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Susan B. Anthony fought for women’s suffrage in the face of ridicule

This leading suffragist devoted her life to the movement but never got to vote—legally at least.

Photograph by PhotoQuest, Getty
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Susan B. Anthony was a leading force in the early suffragist movement and spent most of her life advocating for equal rights for women.

Photograph by PhotoQuest, Getty
HistoryExplainer

Susan B. Anthony fought for women’s suffrage in the face of ridicule

This leading suffragist devoted her life to the movement but never got to vote—legally at least.

They called her “the woman who dared.” A tireless activist who crisscrossed the nation agitating for women’s rights in the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony devoted most of her 86 years to helping women get the vote. Though she was mocked, ridiculed, and often ignored, Anthony became one of the best known voices of the suffragist movement.

Born on February 15, 1820, Anthony was a member of an activist Quaker family. At first, Anthony was more interested in abolitionism than suffrage. She was first drawn to the nascent women’s rights movement by a different issue—pay equity—when she learned male teachers were paid four times her monthly salary.

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Susan B. Anthony, left, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were lifelong friends and activists. In a 1902 letter, Anthony wrote Stanton, “It is fifty-one years since we first met, and we have been busy through every one of them, stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women.”

Over time, Anthony became increasingly involved with social issues such as temperance and abolition. She agitated for more comfortable, less restrictive fashions for women along with feminist activist Amelia Bloomer, and in 1851 Bloomer introduced her to suffrage advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They forged a lifelong friendship and collaborated on many reform issues.

Along the way, they encountered constant resistance to the idea of women speaking in public. Anthony, who had been raised to speak her mind, was incensed by being told to “listen and learn” at conventions in which males were encouraged to be vocal. She began to advocate for things like property rights and a woman’s right to divorce.

At first, Anthony continued her abolitionist activism, facing down riots and even being burned in effigy for speaking out against slavery. In 1866, she and Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association, a group devoted to securing equal rights for all American citizens. (Related: Will the Equal Rights Amendment ever be ratified?)

But after the passage of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing formerly enslaved men the right to vote, a rift formed between those who thought that black men should be enfranchised before white women and those who wanted to prioritize women’s suffrage instead. Anthony interpreted Frederick Douglass’s support of black male suffrage as an affront to women and split bitterly with him and his supporters, using racist rhetoric and saying “let…woman be first…and the negro last.”

After the split, Anthony devoted herself to women’s rights full time, publishing a feminist newspaper called the Revolution and eventually forming the National Woman Suffrage Association. She traveled the country much of the year, delivering impassioned lectures on women’s suffrage and lobbying state governments to extend the vote to women. She became a nationally recognizable (and much mocked) face of the suffrage movement.

In 1872, Anthony became even more visible when she was arrested and tried for voting in the presidential election. She was indicted by an all-male grand jury, tried by a judge who instructed the jury to find her guilty, and slapped with a $100 fine she refused to pay.

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Six suffragists at the 1920 Republican National Convention in Chicago hold a banner with a quote from Anthony. Although Anthony died 14 years before women gained the right to vote, her message and drive carried on to the next generation of suffragists.

The trial was Anthony’s most controversial and public moment, but it did not stop her agitation on behalf of women’s rights. Throughout her later years, she co-wrote a history of women’s suffrage, helped broker a merger between the split national women’s suffrage groups, and continued to travel the country and even the globe speaking out for the right to vote. She ultimately reconciled with Douglass before his death in 1895.

“If I could only live another century!” she said in 1902. “I do so want to see the fruition of the work for women in the past century.” Four years later, Anthony died.

It would take until 1920 for the first women to legally vote in federal elections in the United States. Now, more than a century after her death, women bring their “I Voted” stickers to Anthony’s grave in Rochester on election days—a small but fitting tribute to the leader whose tireless work helped pave the way for women’s political rights.