This blog doesn’t have anything to do with Jane Austen, except to say that I believe she would have been a firm supporter of women’s right to vote and would have exercised that right if she had had it. Instead, this blog is about another amazing woman: Susan B. Anthony.
The women’s suffrage movement was born out of a meeting at a church in Seneca Falls New York in 1848. The Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote was passed 72 years later in 1920. So, in 2020, women will have had the right to vote for one hundred years.
A while ago I learned of an incident in the life of Susan B. Anthony in which she was arrested for casting a vote in an election. Before becoming a novelist I was a playwright, and I thought this would make a good subject for a play—which it did. It actually won a couple of awards. J
In writing the play I discovered it was not hard to convince my audience that women should have the right to vote. However, it was hard for audience members to understand why suffragists like Susan B. Anthony had such a great struggle.
There were many issues discussed at the convention, but suffrage was not the primary one. In fact, many of the attendees thought women’s suffrage was too unattainable and too controversial. Instead, one of their primary concerns was the rights of married women to keep their property. At the time when a woman married, all of her property became her husband’s—her money, her land, her clothing, her children. One suffrage speaker used to give the example of a woman who tried to sue her dentist for doing a bad job with her false teeth. The court ruled that she couldn’t sue the dentist because she had no standing—her teeth belonged to her husband.
Despite this political climate, the cause of women’s suffrage was officially taken up by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1866. They traveled around the country giving speeches and trying to persuade male congressmen to put forth an amendment. But the idea of women’s suffrage wasn’t gaining traction.
In 1872 Susan B. Anthony tried a new tactic. Claiming that there was no law specifically against women voting, she registered to vote in Rochester NY. The Rochester Union and Advertiser editorialized: “Citizenship no more carries the right to vote that it carries the power to fly to the moon…If these women in the Eighth Ward offer to vote, they should be challenged, and if they take the oaths and the Inspectors receive and deposit their ballots, they should all be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Along with thirteen other women, Anthony cast her vote in the election of that year. She voted for Ulysses S. Grant for president. Anthony wrote to Stanton: “Well I have gone & done it!!–positively voted the Republican ticket–strait this a.m. at 7 O’clock. So we are in for a fine agitation in Rochester on the question.”
She was right. Her actions put the authorities in a quandary. Anthony was a well-born, educated woman—and quite famous by then; they did not want to risk the negative publicity of putting her in jail. However, they did not want to encourage other women to vote. So they finally did arrest her.
This is Anthony’s description of the arresting officer arriving at her house: “He sat down. He said it was pleasant weather. He hemmed and hawed and finally said Commissioner Storrs wanted to see me….”what for?” I asked. “To arrest you.” said he. “Is that the way you arrest men?” “No.” Then I demanded that I should be arrested properly.” According to another account, Anthony at this point held out her wrists and demanded to be handcuffed.
I can just imagine the arresting officer being sheepish and apologetic about having to arrest a well-dressed 52-year-old woman who represented no immediate danger to anyone. Anthony didn’t make it easier for him. In fact, I think she enjoyed his discomfiture.
She was tried in Canandaigua NY with a jury—in her words– “not of her peers” since women could not serve on juries. Her lawyer, John Selden, called Anthony as a witness, but the district attorney objected: “She is not a competent as a witness on her own behalf” because she was a woman. The judge did not allow her to testify.
Selden defended her with the assertion that she believed the fourteenth amendment “legally entitled her to vote,” and that she “voted in good faith in the belief that it was her right, she was guilty of no crime.” He asserted: “If the same act had been done by her brother…the act would have been not only innocent, but honorable and laudable. I believe this is the first instance in which a woman has been arraigned in a criminal court merely on account of her sex.”
After the district attorney rested his case, the judge drew a paper from his pocket and read an opinion that he had prepared before the trial started—and directed the jury to find a verdict of guilty. Not a single member of the jury uttered a word during the whole trial; but, their verdict might have led to a different outcome.
Anthony then made a speech, although the judge told her to sit down about a dozen times. She said, “When I was brought before your honor for trial, I hoped for a broad and liberal interpretation of the Constitution–that should declare…equality of rights the national guarantee to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. But failing to get this justice–failing, even, to get a trial by a jury not of my peers–I ask not leniency at your hands, but rather the full rigors of the law.”
So, she asked him—since she had been found guilty—to put her in jail. The judge ordered a fine of $100 and when Anthony announced that she would not pay one penny, the judge said: “Madam, the Court will not order you committed until the fine is paid.” So, he basically said they would put her in jail if she paid the fine. It doesn’t make any sense – although it does show how badly they didn’t want to make her a martyr for the cause. So, Anthony was free to go.
The trial was covered by all of the national newspapers and helped win sympathy for her cause. Anthony continued to campaign for women’s suffrage until her death in 1906, 14 years before women won the right to vote.
I was not prepared for the profound effect writing the play had on my own thinking. In history class we learn about the American Revolution and the founding fathers who sacrificed for our voting rights. But I realized that women have an additional and separate layer of the struggle for voting rights—as well as people who sacrificed for us. We have people like Susan B. Anthony who was willing to go to jail for our right to vote. Many later suffragists were arrested and jailed—even harassed and beaten by the police.
Women in Switzerland didn’t win the right to vote until 1971. And there are plenty of countries today where women cannot vote. We cannot take the right for granted.
After writing the play I resolved that I would vote in every election—even the small, seemingly insignificant municipal elections. Because I only have that right because women who came before me sacrificed for it. And because it’s my way of honoring the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and other suffragists like her.
Today it is the custom for women to put their “I voted” stickers on Anthony’s tombstone in Rochester. It is because of her we can vote.