| By J. Robert Parks |
Susan B. Anthony, a familiar name to most history educators, was one of the leading figures in the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century―especially in the push for women’s suffrage. What many people may not know is that one of her early actions in that movement was voting in the 1872 presidential election even though it was illegal to do so; it was 150 years ago, on June 17, that she was found guilty. The court case surrounding her voting, including her speech at the end of the trial, provides a powerful example of the obstacles women faced in the nineteenth century and how Anthony overcame many of them. Teachers and librarians will find numerous resources in Gale In Context: U.S. History to help students understand what that time was like and how things changed because of the actions of Anthony and numerous women like her.
Born in 1820, Anthony was active in the temperance and abolition movements before the Civil War, and then was at the vanguard of the women’s rights movement after the war. It was during the war, in 1863, when Anthony and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton issued an appeal that was published in the New York Tribune. It called for a national convention of women to discuss how they could help support the North’s cause in the war. The result of the meeting on May 14, 1863, was the formation of the Women’s National Loyal League, the first nationwide women’s organization in the United States.
The women’s rights movement focused on several issues, including property rights, the availability of higher education, and striking down laws that prohibited women from working in certain occupations. It was women’s suffrage, however, that most compellingly became a focus for Anthony and others. They believed that gaining the right to vote would enable women to have a more powerful voice in society―and that denying women the right to vote contradicted the liberty that the country supposedly valued. In a speech in 1873, Anthony said that for women, the country was an “odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex.”
To highlight the issue, Anthony and 15 other women attempted to vote in Rochester, New York, in the 1872 presidential election. Afterward, Anthony wrote Stanton a letter describing the joy she felt, both in voting and in committing an act of civil disobedience. Anthony and some of the other women had persuaded election officials to let them vote, but Anthony was thereafter arrested.
The arrest helped Anthony rally other women in New York to the cause, and the court case added to the publicity. Anthony had hoped the case might go to the Supreme Court, but it was decided in a local courtroom. After the closing statements, the judge said a guilty verdict was so obvious that the jury didn’t even need to confer. Anthony and her lawyer were outraged by the judge’s presumption, and her comments before she was sentenced illustrate the sexism that women commonly faced in that time. The judge sentenced her to a fine of $100 plus the costs of the prosecution, but Anthony publicly declared she would never pay the fine―and she never did.
Susan B. Anthony is so closely associated with the fight for women’s suffrage that most students (and even some of their teachers) may not realize that she died 14 years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women across the country gained the right to vote. Anthony’s importance to the movement and to American history led her to become the first American female citizen to appear on a U.S. coin, beginning in 1979.