Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 342

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 342


This is the grave of Susan B. Anthony.

Born in 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts, her family was deeply steeped in the social reform of the antebellum period. Her father was an abolitionist and temperance activist. He was a Quaker who married a Methodist, causing his congregation to dislike him, but he just kept on attending. Much later, one of her brothers fought with John Brown in Kansas, while another was involved in other anti-slavery activity out there. Anthony went to a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia for awhile, but the family was ruined in the Panic of 1837 and she had to withdraw. By 1845, they were living on a farm outside of Rochester that became a center of abolitionist activity. She got to know Frederick Douglass at this time and they would remain lifelong friends. In 1846, Anthony moved to Canajoharie to teach school, which meant she was not at the Seneca Falls Convention, as her parents and sister were, but it also meant she became far more exposed to the modern world, began to wear fashionable dresses, and quit talking like a traditional Quaker (so many “thee”s!).

It was in about 1850 that Anthony became fully dedicated to a lifetime of social activism, supporting herself for the rest of her life on speaking fees. In 1851, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They would work together as long as they remained alive. They coordinated their efforts. Stanton was the intellectual and writer. Anthony, who was not a very good writer, gave the speeches and did the public organizing. She was very good at that. She also took care of Stanton’s children to allow her to write, moving in with the family for long stretches. Of course, it was women’s suffrage that motivated them primarily, but they were involved in other issues too. In 1852, when Anthony attempted to speak at a temperance event, another cause which she believed in strongly, she was shouted down and not allowed to go on. So she and other women walked out and started their own gathering, the Women’s State Temperance Society. Stanton was named president, but both left the organization the next year after they were attacked by more conservative members for supporting a law allowing the wife of an alcoholic to obtain a divorce. Anthony was also the first woman to speak at the New York State Teachers’ Association in 1853, after a long debate about whether a woman should ever speak publicly. Anthony of course was also a major abolitionist, including helping on the Underground Railroad.

But of course, it was suffrage that motivated Anthony like nothing else. She traveled the state, raising money for various campaigns, organizing alliances with progressive men, and building the women’s movement. When she presented a petition to the New York state senate for property rights for married women, the senators told her that men were the truly oppressed sex because they gave up the best seats in carriages to their wives. Ah, some arguments by privileged people never change. The women’s rights movement was so nascent at this time and so disorganized that it wasn’t organized at all. Anthony did more than perhaps any other person to fix that, using her organizing skills to build a state and national network of suffrage activists.

By the time of the Civil War, Anthony was heavily involved in both suffrage and abolitionist activities. She was known to be utterly fearless in the face of her opponents, which was quite brave, as conservative white men could get quite violent with activists on both issues. Unlike many suffragists, Anthony was a true anti-racist, at least at this time, calling not only for the end of slavery, but for full integration of public facilities and schools. She also had trouble with male abolitionists who were highly uncomfortable with women’s rights, even as they largely funded the women’s movement. When Anthony sheltered a woman fleeing abuse of her husband, William Lloyd Garrison got angry and told her that she needed to give the couple’s child back to the father because the law gave husbands legal control over children. Disgusted by his hypocrisy, she retorted back to him that this was no different than the immoral laws over slavery that he broke all the time.

After the Civil War, Anthony was happy that rights for African-Americans were finally going to enter the Constitution but disturbed that the 15th Amendment discriminated by sex. In 1866, Anthony’s National Women’s Rights Convention became the American Equal Rights Association, fighting for equality for women of all races. But Republicans largely were fine with limiting the suffrage to men. Suffragists split on what to do. People such as Lucy Stone decided to go with expanding the suffrage to whoever and agreed to subsume the women’s rights movement to what was achievable at that time. Anthony and Stanton decided they would not support black male suffrage over white female suffrage. Now, I don’t find in my cursory looking a lot of direct racism coming from Anthony as happened from Stanton’s pen, but then Stanton wrote much much more and the racism came in the newspaper they worked on together. So I have to assume that Anthony, despite her earlier abolitionism, was at least willing to acquiesce in this. It’s also true that Anthony grew more politically conservative on a number of issues as she aged, which alarmed even Stanton. She briefly attempted an alliance with the National Labor Union, but like most of the antebellum social activists, was a capitalist at heart and ended up approving of a program from the printing industry to train women in printing skills so they could bust a strike.

Of course, Anthony’s most famous legacy is her attempt to vote in 1872. By this time, the suffrage movement had split over the Fifteenth Amendment. She was second-in-command, behind the somewhat egotistical Stanton, of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. That fall, she led 14 activists to vote. She was allowed to cast a ballot at the time but was soon arrested for illegal voting (voter fraud!). United States v. Susan B. Anthony was a case that received national headlines. During the trial, she defied the judge’s orders for her to stop talking and gave speeches about the need for women’s rights in general and women’s suffrage especially. She was found guilty and fined $100. She refused to pay. But the judge wouldn’t imprison her for that because if he did, she could appeal to the Supreme Court and he didn’t want to give her the platform to spread her pernicious ideology of women’s equality.

In her later years, Anthony was involved in building an international women’s movement, met everyone from Grover Cleveland to Queen Victoria, once appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and at the age of 75, toured Yosemite National Park riding a mule. She basically lived a peripatetic life, never owning her own home, mostly staying in hotels or friends’ houses. Finally, in 1891, at the age of 71, she settled permanently at her sister’s house in Rochester. Yet she continued to work and travel, spending eight months in California 1896 working on that state’s women’s suffrage initiative. She finally died in 1906, at the age of 86.

Susan B. Anthony is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.

I maintain that her grave must have been the most depressing place in the United States on November 9, 2016.

If you would like this series to visit more giants of the suffrage movement, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is in the Bronx and Lucy Stone is in Boston. I imagine most of the leading suffrage activists are in New York and New England. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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