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Susan B. Anthony: Suffragist, Abolitionist, Teetotaler and Renegade

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony (left) worked tirelessly with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (right) to fight for women's rights and to end slavery. Library of Congress

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It's only been about 100 years since American women gained the right to vote, or at least the right to not be denied the right to vote. And we can't discuss the 19th Amendment and the women's suffrage movement without talking about one of its most central figures: Susan B. Anthony.

In fact, the amendment that extended voting rights beyond men was named the "Anthony Amendment" in her honor. And years later, Anthony's image — albeit a stern one — found a home on the United States dollar coin, replacing President Dwight Eisenhower. So how in one century did the woman who claimed, "failure is impossible," go from espousing revolutionary ideas to becoming an honoree on U.S. currency?

Susan B. Anthony's Early Life

Born in Adams, Massachusetts, on Feb. 15, 1820, to Daniel and Lucy, Anthony spent most of her childhood in New York. Her father's Quaker upbringing impressed upon her the belief that "everyone was equal under God," according to the National Women's History Museum. She worked as a teacher in Canajoharie, New York, during her 20s before returning home, where she became involved in the abolition movement, working alongside important figures like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

In addition to a desire to abolish slavery, Anthony sought to rid the country of alcohol; she and her family were active in the temperance movement. In fact, when she was denied the chance to speak at a temperance meeting because she was a woman, she partnered with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and founded the Women's New York State Temperance Society in 1853.

She had met Stanton, who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator, at an anti-slavery conference the previous year. Stanton had already given her famed Declaration of Sentiments speech at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, an event Anthony did not attend. Nevertheless, Anthony's work for women's equality soon gained ground, even while she continued to fight against slavery. For example, during the Civil War, Anthony and others collected more than 300,000 signatures on petitions to abolish slavery with a constitutional amendment.

Her Work for Women's Rights

Together Anthony and Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association in 1866, an organization focused on securing equal rights and voting rights for all Americans. Yet, despite her long involvement in the abolition movement, Anthony, in a similar manner to other 19th century women's rights activists, has been criticized for putting white women's voting rights above those of former male slaves.

Smithsonian Magazine reported that in 1867, Anthony, Stanton and Sojourner Truth "opposed the 15th Amendment, claiming that women should take precedence over former slaves." However, this is an oversimplification of Anthony's stance.

When asked by male abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Theodore Tilton to suspend work for universal suffrage and concentrate on getting the vote for men of color only, Anthony's biographer, Ida Husted Harper, said Anthony responded that "she would sooner cut off her right arm before she would ever work for or demand the ballot for the black man and not the woman." Anthony and Douglass ultimately split because of this difference in opinion.

But the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House says it's a misrepresentation to say "Anthony chose white women over all people of color" when the activist more correctly sought equality for all.

By 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which produced "The Revolution," a weekly women's rights publication. With fellow women's rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage, they launched the massive "History of Woman Suffrage" publication project for which the NWSA wrote three of six volumes.

Susan B. Anthony
The 19th amendment that extended voting rights to women was named the "Anthony Amendment" in Susan B. Anthony's honor.
Library of Congress

Yet, like Anthony's division with Douglass, a rift over the 15th Amendment appeared within the suffrage movement itself. The more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone, supported the 15th Amendment as a step in the right direction and focused on a state-by-state strategy to gain voting rights for women. By contrast, Anthony and Stanton's NWSA sought voting and other rights for women and a constitutional amendment to ensure them.

"Anthony from 1866 forward was a passionate supporter of a federal amendment as the way to achieve women's suffrage," says Anya Jabour, Regents professor of history at the University of Montana. "She was firmly identified with the federal amendment."

Although she never had the opportunity to vote legally, Anthony cast a ballot in the 1872 presidential election, voting for Ulysses S. Grant. For this criminal act, she was arrested, tried and fined $100. She never paid the fine.

What Anthony had hoped would be the 16th Amendment was not ratified until half a century later, after amendments allowing for income tax (16th), popular election of senators (17th) and Prohibition (18th) had been added to the Constitution. Although several states already included women's suffrage by that time, at a constitutional level, women in the United States finally gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment Aug. 18, 1920. Unfortunately, Anthony died in 1906 and never had the opportunity to go to the polls legally.

Lauding the achievement of the voting rights amendment has drawn criticism, and Anthony again has been caught in the crossfire. The 19th Amendment specifically states: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." However, millions of women, in particular African American women in the Jim Crow South, were still excluded from the polls until the eventually passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Anthony's Enduring Legacy

If her most important legacy is the "Anthony Amendment," another is that she is the first woman to appear on a U.S. coin. The Susan B. Anthony dollar was issued by the United States Mint in 1979 to replace the Eisenhower dollar. At that time, the second wave of the women's movement was underway, and the academic discipline of women's studies was in its infancy, Jabour says.

Choosing Anthony as a founding figure for the movement and for the dollar coin emerged as a logical choice because she had been so committed to suffrage for so long. However, with a modest marketing campaign surrounding its launch and the coin's similarity in size to a quarter, the dollar was considered a failure within months. However, its "flop" was probably more related to the coin itself than Anthony's image being on it.

Today Anthony's words are sometimes co-opted by anti-abortion organizations to make the argument that early women's rights activists were against abortion. That idea has been thoroughly discredited, Jabour explains. These claims are often based on "repeated factual errors" and omit "essential features of the suffragists' beliefs about gender, justice and the law," write Reva Siegel and Stacie Taranto in The Washington Post. The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House and others have also debunked the false connection between Anthony and the politics of abortion.

Suffragist, abolitionist, teetotaler and renegade, Anthony never married or had children. And in case you are wondering, the B is for Brownell.

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