Susan B Anthony, women’s rights activist, slavery abolition activist, and educational reformer, was born today in 1820.
If it wasn’t for her and her many cohorts, we women today, across the world, would not be enjoying the many freedoms we take for granted. Having grown up in a patriarchal world, I constantly remind myself of these words of hers:
. . .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.
At age 17, in 1837, she collected anti-slavery petitions in the US. She was also a part of the Underground Railroad. And she was the New York State agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
The 19th US constitutional amendment, presented by her and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the US Congress in 1878, was finally passed in 1920, allowing American women to vote. That paved the way for many other countries to give voting rights to their women. [NOTE: Prior to 1920, only the following countries allowed women to vote: New Zealand, Australia (except for aborigines), Finland, Norway, Denmark, Canada (except Canadian Indians), Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia, and the Netherlands.]
I love all her many speeches and personal writings. Much of it is at this archive.org link. The most famous speech is, of course, the one she delivered in 1873, after having been arrested for voting illegally. The best and often-quoted line is this:
It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people — women as well as men.
My personal favorite, though, is her ‘Homes of Single Women’ lecture — shared in full at the end. She gave it only on rare occasions, borrowing from Hamlet when she cautiously dismissed it as “stale, flat, and unprofitable.” What she meant, I suppose, is that singlehood for women was an idea that did not get much support back then, even from women themselves.
She, of course, dedicated her life to these all-important causes and never married. The various responses she gave to people when asked why are, to me, perfection:
It always happened that the men I wanted were those I could not get, and those who wanted me I wouldn’t have.
I never found the man who was necessary to my happiness. I was very well as I was.
I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper. When I was young, if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealth she became a pet and a doll. Just think, had I married at twenty, I would have been a drudge or a doll for fifty-nine years. Think of it!
Marriage, to women as to men, must be a luxury, not a necessity; an incident of life, not all of it. And the only possible way to accomplish this great change is to accord to women equal power in the making, shaping and controlling of the circumstances of life.
If women will not accept marriage with subjugation, nor men proffer it without, there is, there can be, no alternative. The woman who will not be ruled must live without marriage.
I think the girl who is able to earn her own living and pay her own way should be as happy as anybody on earth. The sense of independence and security is very sweet.
I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself, and there I take my stand.
‘Homes of Single Women’ by Susan B Anthony
A home of one’s own is the want, the necessity of every human being, the one thing above all others longed for, worked for. Whether the humblest cottage or the proudest palace, a home of our own is the soul’s dream of rest, the one hope that will not die until we have reached the very portals of the everlasting home.
Probably none of us will attempt to question the superiority of the time-honored plan of making a home by the union of one man and one woman in marriage. But in a country like ours where such considerable numbers of men, from choice or necessity, fail to establish matrimonial homes, there is no way of escape; vast numbers of women must make homes for themselves, or forego them altogether. In Massachusetts, alone, there are, to-day, 70,000 more women than men, wives and sisters of soldiers and sailors, miners and stockmen, lumber-men and mountain-men, who in their search for wealth have forgotten the loved of their youth. To these deserted women, necessity has proved the mother of invention. And as you pass from village to village, you will see lovely white cottages, wreathed in vines, nestled midst gardens of vegetables and flowers, fruit and shade trees, each a little Paradise save the presence of the historic Adam before whom woman reverently says, “God thy law, thou mine!!” For homes like these, the passer-by is wont to heave a pitying sigh, as there rises before him the sad panorama of crushed affections, blighted hopes, bereaved hearts. But these are homes of exceeding joy and gladness, compared with the myriads of ill-assorted marriage homes, where existence, by night and by day, is but a living death!!
It has been said that the man of the nineteenth century insists upon having for a wife a woman of the seventeenth century. It is perhaps nearer the truth to say that he demands the spirit of the two centuries combined in one woman: the activity and liberality of thought which characterize the present era, with the submission to authority which belonged to the past. … In woman’s transition from the position of subject to sovereign, there must needs be an era of self-sustained self-supported homes, where her freedom and equality shall be unquestioned. As young women become educated in the industries of the world, thereby learning the sweetness of independent bread, it will be more and more impossible for them to accept the Blackstone marriage limitation that “husband and wife are one, and that one the husband.” . . .
. . . Even when man’s intellectual convictions shall be sincerely and fully on the side of Freedom and equality to woman, the force of long existing customs and laws will impel him to exert authority over her, which will be distasteful to the self-sustained, self-respectful woman. The habit of the ages cannot, at once, be changed. Not even amended constitutions and laws can revolutionize the practical relations of men and women, immediately, any more than did the Constitutional freedom and franchise of Black men, transform white men into practical recognition of the civil and political rights of those who were but yesterday their legal slaves. Constitutional equality only gives to all the aid and protection of the law, while they educate and develop themselves, while they grow into the full stature of freemen. It simply allows equality of chances to establish equality.
Not until women shall have practically demonstrated their claim to equality in the world of work, in agriculture, manufactures, mechanics, inventions, the arts and sciences, not until they shall have established themselves in education, literature and politics and are in actual possession of the highest places of honor and emolument, by the industry of their own hands and brains, and by election or appointment; not until they shall have actually won equality at every point, morally, intellectually, physically, politically, will the superior sex really accept the fact and lay aside all assumptions, dogmatic or autocratic.
Meanwhile, “the logic of events” points, inevitably, to an epoch of single women. If women will not accept marriage with subjection, nor men proffer it without, there is, there can be, no alternative. The women who will not be ruled must live without marriage. And during this transition period, wherever, for the maintenance of self-respect on the one side, and education into recognition of equality on the other, single women make comfortable and attractive homes for themselves, they furnish the best and most efficient object lessons for men.
Fanny Fern, in her inimitable way, pictures the Modern “Old Maid” thus: “No, sir, she don’t shuffle round in skimpy rainments, awkward shoes, cotton gloves, with horn side-combs fastening six hairs to her temples. She don’t .. . keep a cat, a snuff box, or go to bed at dark, or scowl at little children, or gather catnip, not a bit of it. She wears nicely fitting dresses and becoming bits of color in her hair; and she goes to concerts and parties and suppers and lectures, and she don’t go alone, either! She lives in a good house earned by herself, and she gives nice, little teas in it. She don’t work for no wages and bare toleration, day and night; no sir. If she has no money, she teaches or she lectures or she writes books or poems, or she is a book-keeper, or she sets type, or she does anything but depend on somebody else’s husband; and she feels well and independent, in consequence, and holds up her head with the best, and asks no favor, and woman’s rights has done it.” . . .
Mary Clemmer very truly says, “The secret of the rare material success which attended the Cary sisters is to be found in the fact that from the first they began to make a home.” . . . The sisters were deeply interested in the cause of equal rights to all; and the subject of woman’s enfranchisement was frequently the topic of conversation. While at that time Mr. Greeley, almost always present, advocated warmly the right of women to equal educational and industrial advantages, he stoutly opposed their demand for suffrage. It was his habit to say, “The best women I know do not want to vote.” The charming Alice would as often put the question to each of the distinguished women at her table, “Do you want to vote, Miss Booth?” “Yes,” and “Do you want to vote Mrs. Allen?” “Yes.” “Do you want to vote, Miss Dickenson?” “Yes.” And each and every one as invariably replied, “Yes.” Yet at the very next reception, Mr. Greeley would again repeat his stereotype “settler” of the question. . . . He died in the delusion that “the best women do not want to vote.” . . .
Another delightful home of women alone is that of Mary L. Booth, the successful editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and Mrs. Wright, in a beautiful four story brown front on 59th Street. . . . Of this co-partnership, Miss Booth is so purely a woman of literary pursuits and outside affairs, that she gives over all domestic details, and largely too all those of her own wardrobe, to the care of Mrs. Wright, whom the world would call more feminine in her character. Yet, I have been told that she was the wife of a Captain of a ship, and that once, when on a voyage with her husband, he was taken very ill, and his mates and other officers proving inefficient, she bravely took command, and brought the vessel safely into port.” . . .
A woman’s home all must love and honor is that of the President of the National Woman Suffrage Association, Dr. Cle- mence S. Lozier, a very mother in Israel to every woman struggling for an honest subsistence. For twenty and more years, her house has been the home of one or more poor young women studying medicine at the College she herself founded, and in the maintenance of which she has invested between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars of her own earnings. . . . She is often heard to say, in public and in private, “All my success, professionally, and financially, I owe to the ‘Woman’s Rights Movement.’ It is but my duty, therefore, to help it, and thereby help all other women who shall come after me.”
The marriage of Dr. Lozier’s youth was a very happy, but brief one, her husband dying early, leaving her the mother of one child. Her second experiment was exceedingly unfortunate; the man not only leaving her to support herself and young son, by sewing and teaching and nursing, but he himself/erf on the scanty earnings of her hands. . . . Mrs. Lozier’s eye chanced to rest on a letter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s read at the first New York State Women’s Temperance Convention, held at Albany in 1852, urging the right of divorce for drunkenness, and clearly setting forth the crime of the mother who stamped her child with the drunkard’s appetite for rum. That letter shocked Mrs. Lozier into her first thought, not only of her right, but her solemn duty to cease to be the wife of such a man. She quickly obtained a legal separation from bed and board, which was all the laws of New York, then or now, allow for drunkenness, (and] set about studying medicine. . . .
What numbers of the wayfaring advocates of reform, will with me bear grateful testimony to that haven of rest, that coziest home of the Mott sisters, in Albany, New York. . . . For thirty years and more, in that stolidly conservative old Dutch City, those two women stood almost the sole representatives of the then unpopular movements for Temperance, Peace, Anti-Slavery, and Woman’s Rights. At different periods during those years, those sisters earned their living by teaching, boardinghouse keeping, and skirt-manufacturing. They were the most self respecting women I ever knew, always ennobling whatever work they laid their hands on. . . .
Do any of you Gentlemen and Ladies doubt the truth of my picturings of the homes of unmarried women? Do any of you still cling to the old theory, that single women, women’s rights women, professional women, have no home instincts? . . . All this is done from pure love of home; no spurious second-hand domesticity affected for the praise of some man, or conscientiously maintained for the comfort of the one who furnishes the money; nor because she has nothing else to busy herself about, but her one impelling motive is from the true womanly home instinct, unsurpassed by that of any of the women who “have all the rights they want.”
. . . The charm of all these women’s homes is that their owners are “settled” in life; that the men, young or old, who visit them, no more count their hostesses’ chances in the matrimonial market, than when guests in the homes of the most happily married women. Men go to these homes as they do to their gentlemen’s clubs, to talk of art, science, politics, religion and reform. . . . They go to meet their equals in the proud domain of intellect, laying aside for the time being at least, all of their conventional “small talk for the ladies.”
But, say you, all these beautiful homes are made by exceptional women; the few women of superior intellect, rare genius, or masculine executive ability, that enables them to rise above the environments of sex, to lean on themselves for support and protection, to amass wealth, to win honors and emoluments. They are not halves, needing complements, as are the masses of women; but evenly balanced well rounded characters; therefore are they models to be reached by the average women we every-day meet. . . .
~ Excerpted from ‘Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches‘, edited by Ellen Carol Dubois
FOOTNOTE: As with all pioneering activists, Anthony had her share of troubling controversies — e.g. abortion rights, racism, etc. I have not gone into them here but there is enough material out there in Google-land for anyone with the time and inclination to hunt.
I will speak to one particular instance here: taking money from a pro-slavery politician, George Train, for a newspaper started by her and Stanton called ‘The Revolution.’ Anthony even went on a speaking tour with the man. During this tour, she is reported to have pushed back against the overwhelming political stance of giving votes to men of all races before allowing women of any race their rights. Here is what she said:
We say not another man, black or white, until woman is inside the citadel. What reason have we to suppose the African would be more just and generous than the Saxon has been?…how insulting to put every shade and type of manhood above our heads, to make laws for educated refined, wealthy women….The old anti slavery school says women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last….There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; or any one who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she take it.
Yes, it does sound like she was selling out on her anti-slavery position in favor of her women’s rights agenda. But, if we look at the totality of the work she did for people of color, I find it hard to label her as “racist” because of this.
She is also known to have said:
Let us open to the colored man all our schools … Let us admit him into all our mechanic shops, stores, offices, and lucrative business avocations … let him rent such pew in the church, and occupy such seat in the theatre … Extend to him all the rights of Citizenship.
She had hoped that if women had managed to get the vote and influence or become lawmakers themselves, they would then set right the problem of slavery. She did distance herself from the likes of George Train after she realized that he and his kind would not do anything to help the woman’s cause. So, in the final analysis, I see that she rectified her mistake and did more good than bad.