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Profile: Susan B. Anthony

Posted by jase on November 12, 2009

susanbanthonySusan Brownell Anthony (February 15, 1820 – March 13, 1906) was a prominent American civil rights leader who played a pivotal role in the 19th century women’s rights movement to introduce women’s suffrage into the United States. She traveled the United States and Europe, and gave 75 to 100 speeches every year on women’s rights for 45 years.

Susan B. Anthony was born and raised in West Grove, near Adams, Massachusetts. She was the second oldest of seven children, Guelma Penn (1818), Susan Brownell (1820), Hannah E. (1821), Daniel Read (1824), Mary Stafford (1827), Eliza Tefft (1832), and Jacob Merritt (1834), born to Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read. One brother, publisher Daniel Read Anthony, would become active in the anti-slavery movement in Kansas, while a sister, Mary Stafford Anthony, became a teacher and a woman’s rights activist. Anthony remained close to her sisters throughout her life.

In 1849, at age 29, Anthony quit teaching and moved to the family farm in Rochester, New York. She began to take part in conventions and gatherings related to the temperance movement. In Rochester, she attended the local Unitarian Church and began to distance herself from the Quakers, in part because she had frequently witnessed instances of hypocritical behavior such as the use of alcohol amongst Quaker preachers. As she got older, Anthony continued to move further away from organized religion in general, and she was later chastised by various Christian religious groups for displaying irreligious tendencies.

In her youth, Anthony was very self-conscious of her looks and speaking abilities. She long resisted public speaking for fear she would not be sufficiently eloquent. Despite these insecurities, she became a renowned public presence, eventually helping to lead the women’s movement.

Early social activism

In the era before the American Civil War, Anthony took a prominent role in the New York anti-slavery and temperance movements. In 1836, at age 16, Susan collected two boxes of petitions opposing slavery, in response to the gag rule prohibiting such petitions in the House of Representatives.  In 1849, at age 29, she became secretary for the Daughters of Temperance, which gave her a forum to speak out against alcohol abuse, and served as the beginning of Anthony’s movement towards the public limelight.

On January 1, 1868, Anthony first published a weekly journal entitled The Revolution. Printed in New York City, its motto was: “The true republic — men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” Anthony worked as the publisher and business manager, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton acted as editor. The main thrust of The Revolution was to promote women’s and African-Americans’ right to suffrage, but it also discussed issues of equal pay for equal work, more liberal divorce laws and the church’s position on women’s issues. The journal was backed by independently wealthy George Francis Train, who provided $600 in starting funds.

Though she never married, Anthony published her views about sexuality in marriage, holding that a woman should be allowed to refuse sex with her husband; the American woman had no legal recourse at that time against rape by her husband. Anthony spoke very little on the subject of abortion. Of primary importance to Anthony was the granting to woman the right to her own body which she saw as an essential element for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, using abstinence as the method. In The Revolution, Anthony wrote in 1869 about the subject, arguing that instead of merely attempting to pass a law against abortion, the root cause must also be addressed. Simply passing an anti-abortion law would, she wrote, “be only mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains.” Anthony continued: “Guilty? Yes, no matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life, it will burden her soul in death; but oh! thrice guilty is he who, for selfish gratification, heedless of her prayers, indifferent to her fate, drove her to the desperation which impelled her to the crime.”

American Equal Rights Association

In 1869, long-time friends Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony found themselves, for the first time, on opposing sides of a debate. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which had originally fought for both blacks’ and women’s right to suffrage, voted to support the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting suffrage to black men, but not women. Anthony questioned why women should support this amendment when black men were not continuing to show support for women’s voting rights. Partially as a result of the decision by the AERA, Anthony soon thereafter devoted herself almost exclusively to the agitation for women’s rights.

On November 18, 1872, Anthony was arrested by a U.S. Deputy Marshal for voting illegally in the 1872 Presidential Election two weeks earlier. She had written to Stanton on the night of the election that she had “positively voted the Republican ticket – straight…”. She was tried and convicted seven months later, despite the stirring and eloquent presentation of her arguments that the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” the privileges of citizenship, and which contained no gender qualification, gave women the constitutional right to vote in federal elections. The sentence was a fine, but not imprisonment; and true to her word in court, she never paid the penalty for the rest of her life. The trial gave Anthony the opportunity to spread her arguments to a wider audience than ever before.

National suffrage organizations

In 1869, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), an organization dedicated to gaining women’s suffrage. Anthony was vice-president-at-large of the NWSA from the date of its organization until 1892, when she became president.

In the early years of the NWSA, Anthony made many attempts to unite women in the labor movement with the suffragist cause, but with little success. She and Stanton were delegates at the 1868 convention of the National Labor Union. However, Anthony inadvertently alienated the labor movement not only because suffrage was seen as a concern for middle-class rather than working-class women, but because she openly encouraged women to achieve economic independence by entering the printing trades, where male workers were on strike at the time. Anthony was later expelled from the National Labor Union over this controversy.
Susan B. Anthony, who died 14 years before passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, was honored as the first real (non-allegorical) American woman on circulating U.S. coinage with her appearance on the Susan B. Anthony dollar. The coin, approximately the size of a U.S. quarter, was minted for only four years, 1979, 1980, 1981, and 1999. Anthony dollars were minted for circulation at the Philadelphia and Denver mints for all four years, and at the San Francisco mint for the first three production years.

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