Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony

This essay, from the February 14, 1920, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on feminism and women’s rights, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


It is a happy coincidence indeed that the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Susan E. Anthony, one of the greatest of the woman suffrage pioneers, occurs when the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution is within sight of its triumphant ratification. Whether justly or not, that amendment for many decades bore the name of Miss Anthony, and it is commonly believed that she first suggested the policy of obtaining suffrage by national action instead of through that of individual States. Certainly there could be no more fitting recognition of Miss Anthony’s service than to have her centennial birthday on February 15 marked by the enfranchisement of all American women, and their victory over ignorance, prejudice, and tradition.

In Miss Anthony were combined all the needed attributes of a reformer–great strength of character, a remarkably even disposition, which knew neither jealousy nor any spirit of rivalry save in doing good, and absolute forgetfulness of self in her desire to be of use to others. Her gentleness and sweetness were of a rare kind, and prejudices melted away when face to face with her benign but forceful personality. Her speech on the platform came warm from the heart and clear as a bell. Yet so great was her own depreciation of her ability as a speaker that it would have probably prevented her from attempting to address an audience had it not been for the message she felt impelled to deliver. She not only was a good speaker, but was often most impressive and at times truly eloquent. In debate her straightforward statements were so sincere and convincing as speedily to win her hearers. Again and again at suffrage meetings she commanded admiration and affection by her generous acknowledgment of services rendered to the cause by less distinguished workers. On the occasion of her eighty-sixth birthday; her last appearance on the platform, when she placed in the hands of Anna Howard Shaw the responsibility for the leadership of the National Woman Suffrage Association, she said: “There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause–I wish I could name every one– but with such women consecrating their lives”–here she paused and then added–“failure is impossible.”

I was irresistibly drawn to miss Anthony as a child whenever she visited my parents and I watched her smiling face, so constantly full of fun and so illumined by a noble spirituality. A more thoughtful and considerate visitor never came into any home. Wherever she went, her ready sympathy and helpfulness inspired affection and made her a welcome guest. This characteristic was far more important than may be realized at first thought; for in those days the itinerant reformer was passed from home to home and community to community, and came into much closer personal contact with those whom she was to inspire than is usually the case today. These friendly homes were true havens of refuge; for no one can realize today the abuse and contumely and vilification to which the early advocates of woman suffrage were subjected. In the public mind Miss Anthony was often associated with Mary Walker and those who wore the bloomer dress. Their eccentricity of costume was often made to apply to all woman suffragists. To be accused of advocating free love by demanding the right of suffrage for women, was an everyday occurrence. It was only when strangers were brought in contact with Miss Anthony and other leaders of the cause that they began to understand how brave, noble, and self-sacrificing were these single-hearted pioneers. Apropos of this, let me quote from the New York Times the kind of misrepresentation that these women had to undergo at the hands of a malicious press :

If Mrs. Stanton would attend a little more to her domestic duties and a little less to those of the great public, perhaps she would exalt her sex quite as much as she does by Quixotically fighting windmills in their gratuitous behalf, and she might possibly set a notable example of domestic felicity. No married woman can convert herself into a feminine Knight of the Rueful Visage and ride about the country attempting to redress imaginary wrongs without leaving her own household in a neglected condition that must be an eloquent witness against her. As for the spinsters, we have always said that every woman has a natural and inalienable right to a good husband and a pretty baby. When, by proper “agitation,” she has secured this right, she best honors herself and her sex by leaving public affairs behind her, and endeavoring to show how happy she can make the little world of which she has just become the brilliant centre.

Miss Anthony early showed her readiness to endure unpopularity, first in the teaching profession, where she indignantly resented the lack of equal pay for equal work, and then in the temperance movement, for which she made her maiden speech. Nor could she turn a deaf ear to the needs of the slaves. Without hesitation she allied herself with the despised Abolitionists, acting as agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society and lecturing all over the country on its behalf until that great cause was won. Indeed, out of the anti-slavery agitation came freedom for women to speak in public. As early as 1837, in answer to the appeal made by the famous Grimke sisters of South Carolina to be allowed to speak on the anti-slavery platform, they were heartily welcomed and given every opportunity to plead for the freedom of the slaves. That was the beginning of the woman’s rights movement in the United States; for, incredible as it now seems, up to that time women were not permitted to speak in public. Indeed, when the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, held in London in June, 1840, took place, the distinguished women delegates from the Massachusetts anti-slavery societies, including Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mrs. Wendell Phillips, Lydia Maria Child, and others, were not permitted to take part in the proceedings because they were women. They were relegated to the gallery, and William Lloyd Garrison and another delegate, N.P. Rogers, sat with them, refusing to participate in the discussions if their co-delegates were to be excluded, thus recognizing “humanity irrespective of sex.” This protest made the Convention memorable because the woman question took precedence of that of slavery.

It was Miss Anthony’s great good fortune to meet her compeer–afterwards her powerful ally–Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in May, 1852, at her home in Seneca Falls, where the first Woman’s Rights Convention had been held four years previously. Miss Anthony’s life-long devotion to Mrs. Stanton and the suffrage cause began at that time. In it she enlisted, taking no thought of consequences to herself, ready for the combat against wrong public sentiment. Mrs. Stanton heartily reciprocated Miss Anthony’s affection, and these two remarkable women worked together in complete harmony for fifty years. Mrs. Stanton, in her interesting autobiography, describes her meeting with Miss Anthony thus: “There she stood with her good earnest face and genial smile, dressed in gray delaine, hat and all the same color, relieved with pale blue ribbons–the perfection of neatness and sobriety. I liked her thoroughly from the beginning.” So closely interwoven were Miss Anthony’s and Mrs. Stanton’s thoughts and deeds in relation to the means employed to secure the right of women to the vote that it is often difficult to ascertain the exact part that each played in it. Mrs. Stanton said: “In thought and sympathy we were one and in the division of labor we complemented each other. In writing we did better work together than either could do alone. While she, Miss Anthony, is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer and she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and together we made arguments which have stood unshaken by the storms of nearly fifty years.” That the element of humor was not lacking in the relations of these two indomitable women appears from this extract from a letter of Mrs. Stanton to Miss Anthony in 1891: “I rejoice that you are going to housekeeping…my ad- vice to you, Susan, is to keep some spot you can call your own, where you can live and die in peace and be cremated in your own oven, if you desire.”

Of this relationship Miss Anthony has also recorded her views, for she said when Mrs. Stanton died that the happiest period of their lives had been “in the days when the struggle was the hardest and the fight the thickest, when the whole world was against us and we had to stand closer to each other, when I would go to her home and help with the children while she was writing upstairs in peace and quiet. Then we would sit up far into the night preparing our ammunition and getting ready to move on the enemy. The years since the rewards began to come brought no enjoyment like that.” Surely they were dauntless spirits! Miss Anthony’s experiences were identical with those of her co-workers. Summer and winter, they travelled over almost impassable roads, sometimes being obliged to stay in hotels where the food was so bad that it required courage even to make the attempt to taste it. Few people came to their meetings at first and sometimes there were exhibitions of the mob spirit. If such leaders are indispensable, it is their duty to create an army of enthusiastic followers by the use of moral suasion which carries the light of truth with it. In this lay the strength of the suffragists. To those like the writer who have lived long enough to be familiar with many reform movements, this one is of peculiar significance, affecting, as it does, half of the human race. Doubt we cannot that the magnitude of the achievement will alter conditions to an extent not possible to foresee. But this we do know, that the changes already wrought have confounded the skeptics.

And yet this once seemingly hopeless attempt to right age-long wrongs owes its triumphant success not to the arbitrament of arms, not to “battalions of death,” not to the spirit of revenge and hatred. In this great crusade only peaceful methods have prevailed, patient submission under protest to glaring injustice, to social indignities, while ever reiterating the meaning of human freedom and the truths the reformers held so dear. Let those who lack the courage of their highest convictions today ponder this object-lesson and be governed by it!

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