15 Surprising Facts About Susan B. Anthony

What You May Not Know About This Key Suffrage Leader

A daguerrotype of Susan B. Anthony taken circa 1850 showing her in a three-quarter profile.

VCG Wilson/Getty Images

The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was named for Susan B. Anthony, as was a world record-holding ship. What else don't you know about this famous leader of the Suffrage movement?

1. She Was Not at the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention

At the time of that first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton later wrote in her reminiscences "History of Woman Suffrage," Anthony was teaching school in Canajoharie, in the Mohawk Valley. Stanton reports that Anthony, when she read of the proceedings, was “startled and amused” and “laughed heartily at the novelty and presumption of the demand.” Anthony’s sister Mary (with whom Susan lived for many years in adulthood) and their parents attended a woman’s rights meeting held at the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, where the Anthony family had begun attending services, after the Seneca Falls meeting. There, they signed a copy of the Declaration of Sentiments passed at Seneca Falls. Susan was not present to attend.

2. She Was for Abolition First

Susan B. Anthony was circulating anti-slavery petitions when she was 16 and 17 years old. She worked for a while as the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Like many other women abolitionists, she began to see that in the “aristocracy of sex…woman finds a political master in her father, husband, brother, son” ("History of Woman Suffrage"). She first met Elizabeth Cady Stanton after Stanton had attended an anti-slavery meeting at Seneca Falls.

3. She Co-Founded the New York Women’s State Temperance Society

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott’s experience of being unable to speak at an international anti-slavery meeting led to their forming the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. When Anthony was not permitted to speak at a temperance meeting, she and Stanton formed a women’s temperance group in their state.

4. She Celebrated Her 80th Birthday at the White House

By the time she was 80 years old, even though woman suffrage was far from won, Anthony was enough of a public institution that President William McKinley invited her to celebrate her birthday at the White House.

5. She Voted in the Presidential Election of 1872

Susan B. Anthony and a group of 14 other women in Rochester, New York, registered to vote at a local barber shop in 1872, part of the New Departure strategy of the woman suffrage movement. On November 5, 1872, she cast a ballot in the presidential election. On November 28, the 15 women and the registrars were arrested. Anthony contended that women already had the constitutional right to vote. The court disagreed in United States v. Susan B. Anthony.

She was fined $100 for voting and refused to pay.

6. She Was the First Real Woman Depicted on U.S. Currency

While other female figures like Lady Liberty had been on the currency before, the 1979 dollar featuring Susan B. Anthony was the first time a real, historical woman appeared on any U.S. currency. These dollars were only minted from 1979 through 1981 when production was halted because the dollars were easily confused with quarters. The coin was minted again in 1999 to meet demand from the vending machine industry.

7. She Had Little Patience for Traditional Christianity

Originally a Quaker, with a maternal grandfather who had been a Universalist, Susan B. Anthony became more active with the Unitarians later. She, like many of her time, flirted with Spiritualism, a belief that spirits were part of the natural world and thus could be communicated with. She kept her religious ideas mostly private, though she defended the publication of "The Woman’s Bible" and criticized religious institutions and teachings that portrayed women as inferior or subordinate.

Claims that she was an atheist are usually based on her critique of religious institutions and religion as practiced. She defended the right of Ernestine Rose to be president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854, though many called Rose, a Jew married to a Christian, an atheist, probably accurately. Anthony said about that controversy that “every religion — or none — should have an equal right on the platform.” She also wrote, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” At another time, she wrote, “I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old Revolutionary maxim. Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

Whether she was an atheist, or just believed in a different idea of God than some of her evangelical opponents, is not certain.

8. Frederick Douglass Was a Lifelong Friend

Though they split over the issue of the priority of black male suffrage in the 1860s — a split which also split the feminist movement until 1890 — Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass were lifelong friends. They knew each other from early days in Rochester, where in the 1840s and 1850s, he was part of the anti-slavery circle that Susan and her family were part of. On the day Douglass died, he had sat next to Anthony on the platform of a women’s rights meeting in Washington, D.C. During the split over the 15th Amendment’s granting of suffrage rights to black males, Douglass tried to influence Anthony to support the ratification. Anthony, appalled that the Amendment would introduce the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time, disagreed.

9. Her Earliest Known Anthony Ancestor Was German

Susan B. Anthony’s Anthony ancestors came to America via England in 1634. The Anthonys had been a prominent and well-educated family. The English Anthonys were descended from a William Anthony in Germany who was an engraver. He served as Chief Engraver of the Royal Mint during the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

10. Her Maternal Grandfather Fought in the American Revolution

Daniel Read enlisted in the Continental Army after the battle of Lexington, served under Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen among other commanders, and after the war was elected as a Whig to the Massachusetts legislature. He became a Universalist, though his wife kept praying he would return to traditional Christianity.

11. Her Position on Abortion Is Misrepresented

While Anthony, like other leading women of her time, deplored abortion both as “child-murder” and as a threat to the life of women under then-current medical practice, she blamed men as responsible for women’s decisions to end their pregnancies. An often-used quote about child-murder was part of an editorial asserting that laws attempting to punish women for having abortions would be unlikely to suppress abortions, and asserting that many women seeking abortions were doing so out of desperation, not casually. She also asserted that “forced maternity” within legal marriage — because husbands were not seeing their wives as having a right to their own bodies and selves — was another outrage.

12. She May Have Had Lesbian Relationships

Anthony lived at a time when the concept of “lesbian” hadn’t really surfaced. It’s hard to differentiate whether “romantic friendships” and “Boston marriages” of the time would have been considered lesbian relationships today. Anthony lived for many of her adult years with her sister Mary. Women (and men) wrote in more romantic terms of friendships than we do today, so when Susan B. Anthony, in a letter, wrote that she “shall go to Chicago and visit my new lover — dear Mrs. Gross” it’s hard to know what she really meant.

Clearly, there were very strong emotional bonds between Anthony and some other women. As Lillian Falderman documents in the controversial "To Believe in Women," Anthony also wrote of her distress when fellow feminists got married to men or had children, and wrote in very flirtatious ways — including invitations to share her bed.

Her niece Lucy Anthony was a life partner of suffrage leader and Methodist minister Anna Howard Shaw, so such relationships were not foreign to her experience. Faderman suggests that Susan B. Anthony may have had relationships with Anna Dickinson, Rachel Avery, and Emily Gross at different times in her life. There are photos of Emily Gross and Anthony together, and even a statue of the two created in 1896. Unlike others in her circle, however, her relationships with women never had the permanence of a “Boston marriage.” We really can’t know for sure if the relationships were what we’d today call lesbian relationships, but we do know that the idea that Anthony was a lonely single woman is not at all the full story. She had rich friendships with her female friends. She had some real friendships with men, as well, though those letters are not so flirtatious.

13. A Ship Named for Susan B. Anthony Holds a World’s Record

In 1942, a ship was named for Susan B. Anthony. Constructed in 1930 and called the Santa Clara until the Navy chartered it on August 7, 1942, the ship became one of very few named for a woman. It was commissioned in September and became a transport ship carrying troops and equipment for the Allied invasion of North Africa in October and November. It made three voyages from the U.S. coast to North Africa.

After landing troops and equipment in Sicily in July 1943 as part of the Allied invasion of Sicily, it took heavy enemy aircraft fire and bombings and shot down two of the enemy bombers. Returning to the United States, it spent months taking troops and equipment to Europe in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. On June 7, 1944, it struck a mine off of Normandy. After failed attempts to save it, the troops and crew were evacuated and the Susan B. Anthony sank.

As of the year 2015, this was the largest rescue on record of people from a ship without any loss of life.

14. The B Stands for Brownell

Anthony's parents gave Susan the middle name Brownell. Simeon Brownell (born 1821) was another Quaker abolitionist who supported Anthony's women's rights work, and his family may have been related to or friends with Anthony's parents.

15. The Law Giving Women the Vote Was Called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment

Anthony died in 1906, so the continuing struggle to win the vote honored her memory with this name for the proposed 19th Constitutional Amendment.

Sources

Anderson, Bonnie S. "The Rabbi's Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer." 1st Edition, Oxford University Press, January 2, 2017.

Falderman, Lillian. "To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America — A History." Kindle Edition, Mariner Books, Movember 1, 2017.

Rhodes, Jesse. "Happy Birthday, Susan B. Anthony." Smithsonian, February 15, 2011.

Schiff, Stacy. "Desperately Seeking Susan." The New York Times, October 13, 2006.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. "History of Woman Suffrage." Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Kindle Edition, GIANLUCA, November 29, 2017.