Susan B. Anthony: A Century of Suffrage

Learn about the pioneering activist 100 years on from the 19th Amendment

By Google Arts & Culture

Women's Freedom League suffrage caravan (1908) by J Weston & Son, FolkestoneOriginal Source: LSE Library

August 8th, 2020 marks a century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This prohibited States and the Federal Government from denying people the vote on grounds of sex. In effect, this gave women the right to vote (though with notable limitations for certain groups such as African Americans and Native Americans). 

It was an historic victory for the many women who had worked tirelessly for decades asserting their right to an active role in the democratic process. 

Susan B. Anthony (1905) by J.E. HaleRochester Public Library

One such woman was, of course, Susan B. Anthony, and 2020 also marks her 200th birthday. 

Colorado ratifies the 19th Amendment by Library of CongressColorado Women's Hall of Fame

Though she died fourteen years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, it was Anthony who presented the bill to congress in 1878…

...and it later became known as The Susan B. Anthony Amendment. 

Susan B. Anthony (1897/1901) by John H. KentRochester Public Library

100 years on from the culmination of her extraordinary work, and 200 years on from her birth, we celebrate the life of one of America’s most important social reformers.

5c Emancipation Proclamation stamp (1963-08-16)Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

Though her defining cause became women’s suffrage, Susan B. Anthony was also an active anti-slavery activist. 

Born into a Quaker family in February of 1820, Anthony grew up amongst reformers. 

John Brown (1939) by John Steuart CurryHuntington Museum of Art

Her brother, Merritt, even fought alongside famous abolitionist John Brown in the Bleeding Kansas uprising, passionately opposing slavery. 

Anthony herself developed a strong belief in social equality from an early age and, at just 36 years old, became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, seated, and Susan B. Anthony, standingNational Women’s History Museum

Meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 was a significant turning point. 

Stanton, alongside Anthony, is credited with initiating the United States’ first organized women’s movements. Together, they started the radical women’s rights magazine, The Revolution, and collaborated for decades (despite some slight divergences later in their careers). 

They remained close friends their whole lives. 

Frederick Douglass (1850) by Library of CongressPresident Lincoln's Cottage

Throughout her committed life of activism, Anthony counted among her friends and associates such historical figures as Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.

Douglass, in particular, was a lifelong friend, and would frequent the Anthony family farm in Rochester, where the young Susan B. moved with her family in 1845. The farmstead functioned as a locus for several radical Quakers frustrated with their community’s lack of social reform activity.

U.S. vs Susan B. Anthony, Order committing Susan B. Anthony to Albany County Jail, Page 1 (1872-12-26)U.S. National Archives

Perhaps Anthony’s most widely publicized act of resistance was her deliberate violation of State law by voting during the 1872 elections. Anthony filed a vote in her hometown of Rochester, which only allowed men to vote at the time. She was arrested, and her trial was a national sensation. 

During the trial, Anthony vocally stated her own case, interrupting the judge repeatedly and ignoring his demands that she sit down. “Your honor will not deny me this one and only poor privilege of protest against this high-handed outrage upon my citizen’s rights,” she said. The full court transcript, compiled by Ann D. Gordon, is a popular read.

Anthony was sentenced to pay a fine of $100, which she steadfastly refused to do. She and the several other women who were arrested for voting that year were later pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant.

50c Susan B. Anthony stamp (1955-08-25)Smithsonian's National Postal Museum

Consistent with her pioneering feminist legacy, Anthony was the first woman citizen to appear on US coinage, her face being depicted on the 1979 dollar.

Susan B. Anthony (1898) by Theodore C. MarceauSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

At her 86th birthday celebrations in Washington D.C., Anthony was famously quoted as saying, "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, failure is impossible!" 

The phrase “Failure is impossible!” was adopted by the women’s rights movement as a catchline.

Photo, Susan B Anthony, on 17 Madison Street porch, 1900 (1900) by Francis Benjamin JohnstonNational Susan B. Anthony Museum & House

A few days after these celebrations, on March 13th 1906, Anthony died of pneumonia at her home in Rochester, her legacy as one of the United States’ most important and successful reformers already assured. In her own words, two years before her death, Anthony described the achievements of herself and others throughout the 19th century: “The world has never witnessed a greater revolution than in the sphere of woman during this fifty years.” 

A century on from her crowning success, and two centuries on from her birth, there’s still work to be done. But her spirit and her commitment to true equality give hope and precedent for seismic change.

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