February 15, 2011
Born this day in 1820, Susan B. Anthony devoted her life to social reform. While she backed a number of causes—from antislavery and labor reform to the temperance movement—she is perhaps best remembered for her role in organizing and advancing the women’s rights movement, with an express goal of fighting for the right to vote.
An 1878 1898 photograph of Anthony held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery seems to resonate with her strength of conviction. “It is evident that this is an image that Anthony must have favored,” says Ann Shumard, the museum’s curator of photographs, “because the print in NPG’s collection carries an inscription by Anthony which reads, ‘18301820—February 15—1898,’ followed by her autograph. A further inscription in Anthony’s hand notes that it is the ’50th anniversary of the 1st Woman’s Rights Convention—July 19–20, 1848!!’ The exclamation points are hers. I think the image shows Anthony ‘standing tall’ and still looking both dignified and formidable at the age of 78.”
Although Anthony initially worked as a school teacher, a fortuitous meeting with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 brought her into the world of activism. Unmarried and unbound by familial duties, Anthony was able to invest her energies into propelling the women’s movement, managing The Revolution, a feminist newspaper and going on public speaking tours. One of her most famous indictments of gender discrimination came when she illegally cast a ballot in the 1872 presidential election. She was arrested for voting and fined $100. “May it please your honor,” she said in response to the ruling, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a $10,000 debt, incurred by publishing my paper—The Revolution—four years ago, the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison, and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the government; and I shall work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim that ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”
Anthony died in 1906 and never saw the realization of her life’s work: the passage of the 19th Amendment, which ended gender discrimination at the polls.
“Anthony remains significant because, as she fervently believed, progress was not possible until women obtained the vote,” says Sid Hart, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery. “In a democracy, the right to vote necessarily precedes all other reforms. Once having obtained the vote, everything else—all progress up to the present moment—became possible. This would be similar to the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 60s, in which voting rights was critical, although in that case, an amendment had been passed almost 100 years before and it was a matter of obtaining federal enforcement. Anthony’s heroic and successful struggle led to a change in our Constitution that guaranteed the vote for women for all time, which makes her a pivotal figure in American history.”
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