Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Susan B. Anthony,
the Old Guard of Woman Suffrage

The cause of the political rights of women has had no more strenuous and unyielding advocate than Susan Brownell Anthony, a woman who for more than fifty years rarely let a day go by without doing something to advance her favorite reforms. Among these woman suffrage stood first, but there was no modern movement for the good of woman or of humanity in general to which this veteran agitator did not lend her aid. And when Miss Anthony came to the aid of any cause it was with heart and soul.

Born in South Adams, Massachusetts, February 15, 1820, of Quaker ancestry, Miss Anthony received an excellent education from her father, who was a cotton manufacturer. She was yet in early childhood when her father removed to Washington County, New York, where her early studies were in a small school held in his house.

Her education was completed in a Philadelphia school, and at the age of seventeen, her father having failed in business, she entered upon her life duties as a teacher, glad to be able to earn her own living and relieve her father.

There was one thing, however, that the youthful teacher protested against from the start: the low wages paid, and the discrimination in favor of men., She had certainly some reason to complain of under-pay, in view of the fact that she received but a dollar and a half per week, in addition to the not very enticing privilege of "boarding around." The frequent change of diet and domicile arising from this custom of the times must have been anything but agreeable to a high spirited woman.

What principally roused Miss Anthony's indignation at this time was to see men whom she felt to be much inferior to her in education and ability as teachers receiving three times her salary. It was this injustice, as she deemed it, that led her first to lift her voice in public. This was at a meeting of the New York State Teachers' Association, where some of the men were deploring the fact that their profession was not held to be as honorable and influential as those of the lawyer, the doctor, and the minister.

During a pause in the debate Miss Anthony rose and, to the horror of many of them, began to speak. In those days for a woman to venture to offer her views in a meeting of men, or, for that matter, in any meeting, was looked upon as an event utterly out of woman's sphere. The fair rebel against the conventionalities did not sin greatly. Her speech was not a long one, but what there was of it was telling and pithy. She said:

"Do you not see that as long as society says that a woman has not brains enough to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a minister, but has ample brains to be a teacher, every man of you who condescends to teach school tacitly acknowledges before all Israel and the sun that he hasn't any more brains than a woman?"

With this brief but knotty sentence she sat down, leaving it to them to digest. For years afterwards she strove in the association to bring women's wages and positions as teachers up to those of men, and she succeeded in greatly improving the standing of women in this respect.

Miss Anthony's career as a teacher continued until 1852, but several years before it ended she began to take an active part in reform movements as a public speaker. Her first appearance in public was about 1846, in the temperance agitation. At that time the popular prejudice against women taking part in public work was very strong, but Miss Anthony was one of those valiant souls that do not hesitate to cross the Rubicon of custom and prejudice, and she dared criticism by a bold ventilation of her views before some women's meetings. She was helping to break down the wall that stood between woman and the public platform.

Two years later, as stated in our sketch of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Women's Rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, where a resolution was proposed and carried demanding the right of suffrage for women. When word of this action came to Miss Anthony's ears she spoke of it as ridiculous. It was a new thought, to which she had to become accustomed, but two years later we find her in full acceptance of it, convinced that only through the use of the ballot could woman succeed in gaining an equality in industrial and legal conditions with man.

By this time she was becoming widely known as a lecturer on social topics and an organizer of temperance societies, and in 1851 she called a State convention of women at Albany, to urge upon the public the wrongs and to demand the rights of her sex. From this time forward she was a friend and co-worker of Mrs. Stanton and became regarded as one of the most ardent and able advocates of the various reforms which she took in hand.

There were at that time more insistent questions before the public than that of women's rights. First among these was that of the freedom of the slave, in which she took part with her accustomed ardor and blunt plainness of speech. To this she gave much of her time after 1856, while not forgetting the other subjects to which she had devoted herself. One of these was to secure for women admission to temperance and educational conventions on equal terms with men. In this she succeeded. The fence of exclusion was slowly giving way before her assaults.

During the Civil War Miss Anthony was very active, lecturing from city to city upon the vital questions of the day. She joined others in forming the Loyal Women's League, and in association with Mrs. Stanton sent petitions through the country to develop a public opinion in favor of abolishing slavery as a war measure. The duty of decreeing universal emancipation was strongly urged by her upon President Lincoln and Congress.

By this time Miss Anthony had gained much facility as a public speaker. She never indulged in flowers of speech and rarely rose to eloquence, but was fluent and earnest, direct and business-like, always talking to the point, always sincere, and usually convincing. Her energy was untiring, her good humor inexhaustible, and she was always quick to see and to seize an opportunity.

The war ended, a promising opening for the women suffragists appeared, in the settlement of the many problems that arose. Among these was the question of negro suffrage. In Kansas in 1867 two amendments to the State constitution were proposed, one giving the right to vote to negroes, the other to women. Many Republican leaders favored the former but fought shy of the latter. Miss Anthony and other orators took an active part in the contest, but when it came to a vote of the people both amendments were rejected, the negroes getting a larger vote in their favor than the women.

An unfortunate enterprise was undertaken about this time, in the publication of The Revolution, a paper devoted to the cause of women. Miss Anthony was active in founding this, was one of its editors, and when it failed after a brief career of two and a half years, she was left with a debt of $io,000. This she paid, principal and interest, from the proceeds of her lectures.

She continued her work with indefatigable ardor, and in the decade from 1870 to 1880 spoke five or six times a week, in all the Northern and many of the Southern cities, the rights of women being her unceasing theme. She took advantage of every opportunity to deliver impromptu speeches on this subject. Thus once, when ice-bound on the Mississippi in a steamboat, she broke the monotony by organizing a meeting in the cabin and addressing the passengers on her favorite topic. Like the woman's cruse of oil, she never ran dry on the theme of woman's rights. Mrs. Stanton said she never knew her to be taken by surprise but on one occasion, when she was asked to speak to the inmates of a lunatic asylum. This was too much even for the ardor of Susan B. Anthony.

In 1872, having been registered as a citizen at Rochester, N. Y., and wishing to test her right to the suffrage, she voted at the national election. For this she was arrested, tried, and fined, the judge directing the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty and refusing a new trial. Under the advice of her counsel, she gave bonds to prevent being imprisoned. This she always afterwards regretted, as it prevented her taking the case to the United States Supreme Court. Her purpose was to test the validity of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. As to the $100 fine, it still remains unpaid.

The unceasing agitation kept up by Miss Anthony was not without its effect. Gradually the people of the country grew accustomed to the idea of woman suffrage, it gained a large support among men, and became established, in greater or less measure, in many of the States. In 1880 she made a plea before the Committee on the Judiciary, of which Senator Edmunds has said that her arguments were unanswerable, and were marshaled as skilfully as any lawyer could have done. For years she sought to rouse the people of this country to demand the adoption of a sixteenth amendment to the Constitution, making woman suffrage a part of the fundamental law of the country.

Miss Anthony said that her work was like subsoil plowing. Through the many reforms brought about by her in the condition of women she was simply preparing the way for a more successful cultivation and a more liberal harvest. One of her larger labors was the "History of Woman Suffrage," edited by her in conjunction with Mrs. Stanton and Matilda J. Gage, which embraces three bulky volumes of moo pages each.

Miss Anthony attained her eighty-sixth year of age without losing her ardor in, the cause. Her life's work had won her a reputation as wide as civilization, while the honor in which she was held was indicated by the refusal of the Empress of Germany to remain seated in her presence when a party of American suffragists visited the German court. The empress was unwilling to seem to put herself on a higher level of rank than this plain American woman, whom she regarded as having won a station of honor above that of the throne. Miss Anthony died, ripe in years and in the world's respect, on the 13th of March, 1906.