Sunday, March 8, 2009

This Day in Women’s History (Susan B. Anthony Makes the Case for Women’s Suffrage)

March 8, 1884—Thirty years after she began to organize tirelessly for women’s rights, Susan B. Anthony finally had the opportunity to make the case that the right to vote should not be limited by gender, as she appeared before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives to plead for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the suffrage. It would take another 35 years before our nation’s leaders, in their infinite wisdom and own sweet time, finally got around to accepting her idea.

Last summer, at the Chautauqua Institution, I took a fine course called “The Road to Seneca Falls,” describing the events surrounding the landmark women’s rights convention in that upstate New York community in 1848. I found particularly interesting the explanation by our instructor, Rick Swegan (a descendant of one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls confab), of the partnership between Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

So enduring and tight was the bond between Anthony and Stanton that many of us who took Rick’s course were surprised to find that Anthony did not begin working with her friend until after Seneca Falls. When they finally met, in the early 1850s, the partnership developed, in no small measure, due to the limits of Stanton’s own life.

The daughter of a lawyer, Stanton possessed an incisive intellect and persuasive polemical style. All that energy remained largely bottled up, however, because the demands of giving birth to and raising her seven children required that she limit her traveling. (It didn’t help that Stanton’s husband Henry was not sympathetic to her work.)

For all intents and purposes, this meant Stanton was grounded. The friend she enlisted into organizing the women’s rights movement across the nation was Anthony, who, because she never married, could travel around the country freely.

Fifteen years of serving as, in effect, Stanton’s “legs” made Anthony a natural as co-leader and founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. The organization formed because of a deep, painful split over the movement to secure the suffrage for African-Americans. It became apparent after the war that freedmen would get the right to vote, but not if it were coupled with an insistence on the same right for women.

The press had taken to depicting Stanton and Anthony as hectoring fanatics, even of Presidents. This attempt to poison the minds of common voters led Antony, in appearing before Congress, to call for Congress and the state legislatures, instead of voters directly, to “be as considerate, as just, to the women of this country as you were to the male ex-slaves.”

At the start of their partnership, Stanton had written speeches that her friend simply delivered as they were. By the time that Anthony appeared before Congress, she had become more self-confident. Before long, significant portions of the woman’s suffrage movement, angered by Stanton’s skeptical attitude toward religion, looked to Anthony rather than Stanton as their leader.

Had this been, say, the John Adams-Thomas Jefferson relationship, where each man harbored Presidential ambitions, the partnership would have broken down and a period of estrangement had broken in. Even Anthony’s misgivings about her friend’s open iconoclasm did not lead her to break with Stanton, however.

Neither Stanton nor Anthony lived to see passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which finally passed Congress in 1919 and was ratified by the states a year later.

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