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History Crush: Susan B. Anthony

U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, Indictment for Illegal Voting (front), 01/24/1873 (ARC 278295), U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, Record Group 21, National Archives at New York City

Today’s History Crush guest post comes from the National Archives staff in New York City. Sara Lyons Pasquerello, education technician, and Angela Tudico, archives technician, don’t care about clichés! Their love for this suffragist will never falter—and might even expand!

As we enter Women’s History Month, it is only fitting that we reveal our history crush—Susan B. Anthony. She may seem a cliché choice, but since our office holds the Susan B. Anthony court case for illegal voting, she is hard to pass up. The case is one of the most notable ones we hold relating to women’s history. And if you scratch below the surface, there is more to this story than most people know.

Photo of Susan B. Anthony from Susan B. Anthony House Collection, Susan B. Anthony House, Rochester, NY

Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 into a Quaker family with strong ties to the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and upstate New York. The Anthony farm in Rochester, NY, served as a gathering place for community activism and nurtured Susan B. Anthony as she began her lifelong mission for social change.

One of the things we admire most about Susan B. Anthony is the combination of idealism and pragmatism that her work for the vote represented.

Her idealism hearkens back to the principles of the Founding Fathers and the belief in a government deriving its powers from the “consent of the governed,” implying a confidence and trust in a political system that excluded her.

At a time when women lacked many of the rights and recognitions afforded to men under the law, Anthony worked to achieve her goals through practical means. Her campaign tactics included speaking tours to educate the public and publicize her cause, petitions to Congress, contributions to publications, and acts of civil disobedience.

Her strong commitment to suffrage was most evident in her defiant act of voting in the 1872 election in Rochester, NY. She was arrested and charged with voting illegally. The court case relating to these charges was heard in the Northern District Court of New York, one of the Federal courts represented in the holdings of the National Archives at New York City.

The first detail that grabbed our attention was the indictment for illegal voting. The court official who recorded the charges had to add an “s” to the form, amending the document to read “she.”  It stands to reason that a society that did not allow a woman to vote had not foreseen a need to represent her on the court forms. This necessary court edit encapsulates what Anthony was fighting: the lack of voting rights denied because—in the language of the document—“being then and there a person of the female sex.” Anthony was found guilty and fined $100, which she never paid.

U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony, Indictment for Illegal Voting (back), 01/24/1873 (ARC 278295), U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, Record Group 21, National Archives at New York City

As with other iconic events, the fight for women’s suffrage is sometimes distilled to one day or one person in a larger movement that was buttressed by many supporters. The Susan B. Anthony case is no different. While her name is the most recognizable, she was neither alone in the movement nor that day in Rochester.

Anthony was joined in her illegal voting by a group of 14 other women from the community. While these women did not necessarily make a career of fighting for women’s rights as publicly as Anthony (they were teachers, widows, and housewives), their acts were no less important or courageous.

The court did not pursue these cases as they did with Anthony, which may speak to her role as leader and public face of the protest. The initial indictments, however, are also in our holdings as part of our court records. So this Women’s History Month, we will continue to learn more about these women whose names may not be as familiar as Susan B. Anthony but whose contributions are as significant.

Our history crush on Susan B. Anthony is steadfast as ever, but it is expanding to include her 14 “partners in crime”: Charlotte Bowles Anthony, Mary S. Anthony, Ellen S. Baker, Nancy M. Chapman, Hannah M. Chatfield, Jane M. Cogswell, Rhoda DeGarmo, Mary S. Hebard, Susan M. Hough, Margaret Garrigues Leyden, Guelma Anthony McLean, Hannah Anthony Mosher, Mary E. Pulver, and Sarah Cole Truesdale.

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Comments

Comment from Kathleen Williams
Time March 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Nice crush! I wanted to share the link to the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers project located at Rutgers and supported with NARA grant funds. Lots of resources there to explore! http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/