Biography of Susan B. Anthony, Women's Suffrage Activist

Susan B. Anthony, circa 1898
MPI / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Susan B. Anthony (February 15, 1820–March 13, 1906) was an activist, reformer, teacher, lecturer, and key spokesperson for the woman suffrage and women's rights movements of the 19th century. Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her lifelong partner in political organizing, Anthony played a pivotal role in the activism that led to American women gaining the right to vote.

Fast Facts: Susan B. Anthony

  • Known For: Key spokesperson for the 19th-century women's suffrage movement, probably the best-known of the suffragists
  • Also Known As: Susan Brownell Anthony
  • Born: February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read
  • Died: March 13, 1906 in Rochester, New York
  • Education: A district school, a local school set up by her father, a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia
  • Published WorksHistory of Woman Suffrage, The Trial of Susan B. Anthony
  • Awards and Honors: The Susan B. Anthony dollar
  • Notable Quote: "It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union."

Early Life

Susan B. Anthony was born in Massachusetts on February 15, 1820. Her family moved to Battenville, New York when Susan was 6 years old. She was raised as a Quaker. Her father Daniel was a farmer and then a cotton mill owner, while her mother's family had served in the American Revolution and worked in the Massachusetts government.

Her family was politically engaged and her parents and several siblings were active in both the abolitionist and temperance movements. In her home, she met such towering figures of the abolitionist movement as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, who were friends with her father.

Education

Susan attended a district school, then a local school set up by her father, and then a Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. She had to leave school to work to assist her family after they suffered a steep financial loss.

Anthony taught for a few years at a Quaker seminary. At the age of 26, she became a headmistress at the women's division of the Canajoharie Academy. She then worked briefly for the family farm before devoting herself full-time to activism, making her living off of speaker's fees.

Early Activism

When she was 16 and 17 years old, Susan B. Anthony began circulating anti-slavery petitions. 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.”

In 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention in the U.S. was held at Seneca Falls, New York, launching the women's suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony was teaching and did not attend. A few years later in 1851, Susan B. Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the Convention's organizers, when they both were attending an anti-slavery meeting also at Seneca Falls.

Anthony was involved in the temperance movement at the time. Because Anthony was not permitted to speak at a general temperance meeting, she and Stanton formed the Women's New York State Temperance Society in 1852.

Working With Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Stanton and Anthony formed a 50-year lifelong working partnership. Stanton, married and a mother to a number of children, served as the writer and theorist of the two. Anthony, never married, was more often the organizer and the one who traveled, spoke widely, and bore the brunt of antagonistic public opinion.

Anthony was good at strategy. Her discipline, energy, and ability to organize made her a strong and successful leader. During some periods of her activism, Anthony gave as many as 75 to 100 speeches a year.

Post War

After the Civil War, Anthony was greatly discouraged that those working for suffrage for black Americans were willing to continue to exclude women from voting rights. She and Stanton thus became more focused on woman suffrage. She helped to found the American Equal Rights Association in 1866.

In 1868, with Stanton as editor, Anthony became the publisher of The Revolution. Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, larger than its rival American Woman Suffrage Association, associated with Lucy Stone. The two groups would eventually merge in 1890. Over her long career, Anthony appeared before every Congress between 1869 and 1906 on behalf of women’s suffrage.

Working for Women's Rights Other Than Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony advocated for women's rights on other fronts besides suffrage. These new rights included the right of a woman to divorce an abusive husband, the right to have guardianship of her children, and the right for women to be paid equal to men.

Her advocacy contributed to the 1860 passage of the "Married Women's Property Act," which gave married women the right to own separate property, enter into contracts, and be joint guardians of their children. Much of this bill was unfortunately rolled back after the Civil War.

Test Vote

In 1872, in an attempt to claim that the constitution already permitted women to vote, Susan B. Anthony cast a test vote in Rochester, New York, in the presidential election. With a group of 14 other women in Rochester, New York, she registered to vote at a local barbershop, part of the "New Departure" strategy of the woman suffrage movement.

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 found guilty, though she refused to pay the resulting fine (and no attempt was made to force her to do so).

Abortion Stance

In her writings, Susan B. Anthony occasionally mentioned abortion. She opposed abortion, which at the time was an unsafe medical procedure for women, endangering their health and life. She blamed men, laws, and the "double standard" for driving women to abortion because they had no other options. "When a woman destroys the life of her unborn child, it is a sign that, by education or circumstances, she has been greatly wronged," she wrote in 1869.

Anthony believed, as did many of the feminists of her era, that only the achievement of women's equality and freedom would end the need for abortion. Anthony used her anti-abortion writings as yet another argument for women's rights.

Controversial Views

Some of Susan B. Anthony's writings could be considered racist by today's standards, particularly her writings from the period when she was angry that the 15th Amendment had written the word "male" into the constitution for the first time in permitting suffrage for freedmen. She sometimes argued that educated white women would be better voters than "ignorant" black men or immigrant men.

In the late 1860s, she even portrayed the vote of freedmen as threatening the safety of white women. George Francis Train, whose capital helped launch Anthony and Stanton's The Revolution newspaper, was a noted racist.

Later Years

In her later years, Susan B. Anthony worked closely with Carrie Chapman Catt. Anthony retired from active leadership of the suffrage movement in 1900 and turned over the presidency of the NAWSA to Catt. She worked with Stanton and Mathilda Gage on what would eventually be the six-volume "History of Woman Suffrage."

By the time she was 80 years old, even though woman suffrage was far from won, Anthony was acknowledged as an important public figure. Out of respect, President William McKinley invited her to celebrate her birthday at the White House. She also met with President Theodore Roosevelt to argue that a suffrage amendment be submitted to Congress.

Death

A few months before her death in 1906, Susan B. Anthony delivered her "Failure Is Impossible" speech at her 86th birthday celebration in Washington, D.C. She died of heart failure and pneumonia at home in Rochester, New York.

Legacy

Susan B. Anthony died 14 years before all U.S. women won the right to vote with the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment. Although she did not live to see women's suffrage achieved across the entire United States, Susan B. Anthony was a key worker in laying the groundwork for this change. And she did live to witness the sea change in attitudes that was requisite for universal suffrage.

In 1979, Susan B. Anthony's image was chosen for the new dollar coin, making her the first woman to be depicted on U.S. currency. The size of the dollar was, however, close to that of the quarter, and the Anthony dollar never became very popular. In 1999 the U.S. government announced the replacement of the Susan B. Anthony dollar with one featuring the image of Sacagawea.

Sources

  • Anthony, Susan B. "The Trial of Susan B. Anthony." Humanity Books, 2003.
  • Hayward, Nancy. “Susan B. Anthony.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Ann De Gordon, and Susan B. Anthony. Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840-1866. Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  • Ward, Geoffery C. and Ken Burns. "Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony." Knopf, 2001.