Happy Birthday, Susan B. Anthony

I’ve always liked Susan B. Anthony. Oh, not that I knew her personally or anything. She be about 190 years old if she were alive. By “liked,” I mean she always fascinated me. She’d be on my list of  Five People Living or Dead I’d Want to Have Dinner With.

I learned about Susan B. Anthony by default. I was doing research on an article about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. Although Stanton and Anthony didn’t meet until 3 years after that convention, their lives are inexorably intertwined. They’re like gin and tonic. The Captain and Tennille. Nutella and bliss. You get the picture.

Image from the National Portrait Gallery

When Stanton and Anthony met they were 36 and 31 respectively, younger than I am now. The park ranger I interviewed at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, Anne Derousie, told me, “These were ordinary women, much like you, who did extraordinary things.”  Hardly. If they were ordinary, they’d have been sitting around the kitchen table playing canasta and cracking jokes about President Fillmore. Instead, they were out there kicking butt.

It’s easy to forget the inequality under which Stanton and Anthony lived. Let’s take a cold hard look at the facts: Married women had no right to property, even inherited property. Only men had the power to divorce, no matter if the husband was abusive, and then the wife lost custody rights to her children and all but the clothes on her back. (One reason many women also supported the temperance movement to do away with alcohol.) Women could not serve on a jury or testify in court. Women had no right to any wages they earned. They could not attend college. They were limited to “etiquette schools” if they completed their primary education. In essence, a woman was a man’s property, not a citizen in her own right. And the ballot by which she might change her lot in life was denied to her by law.

It would take seventy-two years until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified granting women suffrage in 1920. In the end, it entailed acts of civil disobedience including picket lines, marches and hunger strikes by thousands of women. But for the rest of  their lives, Stanton and Anthony chipped away at the establishment (filled with, oh yeah, men).  Stanton stayed close to home writing articles, speeches and letters, and Anthony traveled the country lecturing and organizing women’s rights associations. In a partnership that lasted almost fifty years, Stanton was the immovable object – stubborn, but also witty, hospitable and insightful. Anthony was the tactician – an excellent orator, serious strategist and sometimes a bit cranky. “Together,” Stanton said, “we have made arguments no man has answered.” Anthony died in 1906 and Stanton in 1902.

Neither lived long enough to enjoy the ultimate right they helped secure for American women.

Imagine for a moment spending your whole life fighting a revolution that you knew you would never even remotely benefit from. Stanton sensed that gaining the right to vote would be a long time coming. “We are sowing winter wheat and won’t be alive to see the spring harvest.” At some point over the next fifty years I would have poured myself a stiff drink, mumbled something about not being able to fight City Hall, and packed my bags for a cabana in Key West. But not them. They kept going when Anthony faced such angry mobs at a lecture in Albany, New York, that the mayor had to sit next to her with a revolver on his lap so she could speak. They pressed on when a man going toe-to-toe with Stanton said that his wife had presented him with eight children, which was a far better life’s work than exercising the right to vote. (To which the sharp-tongued Stanton replied, “I have met few men worth repeating eight times.”) They didn’t give up when, during the Civil War, one-by-one Congress repealed all of the small victories granted in the Married Woman’s Property Act.

What was it in them? Maybe it was a lack of something—fear. To persevere when there is no end in sight is to live without fear. The reason I can follow my dreams, the reason I can see further, like Isaac Newton once wrote, is because I stand on the shoulders of giants. So happy birthday, Susan B. You don’t look a day over 150.

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4 comments

    1. It certainly makes me appreciate all of the rights I take for granted now, which were due in no small part to their tireless efforts.

      I’d be really interested to hear about the history of women’s rights in South Africa. Please keep me posted if you uncover any info.

      Like

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