The Illegal Vote of Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906) was an American social reformer who was put on trial for illegally voting.

The year was 1873 and the trial, which was closely followed by the national press, helped make women’s suffrage a national issue. Anthony, from New York, had voted in the previous year’s state election – which was illegal at the time as only men could vote.

Early Activism

Raised within a Quaker upbringing, Anthony’s father was member of the Society of Friends who was both an abolitionist and a temperance advocate. As his wife was a Methodist he drew criticism from local Friends who were opposed to ‘marrying out’ at the time.

Therefore, the family joined the Congregational Friends – a group of Quakers who supported radical social reform and accepted the marriage of Anthony’s parents. As members of the Congregational Friends, the family farmstead was used for activist meetings and it would be these meetings that would inspire Anthony onto a path of lifelong activism.

Anthony’s first campaigning was against slavery when she was only 16, She collected signatures for petitions as part of organized resistance to the newly established gag rule that prohibited anti-slavery petitions in the United State’s House of Representatives.

National Activism

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Anthony’s activism on the national stage began, aged 32, when she attended her first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1852. From here, she and fellow reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the Women’s Loyal National League, the first national women’s political organization in the United States.

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Anthony was the chief organizer of the League’s petition drive against slavery, which collected nearly 400,000 signatures in the largest petition drive in U.S. history up to that time.

Anthony and Stanton began publishing a weekly newspaper called The Revolution in New York City in 1868. It focused primarily on women’s rights, especially suffrage for women, but it also covered other topics, including politics, the labor movement and finance. Its motto was, ‘Men, their rights and nothing more: women, their rights and nothing less.’

Wanting to promote the ‘controversial’ idea that women should be given the vote on a national level across all the country’s states, Anthony and Stanton established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869.

Illegally Voting

After three years of campaigning, the NWSA would have its most pivotal and famous moment when, in 1872, Anthony cast her illegal vote. Straight after she had cast her illegal vote, Anthony went to a local newspaper to publicise her actions in the form of a written speech, which was printed in full. Part of the speech reads:

“The only question left to be settled now, is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no State has a right to make any new law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.”

Susan B. Anthony

After being subsequently arrested, and given a trial date in a federal court, Anthony went on a speaking tour of New York that included 29 town and villages. This was a clever strategy on two fronts as firstly, it allowed for a widening of debate on women’s sufferage and, secondly, this would be the geographical area from which the trial’s jurors would come from.

When Anthony went on trial for illegally voting she was already now known as the nation’s best-known advocate of the right of women to vote. Therefore the proceedings were widely publicised and caught the public’s imagination.

For her defense, Anthony argued that she had the right to vote because of the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, part of which reads, ‘No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.’

Anthony was found guilty by an all male jury and ordered to pay a $100 fine. She refused, saying, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” ans she never did. The court chose not to pursue the fine, as if it did and Anthony still refused to pay, her case would have gone to the Supreme Court – which would only create more publicity for the NWSA.

After the trial, Anthony and Stanton continued a close working relationship that focused on Women’s Suffrage. They co-wrote a history of the movement and helped to establish the International Council for Women.

Remaining leader of the NWSA until 1900, Anthony continued to speak on women’s suffrage across the country. Her 80th birthday was celebrated at the White House and she died from natural causes in 1906.

Rejecting Donald Trump’s Pardon

On August 18, 2020, —the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment— President Donald Trump announced that he would pardon Anthony, 148 years after her conviction.

In a statement, the museum’s president and CEO, Deborah L. Hughes, said:

“Anthony wrote in her diary in 1873 that her trial for voting was ‘The greatest outrage History ever witnessed.” She was not allowed to speak as a witness in her own defense, because she was a woman. At the conclusion of arguments, Judge Hunt dismissed the jury and pronounced her guilty. She was outraged to be denied a trial by jury. She proclaimed, ‘I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.’ To pay would have been to validate the proceedings. To pardon Susan B. Anthony does the same.”

Deborah L. Hughes


Images from www.nbcnews.com/ and wikipedia.org/

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