Thank You, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton!
Every time I go to our polling station, as I did on November 4th for the 2014 mid-term elections, I see the women behind the desks and waiting in line and think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Their lives were different in many ways, yet they were the two most influential leaders of the drive for women’s suffrage in the United States.
On July l9, l848 , Stanton, a 32 year old judge‘s daughter married to an abolitionist , organized the first “convention to discuss the social, civil , and religious condition and rights of women” in the small village of Seneca Falls, New York. At that time, women were second class citizens by law and custom. Girls could not attend college, married women had no legal rights to their property, their children , divorce or the safety of their bodies. Stanton, who became known as the philosopher of the women’s movement, had drafted a Declaration of Sentiments modeled on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…. (although) the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women.”
The radical document listed thirteen different denials of rights by men . The first was the most radical, “ He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” The last paragraph was the call for action: “Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half of the people of this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” Two days of heated discussion and debate ensued with separate votes for each of the thirteen “injuries”. The closest vote was on the first with only a two vote margin of victory. “Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous”, said one of the women. Finally, one hundred people signed their endorsement, seventy women and thirty men including Frederick Douglass, former slave and leading abolitionist.
When the results of the Seneca Falls Convention became known, there were angry charges of “Insurrection!” in the press and from the pulpits of churches. Call for the vote was labeled ” Heresy!” Elizabeth Cady Stanton was delighted. During the following years, as the drive for women’s suffrage grew, Stanton continued to write stirring documents and to speak to assembled groups throughout the country to advance the cause of Women’s Suffrage. She did this while raising seven children, running her household and assisting her husband in his abolitionist work. She was a short, sweet faced women with a wealth of curls framing her face. She did not have the look of a fire-eating radical.
A few years after the convention, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony on a street corner in Seneca Falls. They were introduced by mutual friends and almost immediately a friendship formed that was to grow into one of the fabled working relationships in American history.
Anthony was a Quaker school teacher from Rochester, New York who dedicated her entire life to the cause of Women’s Suffrage. She and Stanton shared the same passionate beliefs and each had the perfect balance to the other’s talents. Stanton was the thinker and writer; Anthony was the organizer and implementer. Stanton wrote in her memoirs that she “forged the thunderbolts and Anthony fired them.”
Anthony was five years younger than Stanton and already seasoned in temperance and abolition reform when they met. However, after just two conversations, she quickly devoted all her time and energy to the suffrage cause. There were many women during the decades of the l9th century who traveled and organized across the country, but none compared to Anthony. Although she had a family home in Rochester, she was rarely there. She lived a driven life and it showed in her lean, spare appearance, black dresses and face — the visage of a revolutionary. Anthony was a controlled personality, wary of open displays of emotion or esteem. Yet, she did form many lasting friendships through the years with women who spoke of her warmly as “Susan”. It is of note that Stanton always called her “Susan” , but Anthony called her “Mrs. Stanton” throughout their lives.
There were many women during the decades of the l9th century who traveled and organized across the country, but none compared to Anthony. In old age, Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “There is scarce a town, however small, from New York to San Francisco, that has not heard her ringing voice.” Vivian Gornick, a historian, described Anthony’s work, “ She was famous for being able to arrive in a town in the morning, hire the hall within hours, plaster the place with flyers, and have 500 people at the meeting in the evening. She organized every national convention for years on end, and could be depended on not only to solve every problem that arose, but also to think of the kinds of details that might preoccupy a director of theatricals.”
After the Civil War, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1870, suffrage was granted to Negro men. Woman’s Suffrage leaders were told to wait. They denounced the amendment and formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Two years later, in the l872 national election, radical women tried to vote. Susan B. Anthony and twelve women were able to vote in a small precinct. They were arrested four hours later. Anthony demanded hand cuffs and was led away to jail. She had become a well known leader and the trial was national news. Newspapers called her a “martyr”.
Anthony was tried for the crime of voting by an all-male jury and a male judge. She was not allowed to bear witness since women were considered “incompetent” to be witnesses. The judge had written his decision beforehand and took it from his pocket to read after the so-called trial was over. “Guilty! ” was his decision. She would be fined $100 plus costs of the trial. He then said, “Does the prisoner have anything to say?” Susan B. Anthony rose from her seat and fixed her burning eyes upon him, replying, “I shall never pay the fine! Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God!” His name is lost, but her words will forever define her unbroken spirit.
Hundreds, then thousands of women became active in the Suffrage movement in the 20th century. Alice Paul, 28, a shy Quaker from New Jersey, became radicalized in London when she was jailed and force fed with the Suffragists there. She returned to organize the American suffrage campaign. In l913, 8,000 women came to D.C. from across the country to march in a rousing parade that included women on horseback, floats and huge banners that read, “We Demand an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Dressed in white and singing, they marched in formation to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. They were met by mobs of jeering men who blocked the street and attacked them. The police did not protect them and over one hundred were hospitalized.
After World War I broke out, heroic Suffragists picketed the White House peacefully for Woodrow Wilson’s support. They were labeled traitors and finally jailed for “obstructing traffic”. Alice Paul and other women went on a hunger strike in jail and were force fed for days, then beaten during a “night of terror”. After their release, Wilson agreed to support their cause. The two houses of Congress held heated debates over a federal amendment that did reach the needed two thirds vote. Then the crucial struggle began to attain three quarters of the state legislatures for passage. Success came in Tennessee by one vote of a 24 year old member who changed his vote from Nay to Yea on the advice of his mother’s letter.
Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton nor Susan B. Anthony lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in l920. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in l902 at age 87. She had a picture of Anthony on her casket among the flowers. Susan B. Anthony died in l906 at age 86. Ten thousand women and men filed past her simple Quaker casket in Rochester, New York. The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.