“Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.”
Susan Brownell Anthony was born in Massachusetts on February 15, 1820; she was the second child born to Daniel and Lucy Read Anthony, who would go on to have five more children. Though her father was a Quaker, he was decidedly more aligned with the Hicksite Quakers and much radical than most of his fellow congregants who were more Orthodox-leaning were comfortable with; that, combined with the fact that Susan’s mother was not a Quaker, meant that Susan and her siblings were raised with a lot of Quaker ideals—the ideal of equality chief among them for Susan—, but less stringent ways of trying to live to those ideals. It was in the context of a Hicksite household, with a father invested in abolition and temperance and mother who valued tolerance and kindness, that Susan B. Anthony was molded into the person she would become: a suffragist, abolitionist, labor rights advocate, and temperance advocate.
To celebrate her one hundred and ninety-eighth birthday, we’re taking a look at some of the lesser-known facts about this iconic figure in United States history.
Though best known as a suffragist, Susan B. Anthony’s initial interest in advocating for women’s rights was actually equal pay.
Despite her rather unpleasant, albeit short, experience as a student at a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia, Anthony left home and took up a job teaching at a Quaker boarding school in order to help her family financially after the Panic of 1837 bankrupted them. Later, she went on to take the position of headmistress of the female department at Canajoharie Academy. It was during her tenure at Canajoharie that Anthony observed and was incensed by the fact that she was being paid substantially less than men with similar jobs were being compensated. Later in her career as an activist, Anthony explained that “I wasn’t ready to vote, didn’t want to vote, but I did want equal pay for equal work.” Though I will admit to speculation here, I think it is likely that suffrage wasn’t on her radar because of the Quaker influence in the Anthony family: because Quakers are pacifists, her father refused to support a government that waged war and, therefore, he did not vote and he did not voluntarily pay taxes. It was later in Anthony’s social reform activism that suffrage became important to her, realizing that the vote could be another effective tool in securing other kinds of reform.
Anthony was heavily invested labor reform.
In addition to her interest in achieving pay equity, Susan B. Anthony was a vocal advocate of eight-hour day movement and championed the creation of Workingwomen’s Associations (or Working Women’s Association) as women were barred from most labor unions at the time. She became president of the Workingwomen’s Central Association which collected information and published reports on labor conditions and supplied educational opportunities for female laborers.
She did not attend the Seneca Falls Convention.
Because she is so closely linked to suffrage activism, and because of her partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it is assumed by a lot of folks that Anthony was in attendance at the Convention that saw the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances—modeled after the Declaration of Independence—was read and adopted by those assembled at the Convention. Nor was Anthony in attendance at the even larger Rochester Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, held only weeks after Seneca Falls—and which was attended by several of her family members, including her father, who was very enthusiastic about the Convention—as this was during the period of time she was working as headmistress at Canajoharie.
Susan B. Anthony was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.
In addition to equal pay, her earlier activism was also focused on abolition. Like many other Quakers, Anthony was a vocal abolitionist and a part of the network known as the Underground Railroad. As a stationmaster, Anthony provided shelter and supplies for freedom seekers, gathered information to pass along to conductors about the safest routes, and coordinated with other stationmasters to ensure safe passage. In one of her journal entries, Anthony mentions having worked with the most famous Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman.
Susan’s role in the Underground Railroad—and her lifelong friendship with Frederick Douglass—would seem to belie the claim that Anthony was a vocal racist, but it is entirely possible to hate the institution of chattel slavery and not view the races as inherently equal, just as it is entirely possible (likely, even) for a white person to be a racist while also maintaining a relationship with a person of color. What we do know for sure is that her reputation as a racist was cemented with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment. Because the Fifteenth Amendment only granted suffrage to Black men, many white, suffragist women were outraged, Anthony among them. In the course of expressing their outrage, these “liberal white women” turned to racist ideology. Anthony herself said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Those feeling very generous can read that as, “I won’t work for one and not the other,” but this does not hold up when taking into account the fact that she deemed Black men, on the whole, as illiterate and ignorant. Susan B. Anthony was one of the prototypical #whitefeminists of politics in the United States: despite whatever claims of support for marginalized people, that support evaporated when white women didn’t get to take a step forward first.
She patently refused to pay the fine levied against her upon her conviction for unlawfully casting a ballot.
On November 5, 1872, Anthony voted in the presidential election—for Ulysses S. Grant. Two weeks later, she was arrested for voting illegally. Her trial was held the following summer; she was found guilty by a jury who was directed to hand down a guilty verdict by the judge. Her penalty was a fine of one-hundred dollars. She responded to the sentence, saying:
“May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a $10,000 debt, incurred by publishing my paper—The Revolution—four years ago, the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the government; and I shall work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”
Today we celebrate the life and legacy of an impactful leader and activist, while also acknowledging her flaws and failings. She was very much a force to be reckoned with and the imprint she left on American politics and culture are still apparent today.
Happy Birthday, Susan B. Anthony!
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