and edited by Stanton and Parker Pillsbury, appeared in January 1868.

In one sense, Anthony simply separated her cause from dependence on Republican leadership to test its political appeal. She signaled the same intention with an approach to the Democratic party’s 1868 convention for an endorsement of suffrage. But she and Stanton crafted their move in terms that pitted the rights of women against the rights of freedmen and claimed a higher right for themselves.

Though the Revolution preserves the worst pronouncements of Anthony and Stanton in this period—opposing the Fifteenth Amendment and casting the enfranchisement of freedmen as a threat to the safety of white women—it also captures their excitement about women’s potential and their growing rebelliousness. The paper attracted good poets, short story writers, and journalists; its columns reported grass-roots activism in California, Nevada, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia; and thorough reports about women’s rights in Geneva, Paris, and London appeared regularly.

Formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association (1869)

Their convictions about an independent movement led Anthony and Stanton to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869, distinct from the equal rights movement. Henry Blackwell and his wife, Lucy Stone, set up the rival American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which took a more predictable and Republican line by calling for suffrage by state, rather than federal, law. Until their merger in 1890, the two associations rarely agreed on strategy and competed for suffragists’ loyalty.

Although Anthony advocated a sixteenth amendment for woman suffrage as early as 1868, the strategy of the NWSA remained uncertain and subject to change until 1875. National suffragists sought legislative and judicial tests of the theory that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments together had, in fact, granted women the right to vote by linking citizenship—which women enjoyed—to the franchise. Through direct action in local elections dozens of women created test cases, and, on the initiative of Victoria Woodhull, the NWSA petitioned for an act of Congress to implement what the amendments had established in principle.

Anthony lectured and wrote about this “new departure,” but she did not try to vote herself until 1872, when she joined a group (that included two of her sisters) to cast ballots on election day in Rochester. Within weeks she was arrested for violating federal law. Convicted by the judge, without a poll of the jury that heard her case, and fined, Anthony was not ordered to jail and thus could not take her case to the Supreme Court on a writ of habeas corpus. She never paid the fine. In another case, Minor v. Happersett (1874), the Court ruled that under the Constitution the states still could determine the political rights of women. In response to this ruling, Anthony revived the proposal for a constitutional amendment in 1876 and sustained a national campaign for the next decade.

By a cruel twist of fate, women’s interest in their enfranchisement was mounting while politicians’ willingness to assert federal authority over the states was waning. Floods of petitions produced modest gains among congressmen, and suffragists’ best efforts could not produce a majority, or even a solid bloc, of legislative support. When an amendment finally reached the Senate floor in 1886, it lost decisively. From that point until after Anthony’s death, supporters of the federal amendment went through the motions of petitions and hearings without much hope of sympathy from a Congress dominated by advocates of states’ rights.

Women’s support for suffrage came from constituencies that Anthony cultivated with her grueling schedule. From October through December and from February until the planting season, Anthony stayed on the lecture circuit, booked into towns and cities of every size. In January she convened her followers in Washington to make their case to Congress. Never comfortable as a lecturer, she labored hard to become adequate in the job, and eventually her reputation drew audiences that her style might not.

Anthony’s dedication to the cause made her a celebrity whose speeches earned serious comment, and she gave hundreds of interviews to local newspapers. She came to personify the demand for woman suffrage to most Americans. As her fame mounted, Anthony used the power it gave her to link suffragists with groups of women organized for other purposes. By befriending Frances Willard, she slowly won the permission of the conservative Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to speak about voting rights at their meetings. She put together the International Council of Women and its affiliate, the National Council of Women, in 1888. Neither group endorsed suffrage, but in both suffragists collaborated with groups seeking to enhance women’s opportunities. By the 1890s Anthony had access to the platform of any women’s organization in the country.

Passing Her Legacy to the Next Generation of Suffragists

Two years of acrimonious negotiations with Lucy Stone’s representatives from the AWSA succeeded in merging the rival associations as the National-American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. Stanton presided over the new organization from 1890 to 1892, when Anthony replaced her. Anthony served until her eightieth birthday in 1900. Anthony cultivated the new talent coming up—people like Alice Stone Blackwell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Laura Clay, and Anna Howard Shaw—but none was ready to lead.

Without diminishing the contribution she continued to make toward public acceptance of suffrage, it is fair to say that by the 1890s Anthony was not up to meeting the challenges arising among suffragists themselves. Growth and merger had introduced new political cultures into the movement, often more conservative and more wedded to building strong state suffrage societies primed for local action. Pressure for campaigns to win suffrage by state legislation or referendum escalated after 1890, straining resources and diverting attention from the federal amendment. Serious conflicts about basic values threatened the goal of sustaining a single national organization for the cause. Veneration of Susan B. Anthony held the NAWSA together during some of its worst years.

Expecting to settle down, she had arranged with her sister to share housekeeping at Mary’s house in Rochester, beginning in 1890. For the first time in her life she entertained, taking great pleasure in hosting friends with whom she had stayed across the country. But she did not really give up travel: South Dakota for seven months in 1890; Chicago for four months in 1893; the South for two months in 1895 and again in 1903; California in 1895, most of 1896, and then again in 1905; London in 1899; Berlin in 1904; Washington every year; and plenty of short trips in between. She was on the road until a month before her death in Rochester, having insisted on rising from her sickbed to attend the NAWSA’s annual convention in Baltimore and proceeding to Washington for a birthday party at the Corcoran Gallery.

In 1902 Anthony wrote a public letter in advance of Stanton’s birthday, not knowing that her friend would die before its publication. She conceded that neither she nor Stanton had expected in “the hope and buoyancy of youth” to leave their life’s work for another generation, but she harbored “not a shadow of doubt that they will carry our cause to victory.” The old pioneers would have to settle for “the next sphere of existence … where women will be welcomed on a plane of perfect intellectual and spiritual equality.” When Anthony died, she left an enormous legacy to those other generations. Her image, words, and standards of work permeated the struggle for what women called the “Susan B. Anthony amendment.” So thoroughly had she become the embodiment of women’s aspirations for political equality that suffragists fought long after their victory in 1920 over their competing claims to be her true political descendants.

Another legacy lasted still longer; Anthony made certain that the movement’s history survived. In the middle 1870s, with contributions to Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopaedia (1879), she began a series of projects to ensure recognition of eminent individuals and documentation of critical events. Between 1881 and 1886, working alongside Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, she produced three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage, corralling contributors from each state and tracking down sources. In 1897 she brought Ida Husted Harper to live with her in Rochester to prepare two volumes of the Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony (1898), based on massive archives that had accumulated in the attic. With Harper she then produced a fourth volume of the History (1902). Anthony donated her books and scrapbooks to the Library of Congress and personally shipped thousands of volumes of the History and the biography to academic and public libraries.


Anthony’s papers, compiled from archives and printed sources, are microfilmed and indexed as the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Patricia G. Holland and Ann D. Gordon (1991). Not included there in their entirety are scrapbooks at the Library of Congress, a remarkable record of lifetime attention to political and social issues. The History of Woman Suffrage still provides the best record of Anthony’s movement. A valuable selection of documents appears in Ellen C. DuBois, ed., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches (rev. ed., 1992). Stanton wrote several biographical chapters on Anthony in Eminent Women of the Age (1868), the History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 2 (1882), and Eighty Years and More (1898). Ida Husted Harper added vol. 3 to her Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony in 1908, and the principal biographies since then are by Rheta Childe Dorr (1928), Katherine Anthony (1954), Alma Lutz (1959), and Kathleen Barry (1988). Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle (1959; rev. ed., 1975) offers the best interpretative treatment of suffragism. For Anthony’s campaigns in the immediate postwar years, Ellen C. DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage (1978), is the basic work. Nancy A. Hewitt’s work defines the context for Anthony’s conversion to women’s rights: Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York (1984). Though obituaries appeared in hundreds of papers, the principal ones are those from Rochester, New York, 13 Mar. 1906, in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Rochester Herald, the Post Express, and the Evening Times.