“Failure is Impossible”: Celebrating Susan B. Anthony

As I mentioned in my Editor’s Note, February 15th is the birthday of women’s right’s advocate Susan B. Anthony. This pioneering suffragette is well worth celebrating—let’s find out why! The cannon of changing history boomed in 1820 the day Susan Brownell Anthony was born to a progressive Quaker family passionate about social reform. The second of seven children, Anthony was encouraged by her father to be self-supporting and independent—an unusual move at that time. She spent her early adulthood as a teacher and headmistress in Rochester, New York, but in her late 20s set out to begin her own career of social reform.
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In 1851 she was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention (the first women’s rights convention). The two women quickly grew close as friends and coworkers, balancing each other beautifully with complementary skills. Anthony excelled at organizing and strategy while Stanton’s talent lay with writing and intellectual matters. Stanton herself said, “I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.”
Anthony worked tirelessly on a variety of social issues on state and national levels, including the abolishment of slavery, racial integration, equal pay for men and women, employment equality, the right for married women to own property, more lenient divorce laws, public speaking rights for women, and the struggle for which she is most well-known: women’s right to vote.
In this effort she became a prolific speaker, averaging 75-100 speeches per year everywhere from the stage in large convention halls to the top of a billiards table. She and Stanton traveled the country for more than a decade, lecturing and educating to raise funds and draw more supporters into the women’s suffrage movement.
Few causes and social battles can be fought without public speaking, a struggle that Anthony would challenge her entire life. In 1852 she was elected as a delegate to the New York Temperance Convention, but the chairman stopped her when she tried to speak, saying that female delegates were there only to listen and learn. (Sigh.) With her characteristic boldness, Anthony and several other women promptly walked out and announced a meeting of their own.
When Anthony again tried to speak at the New York State Teachers’ Association meeting in 1853, her attempt sparked a half-hour debate about whether it was appropriate for women to speak in public.
Finally allowed to continue, Anthony noted, “Do you not see that so long as society says a woman is incompetent to be a lawyer, minister, or doctor, but has ample ability to be a teacher, that every man of you who chooses this profession tacitly acknowledges that he has no more brains than a woman.” I can only assume that if microphones were around, we definitely would have had a * mic drop * moment. Years later, Anthony observed, “No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public.”
Of course, the right to vote came a close second. In 1872 Anthony and a group of supporters from the NWSA (National Women Suffrage Association, which she co-founded with Stanton) attempted to achieve the right to vote via the court system. They planned to vote in the presidential election of 1872 and, when inevitably turned away, file suit in federal courts on the basis of the newly adopted 14th Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”
With much persuasion of the election inspectors she and her comrades were permitted to cast their ballots, but a few days later they were arrested. Anthony’s trial generated a national controversy and culminated with Justice Hunt directing the jury to issue a guilty verdict. When finally permitted to speak for the first time (on the third day of her trial–sensing a pattern here?) Anthony wasted no time in castigating Hunt, criticizing “this high-handed outrage upon my citizen’s rights.” When he sentenced Anthony to pay a fine of $100, she responded curtly, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty”…and she never did.
There are so many other similarly inspiring stories from Susan B. Anthony’s incredible life, but alas I am limited by word count. Ms. Anthony was a woman of incredible energy and drive, outpacing her colleagues on a regular basis even into her 70s. (Heck, when she was 75 years old she toured Yosemite National Park on the back of a mule!)
She passed away at age 86 in 1906, before being able to see her life’s work succeed with the addition of the “Anthony Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which give women the right to vote on a national level. She has been honored posthumously with two separate features on US postage, along with being the first real woman to be commemorated on US currency, the dollar coin in 1979.
I encourage you to share Susan Anthony’s amazing and inspiring story with others in your life, for in her own words:
“We shall someday be heeded, and when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses always were hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.”
Susan B. Anthony, 1894

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