Who was Susan B. Anthony’s sister Guelma?

Spread the love
Silhouette of woman with her hair up

Susan B. Anthony’s sister Guelma Penn Anthony McLean (1818- 1873) was the oldest child in the Anthony family. She was 20 months older than Susan. Altogether there were four girls and two boys.

Guelma took her name from the first wife of Quaker William Penn, who founded the (then) British colony of Pennsylvania. Those who knew her parents would have found this no surprise, because Lucy and Daniel Anthony followed the Quaker religion. Like Susan, Guelma was born in North Adams, MA, in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains.

From the age of 15, Susan and her sister Guelma each spent summers teaching school. Although their family did not, in the early years, need the money, the parents thought it important for all girls to be self-sufficient. Both girls attended boarding school in Philadelphia, some 300 miles from home. When the Panic of 1837 occurred, the Anthonys moved to Hardscrabble, NY on the eastern edge of New York State. There, Mr. Anthony had to claim bankruptcy and remove his daughters from school.

Shortly thereafter, Guelma married a prosperous merchant Aaron McLean, son of her father’s one-time business partner.  (chapters 1 and 2). The records for Mt. Hope Cemetery show that Guelma had four children.

Close family relations

Like Hannah Anthony Mosher, Guelma and her husband remained back east when parents Lucy and Daniel relocated to a farm in Rochester. When Daniel died, Lucy moved to 17 Madison Street in the city. By this time, only Susan and Mary lived with Lucy. However, Guelma and her family also occupied the home at #17 for eight years (447), while Hannah and her family lived next door.

The two homes on Madison Street are separated only by a small garden. I can imagine the women sitting outside to snap beans or mend while the children played around them. Today, #17 is preserved as the Susan B. Anthony House Museum and the other (Hannah’s home) has been remodeled to serve as the visitor center.

This happy domestic scene had seriously unraveled by 1870. Susan had incurred a huge debt for publishing a newspaper called The Revolution. As a result, she undertook a grueling lecture schedule to repay the money. Sometimes she gave as many as 100 talks a year, keeping her away from home for extended periods. In addition, Guelma’s college-age daughter Anna Eliza and son Thomas both died. Susan noted that “his death was a heavy blow to all the family and one from which his mother never recovered.” (369)

In 1872, Susan set out to vote in the presidential election, something that a woman had never done before. In consultation with Judge Henry Selden, she studied the U.S. Constitution and was confident that the 14th amendment protected women’s right to vote because it said that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” The fact that women must pay taxes demonstrates that they are citizens, she reasoned.

Apparently, this line of thought convinced Guelma, Hannah, and Mary, as well as eleven other female friends, to vote with Susan. All were arrested, but only Susan was made an example by having to go to trial.

Years of loss for sister Guelma

When you consider Guelma’s health at that time, it’s all the more impressive that she voted. Here is Susan’s description of her eldest sister during that period:

“Her heart had been broken by the death, a few years before, of her two beautiful children just at the dawn of manhood and womanhood, and the fatal malady consumption met with no resistance. Day by day she faded away . . . .”

p. 447, Ida Husted Harper, Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony
dark-haired woman in bed

Within a year of voting, tuberculosis claimed Susan B. Anthony’s sister Guelma. Two others who went to the polls that morning in 1872 passed away the same year. Consumption was a cruel killer. By the time Guelma died, her sister Hannah was also showing signs of the disease. Susan and brother Daniel encouraged Hannah to seek her health under the clear skies of Kansas (Daniel’s home) and Colorado.

Of the original Anthonys, only Mary, Susan, and mother Lucy remained in Rochester after Hannah’s death in 1877. Daniel and Merritt were living in Kansas with their wives, establishing families of their own. Even so, various family members continued to live at Madison Street until Mary’s death.

Page references pertain to The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, by Ida Husted Harper.