Susan B. Anthony was an American social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. Born into a Quaker family committed to social equality, she collected anti-slavery petitions at the age of 17. In 1856, she became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1851, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became her lifelong friend and co-worker in social reform activities, primarily in the field of women’s rights. In 1852, they founded the New York Women’s State Temperance Society after Anthony was prevented from speaking at a temperance conference because she was female. In 1863, they founded the Women’s Loyal National League, which conducted the largest petition drive in United States history up to that time, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery. In 1866, they initiated the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans. In 1868, they began publishing a women’s rights newspaper called The Revolution. In 1869, they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association as part of a split in the women’s movement. In 1890, the split was formally healed when their organization merged with the rival American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Anthony as its key force. In 1876, Anthony and Stanton began working with Matilda Joslyn Gage on what eventually grew into the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage. The interests of Anthony and Stanton diverged somewhat in later years, but the two remained close friends.
In 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicized trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, the authorities declined to take further action. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Introduced by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA), it later became known colloquially as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. It was ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
Anthony traveled extensively in support of women’s suffrage, giving as many as 75 to 100 speeches per year and working on many state campaigns. She worked internationally for women’s rights, playing a key role in creating the International Council of Women, which is still active. She also helped to bring about the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
When she first began campaigning for women’s rights, Anthony was harshly ridiculed and accused of trying to destroy the institution of marriage. Public perception of her changed radically during her lifetime, however. Her 80th birthday was celebrated in the White House at the invitation of President William McKinley. She became the first female citizen to be depicted on U.S. coinage when her portrait appeared on the 1979 dollar coin.
Susan Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, to Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read in Adams, Massachusetts, the second oldest of seven children. She was named for her mother’s mother Susanah, and for her father’s sister Susan. In her youth, she and her sisters responded to a “great craze for middle initials” by adding middle initials to their own names. Anthony adopted “B.” as her middle initial because her namesake aunt Susan had married a man named Brownell. Anthony never used the name Brownell herself, and did not like it.
Her family shared a passion for social reform. Her brothers Daniel and Merritt moved to Kansas to support the anti-slavery movement there. Merritt fought with John Brown against pro-slavery forces during the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Daniel eventually owned a newspaper and became mayor of Leavenworth. Anthony’s sister Mary, with whom she shared a home in later years, became a public school principal in Rochester, and a woman’s rights activist.
Anthony’s father was an abolitionist and a temperance advocate. A Quaker, he had a difficult relationship with his traditionalist congregation, which rebuked him for marrying a non-Quaker and then disowned him for allowing a dance school to operate in his home. He continued to attend Quaker meetings anyway and became even more radical in his beliefs. Anthony’s mother was a Methodist and helped raise their children in a more tolerant version of her husband’s religious tradition. Their father encouraged them all, girls as well as boys, to be self-supporting, teaching them business principles and giving them responsibilities at an early age.
When Anthony was six years old, her family moved to Battenville, New York, where her father managed a large cotton mill. Previously he had operated his own small cotton factory.
When she was seventeen, Anthony was sent to a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia, where she unhappily endured its severe atmosphere. She was forced to end her studies after one term because her family was financially ruined during an economic downturn known as the Panic of 1837. They were forced to sell everything they had at an auction, but they were rescued by her maternal uncle, who bought most of their belongings and restored them to the family. To assist her family financially, Anthony left home to teach at a Quaker boarding school.
In 1845, the family moved to a farm on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, purchased partly with the inheritance of Anthony’s mother. There they associated with a group of Quaker social reformers who had left their congregation because of the restrictions it placed on reform activities, and who in 1848 formed a new organization called the Congregational Friends. The Anthony farmstead soon became the Sunday afternoon gathering place for local activists, including Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a prominent abolitionist who became Anthony’s lifelong friend.
As several others in that group were already doing, the Anthony family began to attend services at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, which was associated with social reform. The Rochester Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 was held at that church in 1848, inspired by the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, which was held two weeks earlier in a nearby town. Anthony’s parents and her sister Mary attended the Rochester convention and signed the Declaration of Sentiments that had been first adopted by the Seneca Falls Convention.
Anthony did not take part in either of these conventions because she had moved to Canajoharie in 1846 to be headmistress of the female department of the Canajoharie Academy. Away from Quaker influences for the first time in her life, at the age of 26 she began to replace her plain clothing with more stylish dresses, and she quit using “thee” and other forms of speech traditionally used by Quakers. She was interested in social reform, and she was distressed at being paid much less than men with similar jobs, but she was amused at her father’s enthusiasm over the Rochester women’s rights convention. She later explained, “I wasn’t ready to vote, didn’t want to vote, but I did want equal pay for equal work.”
When the Canajoharie Academy closed in 1849, Anthony took over the operation of the family farm in Rochester so her father could devote more time to his insurance business. She worked at this task for a couple of years but found herself increasingly drawn to reform activity. With her parents’ support, she was soon fully engaged in reform work. For the rest of her life, she lived almost entirely on fees she earned as a speaker.
Early social activism
Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.
Anthony embarked on her career of social reform with energy and determination. Schooling herself in reform issues, she found herself drawn to the more radical ideas of people like William Lloyd Garrison, George Thompson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Soon she was wearing the controversial Bloomer dress, consisting of pantaloons worn under a knee-length dress. Although it was more sensible than the traditional heavy dresses that dragged the ground, she reluctantly quit wearing it after a year because it gave her opponents the opportunity to focus on her apparel rather than her ideas
Partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton
In 1851, Anthony was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention and had introduced the controversial resolution in support of women’s suffrage. Anthony and Stanton were introduced by Amelia Bloomer, a feminist and mutual acquaintance who had not signed the Declaration of Sentiments and subsequent resolutions despite her attendance at the Seneca Falls Convention. Anthony and Stanton soon became close friends and co-workers, forming a relationship that was pivotal for them and for the women’s movement as a whole. After the Stantons moved from Seneca Falls to New York City in 1861, a room was set aside for Anthony in every house they lived in. One of Stanton’s biographers estimated that over her lifetime, Stanton spent more time with Anthony than with any other adult, including her own husband.
The two women had complementary skills. Anthony excelled at organizing, while Stanton had an aptitude for intellectual matters and writing. Anthony was dissatisfied with her own writing ability and wrote relatively little for publication. When historians illustrate her thoughts with direct quotes, they usually take them from her speeches, letters and diary entries.
Because Stanton was homebound with seven children while Anthony was unmarried and free to travel, Anthony assisted Stanton by supervising her children while Stanton wrote. One of Anthony’s biographers said, “Susan became one of the family and was almost another mother to Mrs. Stanton’s children.” A biography of Stanton says that during the early years of their relationship, “Stanton provided the ideas, rhetoric, and strategy; Anthony delivered the speeches, circulated petitions, and rented the halls. Anthony prodded and Stanton produced.” Stanton’s husband said, “Susan stirred the puddings, Elizabeth stirred up Susan, and then Susan stirs up the world!”
Stanton herself said, “I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.” By 1854, Anthony and Stanton “had perfected a collaboration that made the New York State movement the most sophisticated in the country”, according to Ann D. Gordon, a professor of women’s history.
Temperance was very much a women’s rights issue at that time because of laws that gave husbands complete control of the family and its finances. A woman with a drunken husband had little legal recourse even if his alcoholism left the family destitute and he was abusive to her and their children. If she obtained a divorce, which was difficult to do, he could easily end up with guardianship of the children.
In 1837, at age 16, Anthony collected petitions against slavery as part of organized resistance to the newly established gag rule that prohibited anti-slavery petitions in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1851, she played a key role in organizing an anti-slavery convention in Rochester. She was also part of the Underground Railroad. An entry in her diary in 1861 read, “Fitted out a fugitive slave for Canada with the help of Harriet Tubman.”
In 1856, Anthony agreed to become the New York State agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society with the understanding that she would also continue her advocacy of women’s rights. Anthony organized anti-slavery meetings throughout the state under banners that read “No compromise with slaveholders. Immediate and Unconditional Emancipation.”
In 1859, John Brown was executed for leading a violent raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in what was intended to be the beginning of an armed slave uprising. Anthony organized a meeting of “mourning and indignation” in Corinthian Hall in Rochester on the day he was executed. She also presided over the meeting, which raised money for Brown’s family.
She developed a reputation for fearlessness in facing down attempts to disrupt her meetings, but opposition became overwhelming on the eve of the Civil War. Mob action shut down her meetings in every town from Buffalo to Albany in early 1861. In Rochester, the police had to escort Anthony and other speakers from the building for their own safety. In Syracuse, according to a local newspaper, “Rotten eggs were thrown, benches broken, and knives and pistols gleamed in every direction.”
Anthony expressed a vision of a racially integrated society that was radical for a time when abolitionists were debating the question of what was to become of the slaves after they were freed, and when people like Abraham Lincoln were calling for African Americans to be shipped to newly established colonies in Africa. In a speech in 1861, Anthony said, “Let us open to the colored man all our schools … Let us admit him into all our mechanic shops, stores, offices, and lucrative business avocations … let him rent such pew in the church, and occupy such seat in the theatre … Extend to him all the rights of Citizenship.”
The relatively small women’s rights movement of that time was closely associated with the American Anti-Slavery Society led by William Lloyd Garrison. The women’s movement depended heavily on abolitionist resources, with its articles published in their newspapers and some of its funding provided by abolitionists. There was tension, however, between leaders of the women’s movement and male abolitionists who, although supporters of increased women’s rights, believed that a vigorous campaign for women’s rights would interfere with the campaign against slavery. In 1860, when Anthony sheltered a woman who had fled an abusive husband, Garrison insisted that the woman give up the child she had brought with her, pointing out that the law gave husbands complete control of children. Anthony reminded Garrison that he helped slaves escape to Canada in violation of the law and said, “Well, the law which gives the father ownership of the children is just as wicked and I’ll break it just as quickly.”
When Stanton introduced a resolution at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1860 favoring more lenient divorce laws, leading abolitionist Wendell Phillips not only opposed it but attempted to have it removed from the record.
When Stanton, Anthony, and others supported a bill before the New York legislature that would permit divorce in cases of desertion or inhuman treatment, Horace Greeley, an abolitionist newspaper publisher, campaigned against it in the pages of his newspaper.
Garrison, Phillips and Greeley had all provided valuable help to the women’s movement. In a letter to Lucy Stone, Anthony said, “The Men, even the best of them, seem to think the Women’s Rights question should be waived for the present. So let us do our own work, and in our own way.”
Anthony and Stanton began publishing a weekly newspaper called The Revolution in New York City in 1868. It focused primarily on women’s rights, especially suffrage for women, but it also covered other topics, including politics, the labor movement and finance. Its motto was “Men, their rights and nothing more: women, their rights and nothing less.” One of its goals was to provide a forum in which women could exchange opinions on key issues from a variety of viewpoints. Anthony managed the business aspects of the paper while Stanton was co-editor along with Parker Pillsbury, an abolitionist and a supporter of women’s rights. Initial funding was provided by George Francis Train, the controversial businessman who supported women’s rights but who alienated many activists with his political and racial views.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, major periodicals associated with the radical social reform movements had either become more conservative or had quit publishing or soon would. Anthony intended for The Revolution to partially fill that void, hoping to grow it eventually into a daily paper with its own printing press, all owned and operated by women. The funding Train had arranged for the newspaper, however, was less than Anthony had expected. Moreover, Train sailed for England after The Revolution published its first issue and was soon jailed for supporting Irish independence.
Train’s financial support eventually disappeared entirely. After twenty-nine months, mounting debts forced Anthony to transfer the paper to Laura Curtis Bullard, a wealthy women’s rights activist who gave it a less radical tone. The paper published its last issue less than two years later. Despite its short life, The Revolution gave Anthony and Stanton a means for expressing their views during the developing split within the women’s movement. It also helped them promote their wing of the movement, which eventually became a separate organization.
Having lived for years in hotels and with friends and relatives, Anthony agreed to settle into her sister Mary Stafford Anthony’s house in Rochester in 1891, at the age of 71. Her energy and stamina, which sometimes exhausted her co-workers, continued at a remarkable level. At age 75, she toured Yosemite National Park on the back of a mule.
She remained as leader of the NAWSA and continued to travel extensively on suffrage work. She also engaged in local projects. In 1893, she initiated the Rochester branch of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. In 1898, she called a meeting of 73 local women’s societies to form the Rochester Council of Women. She played a key role in raising the funds required by the University of Rochester before they would admit women students, pledging her life insurance policy to close the final funding gap.
In 1896, she spent eight months on the California suffrage campaign, speaking as many as three times per day in more than 30 localities. In 1900, she presided over her last NAWSA convention. During the six remaining years of her life, Anthony spoke at six more NAWSA conventions and four congressional hearings, completed the fourth volume of the History of Woman Suffrage, and traveled to eighteen states and to Europe. As Anthony’s fame grew, some politicians (certainly not all of them) were happy to be publicly associated with her. Her seventieth birthday was celebrated at a national event in Washington with prominent members of the House and Senate in attendance. Her eightieth birthday was celebrated at the White House at the invitation of President William McKinley.
Death and legacy
Susan B. Anthony died at the age of 86 of heart failure and pneumonia in her home in Rochester, New York, on March 13, 1906. She was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester. At her birthday celebration in Washington D.C. a few days earlier, Anthony had spoken of those who had worked with her for women’s rights: “There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause — I wish I could name every one — but with such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible! Failure is impossible quickly became a watchword for the women’s movement.
Anthony did not live to see the achievement of women’s suffrage at the national level, but she still expressed pride in the progress the women’s movement had made. At the time of her death, women had achieved suffrage in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho, and several larger states followed soon after. Legal rights for married women had been established in most states, and most professions had at least a few women members. 36,000 women were attending colleges and universities, up from zero a few decades earlier.”
Two years before she died, Anthony said, “The world has never witnessed a greater revolution than in the sphere of woman during this fifty years”.
Part of the revolution, in Anthony’s view, was in ways of thinking. In a speech in 1889, she noted that women had always been taught that their purpose was to serve men, but “Now, after 40 years of agitation, the idea is beginning to prevail that women were created for themselves, for their own happiness, and for the welfare of the world.” Anthony was sure that women’s suffrage would be achieved, but she also feared that people would forget how difficult it was to achieve it, as they were already forgetting the ordeals of the recent past:
We shall someday be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.
Anthony’s death was widely mourned. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, said just before Anthony’s death, “A few days ago someone said to me that every woman should stand with bared head before Susan B. Anthony. ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘and every man as well.’ … For ages he has been trying to carry the burden of life’s responsibilities alone… Just now it is new and strange and men cannot comprehend what it would mean but the change is not far away.
In her history of the women’s suffrage movement, Eleanor Flexner wrote, “If Lucretia Mott typified the moral force of the movement, if Lucy Stone was its most gifted orator and Mrs. Stanton its most outstanding philosopher, Susan Anthony was its incomparable organizer, who gave it force and direction for half a century.
The Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right of American women to vote, was colloquially known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. After it was ratified in 1920, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, whose character and policies were strongly influenced by Anthony, was transformed into the League of Women Voters, which is still an active force in U.S. politics.
Anthony’s papers are held in library collections of Harvard University and its Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Rutgers University, the Library of Congress, and Smith College.