Susan B. Anthony Dares to Vote!
The courtroom was packed for the trial of Susan B. Anthony, the foremost leader of the women's rights movement in the United States. What crime was she accused of committing? In November 1872, she and 15 other women in Rochester, New York, had demanded to be registered and had voted in the national election. Soon after, all 16 women were arrested. In 1872, women could not vote in New York or in any other state.
Of the 16 women, only the leader, Susan B. Anthony, was put on trial. Hers would be a test case. If she could convince the jury that she had a right under the U.S. Constitution to vote, she would be found not guilty. Then all U.S. women would win the right to vote.
The U.S. District Attorney, Richard Crowley, charged Anthony with violating the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. That amendment, adopted in 1868 after the Civil War, was intended to guarantee blacks the same rights as whites. It forbade any state to deny "the right to vote ... to any of the male inhabitants" who were 21 or older. It was the first time that the word male had ever been written into the Constitution, and it bothered Anthony plenty.
Anthony saw in the amendment a legal case for the right of women to vote. The 14th Amendment also said that "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [lessen] the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Well, said Anthony, weren't women citizens of the United States? And if citizens could not be denied the right to vote, it seemed plain enough that women could not be denied that right.
"She Is Indeed A Woman"
The District Attorney's opening statement to the jury caused many of Anthony's supporters in the courtroom to laugh. After charging her with voting on November 5, 1872, he added, "At that time she was a woman." Even some members of the jury smiled.
Anthony's lawyer, Henry Selden, a former judge, did not let this remark pass. He said "Your honor, gentlemen of the jury, the defense wishes to concede that Miss Susan B. Anthony is indeed a woman." Then he pointed to the defendant, who was wearing a plain back silk dress with a white lace collar.
Selden argued that his client was on trial simply for being a woman. "If this same act [voting] had been done by her brother, it would have been honorable. But having been done by a woman, it is said to be a crime... I believe this is the first instance in which a woman has been arraigned [accused] in a criminal court merely on account of her sex."
The judge, Ward Hunt, was known for his opposition to women's "suffrage" (the right to vote). He shocked Anthony and her lawyer by refusing to let her take the witness stand to testify in her own defense.
When the attorneys had finished arguing the case, Judge Hunt read a prepared statement. "The 14th Amendment," he said, "gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting of Miss Anthony was in violation of the law." He directed the jury to find a verdict of guilty.
Selden protested, reminding the judge that in a criminal case the jury must decide on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Hunt ignored him. He ordered the court clerk to record a verdict of guilty, even though the jury had not voted.
There was an uproar in the courtroom. Not everyone there supported women's suffrage. But all agreed that Anthony had been denied her right to a fair trial.
"I Shall Never Pay A Dollar!"
The next day, Judge Hunt was about to sentence Anthony. But he made one mistake. He asked Anthony the usual question: "Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?" This was the opportunity that Anthony was waiting for.
"Yes, your honor," she said. "I have many things to say. In your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights are all alike ignored."
Judge Hunt became furious. "The court orders the prisoner to sit down," he shouted. "It will not allow another word!" Then Judge Hunt said, "The sentence of the court is that you pay a fine of $100 and the costs of prosecution."
"May it please your honor," Anthony replied. "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women... that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."
The judge could have put her in jail until she paid the fine, but he didn't. If he had, she could have appealed her case to a higher court. She probably would have won, because she had been denied a proper trial by jury. Instead, her case was closed for good.
Although Anthony lost, the trial was a turning point in the struggle for women's suffrage. Until then, people had ridiculed Anthony as an "old maid" who wanted to upset the traditional authority of men. But the courage she had shown at her trial won her new respect. Gradually, public opinion swung in her favor. It would take years of struggle, but women one day would win the right to vote.
A Quaker Upbringing
From childhood, Susan B. Anthony had been taught that women were important. Born February 15, 1820, to Quaker parents in Adams, Massachusetts, she was strongly influenced by their faith. Quaker women were allowed to speak at religious meetings, to vote on church matters, and to become ministers. At home, daughters were treated as no less important than sons.
This was highly unusual in a time when a woman had no property other than her clothes. If she earned money, it belonged to her husband. He had complete control over their children. She could not sign a contract, make a will, or sue in a court of law. She could not vote in elections. By custom, women were barred from higher education and almost all professions except teaching.
Anthony first became active in the Daughters of Temperance, an organization that crusaded against the sale and use of liquor. Drunkenness was becoming a serious problem, especially for the wives of alcoholic husbands. Wife beating was not a crime, nor was alcoholism grounds for divorce.
Like her parents, Susan B. Anthony also became an abolitionist, supporting immediate freedom for slaves.
Susan B. Anthony is most famous as an early leader of the women's rights movement. She became convinced that women could not achieve equality unless they won the right to vote. In 1869, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton started a new organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association. Its goal was nothing less than the passage of an amendment to the Constitution that would give women the right to vote.
Stanton was married and the mother of six children. She divided her time between her family and the women's rights movement. But Anthony, who had remained single, devoted herself entirely to her cause.
It was not an easy life. Anthony gave lectures all over the country in support of women's suffrage. In one year alone, she traveled 13,000 miles and gave 171 lectures. Many nights she had to sleep in railroad stations.
She often was heckled, or worse. Gangs of ruffians sometimes broke into her lectures and threw rotten eggs at her. She was accused of undermining the home, the family, and the purity of American womanhood.
But after the famous trial in 1872, she won more and more support. Younger women rallied around her. They too went out and made speeches and handed out petitions. Affectionately, they called her "Aunt Susan." Even some men were beginning to admire her.
In February 1906, Susan B. Anthony made her last speech at a convention in Baltimore. She was given a 10 minute ovation. She told the women, "I am here for a little time only, and then my place will be filled... The fight must not cease. You must see that it does not stop. Failure is impossible."
In March, she became ill and had to stay in bed in her Rochester, NY home. At that time, only four states, all in the West, allowed women to vote. Anthony told a friend, "I have been striving for over 60 years for a little bit of justice... and yet I must die without obtaining it. Oh, it seems so cruel." She was dead two days later.
Other women carried on the struggle. In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment o the Constitution which was ratified in 1920 by the states. It said, "The right of a citizen of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex."
One hundred years after her birth, Susan B. Anthony's dream had come true.
March 10, 1989