Susan B. Anthony’s last birthday on February 15, 1906, was the most bittersweet of all.
It was sweet because, at age 86, she had lived long enough to become a beloved “Aunt Susan” to countless women, both young and old. Not only that, but she was beginning to see the fruits of her labor. She enjoyed these immensely, since she had endured great scorn and mockery in her early years of activism. Newspapers filled many column inches with her praise that year, and she received many gifts.
The bitterness of the occasion was owing to the tremendous suffering she endured at that time. It was so great that she confessed to her inner circle that she was “ready to go.” That year, weakness and what Susan called the “torture” of nerve pain in her head and face kept her sidelined during most of the combined birthday celebration/convention that had become typical of her beloved National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).
Susan’s 80th birthday
Six years earlier at her 80th birthday celebration, she had taken important steps to establish her succession in the organization that she cared so deeply about. She used the well-attended annual party/convention to present Anna Howard Shaw as the new president of the NWSA. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had co-founded this organization many years before.
Three tributes stood out from the many she received that evening:
- From Wyoming, the first state to grant woman suffrage, came a flag. It bore on its field four diamonds that represented the states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho — that had already accorded women the vote.
- She received notice that upon her return home, she would find two fine Smyrna rugs to replace the worn ones in the parlor and sitting room. The Anthony home sometimes entertained 50 guests a day.
- During the party, eighty boys and girls, marching in time to music, passed in single file across the stage where Miss Anthony sat and deposited a rose—one for each of her 80 years—in her lap.
Last birthday tributes
Despite her frailty on her 86th, she must have experienced considerable satisfaction knowing that Anna Howard Shaw had things well in hand. Anna conducted most of the meetings while Susan rested in a nearby hotel with medical care. Because the attendees knew of Susan’s infirmity, they did not expect her to speak, but she wanted to say one last word. In appreciation of the new guard, she stretched out her hand to thank the national officers on the stage before saying these famous words:
Final wishes and regrets
Returning a few days later to her Rochester home under medical care, Susan took to her bed and soon developed pneumonia in both lungs.
Anna Howard Shaw kept vigil almost constantly for several days while Susan floated in and out of consciousness. Here is a conversation they had when Susan held up one hand and measured a little space on one finger:
Susan also instructed Anna to redirect funds that Susan’s brother D.R. had given sister Mary for a memorial to Susan. She said, “The best kind of a memorial would be a school where girls could be taught everything useful that would help them to earn an honorable livelihood . . . .”
Within a month of her last birthday, Susan B. Anthony was gone. Her prophecy about the awareness of her younger followers came true as the newspapers trumpeted all that Susan B. Anthony had done for them.
As this blog chronicles Susan’s life alongside her brothers and sisters, it is worth noting that only Mary, Susan’s youngest sibling, outlived the great reformer. Devoted homekeeper for all of Susan’s public life, Mary also kept vigil with Anna and the handful of other suffrage friends who had become as close as family.