When Susan Retired Her Red Shawl

Today we commemorate the death of Susan B. Anthony.

According to Susan’s official biography, it was said that Washingtonians marked spring each year with two signs:  the return of Congress to the nation’s capital and the return of Miss Anthony in her red shawl to lobby Congress.

In her later years, the shawl was such a beloved trademark that when she stepped up on stage without it one day the newsmen ribbed her that they would not file their stories unless she wore it. She sent someone back to the hotel to fetch it. Only death could stop the indefatigable Anthony.

In 1906 (her 86th year), after making an earlier-than-usual visit to the capital, she contracted pneumonia and died at home on March 13. On her deathbed, she seemed to greet a parade of famous comrades with whom she had worked for universal suffrage. Together, they had labored long and hard and accomplished much, not only for women but for African-Americans. Still, the most precious right of female suffrage eluded her. Holding up her pinkie, she said to her lieutenant, Anna Howard Shaw, “Just think of it, I have been striving for over sixty years for a little bit of justice no bigger than that, and yet I must die without obtaining it.  Oh, it seems so cruel.”

The following is an excerpt from the New York Evening Journal’s testimonial upon Susan’s death:

No wrong under which woman suffered was too great for her to dare attack it, no injustice too small to enlist her pity and her attempt to remedy it.

She saw the tears of the slave mother with the child torn from her arms…and she was foremost among those who fought for freedom for the negro.

She saw women with great intellects starving for knowledge, and she fought to open the avenues of education to them. She saw the poverty of the sweat shop women..and she fought to better the conditions under which they worked. She saw the honor of the girl-child made the plaything of the debauchee, and she fought for laws for her protection. She saw the woman working by the side of the man for half the salary, and she fought for equal pay for equal work. She saw the intelligent, educated, tax-paying woman of the country classed by the law with the idiot, the criminal and the insane, and she died fighting, with her face to the foe, to have this monstrous injustice removed.”

Ida Husted Harper, Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, vol III. Indianapolis: Hollenbeck Press, 1908

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian

The Scandal of Speaking in Public

The National Women’s History Project salutes “countless millions of women who planned, organized, lectured, wrote, marched, petitioned, lobbied, paraded, and broke new ground in every field imaginable, [making] our world…irrevocably changed. Women and men in our generation, and the ones that will follow us, are living the legacy of women’s rights won against staggering odds in a revolution achieved without violence.”

 

For women’s history month, I have confined my selection of heroines to those who lived in 19th century America. That eliminates some of my favorite women like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland, who were both so instrumental in the second generation of suffragists that brought the movement through the final years before the woman suffrage amendment finally passed in 1920.

This is a special year for New York State, where women earned suffrage on state matters in 1917. Unfortunately New York State resident Susan B. Anthony did not live to exercise her right to vote legally in either her state or her country, for she died in 1906. Indeed, even though the entire country revered her late in life, her home state in 1894 ignored 600,000 petitions for woman suffrage, and the following year it formed an association opposed to woman suffrage. The only states that allowed women to vote in Susan’s lifetime were Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (1896).

To offset this sad showing for New York State, today I am highlighting two female reformers who blazed their way across the empire state so brightly that they inspired the young Miss Anthony. They were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who made themselves unpopular in their native Charleston by championing slavery, as memorialized in Sue Monk Kidd’s excellent historical novel The Invention of Wings. The sisters grew up as privileged daughters of a judge and plantation owner, with their slaves sleeping on the floor of their bedroom.

In an article about the sisters’ Charleston home, author Louise Knight also gives background on the economic dependence of that slaveowning city on slavery.

The striking elegance of the Grimké home reflected both the sophistication of the city they lived in and the family’s fabulous prosperity. Charleston in the early years of the nineteenth century was one of the new nation’s great metropolises. In 1810, with a population of roughly 24,711, it was the fourth largest city in the United States and possessed enormous wealth. The white community numbered 11,568. Charleston was a majority black city, with 13,143 Africans and people of African descent. In 1810, 89 percent of the black population—11,570 people—was enslaved, toiling in the households or the family stables or hiring out to work in the trades. Their unpaid labor across the city—combined with the unpaid labor of those working on plantations across the state—created Charleston’s wealth. The remaining 11 percent of the black population—some 1,430 African Americans—formed the free black community, whose skills in the trades and at the docks kept the city functioning.

Sarah and Angelina witnessed their mother’s arbitrary and cruel punishment of slaves in the “sugar house,” a place of such barbarism that its walls were soundproofed to muffle the screams of tortured persons within. Sarah taught her slave to read and would probably have been a lawyer had she been female. Angelina wrote a pamphlet entitled “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” in which she wrote:

I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? Why, if as has often been said, slaves are happier than their masters, free from the cares and perplexities of providing for themselves and their families? Why not place your children in the way of being supported without your having the trouble to provide for them, or they for themselves? Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting?

Her pamphlet was burned in Charleston. Soon after, the Grimke sisters undertook a 67-city speaking tour of the Northeast (including New York), where they amazed crowds by addressed mixed audiences, not just women—a practice that was considered scandalous because the sexes were supposed to be kept separate and women were not supposed to speak in public.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke paved the way for Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others to speak in public about abolition and on women’s rights, as well.

 

Susan B. Anthony and the Freedom of the Press

From the time she was a teenager, Susan B. Anthony hated writing. Early in her public life she lamented, “Whenever I take a pen in hand I seem to be mounted on stilts.”  It is ironic, therefore, that she left behind a literary legacy that included two years of a weekly newspaper, the four-volume set of The History of Woman Suffrage, and her three-volume authorized biography.

Despite her struggles with writing, she also became famous for giving thousands of speeches on antislavery, the restriction of alcoholic beverages, and the necessity of women’s rights.

To overcome her aversion to writing, Anthony collaborated.  From the beginning of her friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony gathered materials for her silver-tongued friend to turn into prose. Then Anthony had the speeches and articles published and circulated. As time went on, Stanton mentored her friend so well that Anthony was able to make and deliver her own speeches, as well.

It’s likely that Susan learned about publishing when she visited her brother Daniel (D.R.), who owner a newspaper in Leavenworth, KS. During that period D.R. needed time to run his mayoral campaign, so Susan stepped in to run his newspaper, “limited only by his injunction ‘not to have it all woman’s rights and negro suffrage.’” (Harper, 243) (Below, here I am in costume in Atchison, KS trying out the printing press.)

While visiting Kansas two years later, an admirer named George Francis Train offered to fund a newspaper published by Susan and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

As always, Anthony left much of the writing to Stanton and others, focusing her efforts instead on fundraising, office management, and the actual production of the issues. From 1868 to 1870 their publication gave them the freedom to voice their support of women earning their own money and the necessity of women getting the right to vote. Called The Revolution, its motto was “Men their rights and nothing more, women their rights and nothing less.”

Radical as it was, The Revolution could not support itself through subscriptions and advertisements, especially after George Francis Train fell on hard times and stopped contributing. D.R. advised Susan to publish less frequently or print on cheaper paper, but she refused.

Eventually, the money problems of The Revolution grew critical and they had to cease publication with a $10,000 debt. In her journal Anthony lamented, “It was like signing my own death-warrant.”

When Anthony  “crashed” the U.S. Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1876, she owed her strategic place on the speaker platform to D.R., who obtained a coveted press pass for her to sit there. From that vantage point she interrupted the proceedings to make a brief speech before distributing tracts in the audience and announcing her own meeting.

Nevertheless, the loss of The Revolution must have nagged at Anthony because when she received a bequest several years later, she spent it to fund a several-volume work entitled The History of Woman Suffrage. Although she embarked on this venture with Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, she ended up buying them out.

Visitors to Anthony’s Rochester home can see early pictures of a two-story house followed later by those of a three-story dwelling. That’s because Susan and her sister Mary added a third-floor workroom to accommodate the History.

Writing and publishing takes time, energy, and cash flow. Alongside her many accomplishments promoting human rights, Miss Anthony marshalled her resources in such a way that she was able to leave her literary mark, as well.

Guelma Voted with Susan B. Anthony

What sacrifices our foremothers made for the right to vote! I’m reposting this since most of it got cut off last time.

Lovers of Anthonsilhouette w braidy memorabilia like to refer to Susan’s youngest sister, Mary, as the wind beneath the famous reformer’s wings. It’s easy to see why, since Mary remained single, cared for mother Lucy Anthony in her widowhood, kept the Madison Street home where numerous family members lodged  (including Susan), and was a leader in the Women’s Political Equality Club. But who were the other two sisters, Guelma and Hannah?

Continue reading

Voting This Year?

 

Seneca Falls 1If you are one of the millions of Americans who has decided not to vote this year, please think again. Being an admirer of suffrage advocates Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I support voting as a right to be cherished, even if you think the selections on the ballot are not optimum.

This is not a sneaky plug for one candidate or the other but a plea to support the American voting system (whether you think it’s flawed or not) that so many of our forbears have sacrificed so much to achieve.

Need information about candidates? Type “2016 ballot sample” into your internet browser and enter your address. You will receive a complete listing of national, state, and local candidates and can read about them at leisure.  Don’t lose sight of those people seeking election for state and local posts because someday they may be running for the higher-profile offices.

You can also get candidate information from the League of Women Voters at http://www.vote411.org/. Click here for their interesting summary of how voter turnout counteracts the millions of dollars spent trying to swing elections.

My travels last month afforded me the opportunity to hear sobering perspectives on our 2016 presidential election from both Canadians and Mexicans. Then I visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park to reflect on the beginnings of the universal suffrage movement  in the U.S.

These photos that I took there show some of the pioneers who staked their reputations, personal safety, and resources on getting the vote. The first group of inspiring statues depicts Elizabeth Cady Stanton holding the umbrella while standing next to (very tall) Frederick Douglass. The next photo shows James and Lucretia Mott who, with Douglass and Stanton, were some of the original signers of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments that kicked off the women’s movement in Seneca Falls, NY.

Voting is like a muscle. You have to exercise it to stay healthy. So go out and do it!

Brain teaser: why was Susan B not represented among the bronze statues at Seneca Falls?

 

 

Susan B., Up Close

SBA age 48 800

Did young Susan B. dutifully eat her vegetables, wonders Sonja Livingston, in Queen of the Fall. And when she got older, was she too preoccupied with higher things to attend to such mundane realities as food?

Hardly! For an up-close and personal view of Rochester’s very own heroine, come see my costumed portrayal of her this month:

Writers & Books, 740 University Avenue, Rochester

Saturday, March 19, 11 AM      $3.50 adults, children free

Celebrate Women’s History Month with Susan B. Anthony

Jeanne Gehret as Susan B. Anthony

Jeanne Gehret as Susan B. Anthony

Why did Sonja Livingston include Susan B. Anthony among the “girls and goddesses” in her memoir Queen of the Fall?

To find out, come to my performance of “Failure is Impossible,” presenting Susan B. Anthony herself in costume!

11 AM Saturday, March 19

Writers & Books

740 University Avenue, Rochester

(585) 473-2590, x107.

$3.50 for adults, children free

Tracking Women’s Rights

world of inquiry 800Recently I had the pleasure of presenting Susan B. Anthony in costume at the World of Inquiry School in the Rochester City School District. Approximately 100 seventh-graders, in groups of 20, cycled through several costumed speakers who introduced students to a variety of 19th century issues, including temperance, antislavery, physical abuse, unequal access to education, child labor, and women’s rights.

We like to think ourselves well-advanced beyond Americans of the 1900s, but are we, really? We still have problems with alcoholism, racism, abuse, and women’s rights. And today, children as young as eight years being trafficked in the sex trade, a form of child labor that is even more appalling than the factory work of 19th century youngsters .

Some of the World of Inquiry classes were all girls, others all boys. Presenting Miss Anthony’s impassioned plea for women’s rights to seventh-grade boys presented a unique opportunity. Why should young males, at the beginning of their adult years, voluntarily rescind some of their natural rights to girls? “Miss Anthony” drew upon her Quaker upbringing to challenge those teenagers to respect themselves and accord the same respect to the females in their lives. She asked them to consider what happens to women who are dependent on men when the men must leave their women, in situations such as military service or death. Would a respectful man want to put a woman he loves at risk for a life of poor education and poor wages just so he can act superior to her when he is present?

We costumed presenters kicked off a curriculum unit entitled “Fighting for Change.” Following our appearances, the teachers have helped students work through some of the nuances of these social problems and take them from the common teenage refrain of “It’s not fair” to “What am I going to do about it?” Sounds to me like a worthy goal.

In the above photo from that event are pictured David Anderson as Frederick Douglass, Victoria Schmidt as an Erie Canal cook, Jeanne Gehret as Susan B. Anthony, Christine Ridarski (historian, City of Rochester), and Jeffrey Ludwig as an early temperance advocate.