Susan B. Anthony’s Lifelong Battle for Women’s Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony’s Lifelong Battle for Women’s Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony uttered these words in 1869, yet her statement rings true even today as women continue fighting for equal rights and representation in the political arena. Nearly 125 years have passed since her death, but Anthony’s relentless, outspoken campaign for women’s suffrage still stands as a guiding light for modern women seeking elected office.    

Anthony dedicated over 50 years of her life to the single cause of winning voting rights for women in the United States. She organized, lobbied, marched and even went to jail in pursuit of this elusive goal. Though she did not live to see the fruits of her efforts with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, popular history would immortalize her as one of the pioneering suffragists who cleared the path for future advances in women’s rights.    

The Seeds of Rebellion     

Born in 1820 into a Quaker family committed to social equality, Anthony seemed destined to take up the mantle of reformer from an early age. Quakers believed in ideas like pacificism, racial equality and women’s rights long before such concepts entered the mainstream discourse. Anthony moved with her family to western New York as a young girl in the early 1830s—a hotbed of religious and social experimentation known as the “Burned Over District” for its fiery reformist zeal.    

In this progressive atmosphere, Anthony received a privileged upbringing that was uncommon for most girls at the time. Her parents were staunch abolitionists who promoted universal education and self-determination. They pushed Anthony to embrace critical thinking and non-conformity. At age 17, she took on her first position as a teacher—unusual for a young woman then, given that less than half of female adults were literate.    

Anthony continued to work in education for 15 years. However, teaching in public schools and her family’s farming endeavors soon exposed her to the stark gender inequities that plagued society. She earned but a fraction of her male colleagues’ wages, often struggling financially. Laws still on the books prevented women from speaking at public assemblies or voting to influence school policies impacting female teachers.    

Galvanized by early unequal treatment in her profession, Anthony grew determined to challenge the status quo. She began covertly attending abolition meetings with her activist father as one of her first rebellious acts. In 1852, at age 32, Anthony left teaching and fully devoted herself to reform. She moved to New York City, then later Rochester, organizing anti-slavery petitions and meetings that catapulted her onto the national stage as an activist.    

Finding Her Calling in Women’s Rights     

Anthony continued to advocate for abolition, temperance and educational reform through speeches and outreach for much of the 1850s. But a pivotal moment came at a New York State temperance conference in 1852. Organizers refused to allow Anthony to speak officially just because she was a woman—even though temperance groups depended heavily on female supporters.    

This slap in the face pushed Anthony to shift her focus more wholly to women’s rights. She began collaborating closely with fellow pioneering activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, who published The Lily—America’s first newspaper run by and for women.    

Anthony’s public profile rose rapidly during this period thanks to her commanding presence and renown as a powerful orator. She also honed her skills as an organizer, helping lead large gatherings like the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850. This convention marked one of the earliest formal demands for women’s suffrage, framing voting rights as indispensable for enacting wider change. Anthony’s activism became more visible, vocal and daring.    

She lectured across dozens of states on controversial subjects like women’s participation in politics and medicine. She attacked traditional gender roles that confined middle-class white women to domestic pursuits. And she fought discriminatory laws preventing women from owning property, retaining custody of children in divorce cases, or even speaking in public forums.    

“Voting was seen as the most radical demand since it would allow women to shape legislation and lead reform causes according to their own interests rather than rely on men’s patronage,” explains Sally Roesch Wagner, historian and Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center.    

The Birth of Political Activism     

By the late 1850s, Anthony focused intensely on securing women’s suffrage—the right for women to vote in political elections. At the time, American women occupied an almost wholly separate sphere from men when it came to civic participation. They could not stand for office, serve on juries, retain earnings, or even legally serve as witnesses in court.    

Anthony believed strongly that achieving voting rights could remove these barriers to women’s independence. It would force male-dominated legislatures and courts to consider women’s perspectives when drafting laws on marriage, property ownership, child custody, employment and more.    

“She was political her whole life... she always set her sights on those in power, pressuring top leaders like Lincoln and Grant, lobbying legislators, and organizing women voters,” notes Walter Hesford, professor of English and women’s studies at SUNY Albany.    

Anthony spearheaded petition drives across New York starting in 1856 to push amendments granting women’s suffrage—though initially unsuccessful. She also founded the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures to lobby Congress on abolishing slavery.    

“There will never be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”

This prewar activism established important strategic and organizing precedents for Anthony’s later suffrage work. “She pioneered sending petitions and engaging massive numbers of women to show widespread demand for voting rights,” explains Wagner.    

By 1869, two rival women’s groups merged to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), with Anthony as a key leader. This group eventually secured the support of the Republican Representative Benjamin Butler in 1878 to introduce a federal constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.    

Though it failed to pass at the time, this represented a huge milestone—the first proposed Amendment of its kind taken up by Congress. It marked the earliest seeds of the later 19th Amendment’s origins.    

“Susan dedicated over 50 years of her life to women’s right to vote. Though it did not come to pass in her lifetime, the connections, conversations and courage she sparked were absolutely essential to its eventual adoption,” notes Johanna Neuman, historian and Leadership Scholar for Women’s Suffrage with the Library of America.    

An Unlikely Partnership Forms     

Anthony first crossed paths with fellow women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls in 1851—a fortuitous meeting that evolved into a deep 40-year partnership. Stanton proved an intellectual match for Anthony’s zealous drive and organizing skills. She was also one of the few married, middle-class women activists willing to endure the backlash and stigma of such public advocacy during the mid-19th century.    

Together, this unlikely pair formed a powerhouse around women’s suffrage, leveraging their contrasting strengths.    

Stanton’s bourgeois background, married status and experience as a mother of seven gave her more social credibility among policymakers than the single and eccentric Anthony. Stanton also possessed a brilliant legal mind—perfect for framing arguments to persuade skeptics and drafting proposed reforms.    

Meanwhile, Anthony’s organizing talents, travel and lecturing stamina, facility with the press, and spellbinding presence supplied the movement’s public engine.    

“Stanton was the writer, thinker and debater, while Anthony went out to inspire and activate public opinion, circling back with supporters and real-life stories to shape better arguments,” explains Wagner.    

Their partnership strategy proved highly effective for the next few decades—as demonstrated by their numerous suffrage victories on the state level.    

Anthony’s Public Communication and Organizing Genius     

Building public support represented the core of Anthony’s suffrage strategy for moving legislators and voters. She recognized early on that backroom lobbying held only limited sway over officials compared to overwhelming grassroots demand.    

“Susan systematically organized state-by-state simultaneous conventions with petitions, resolutions and lobbying drives to create unstoppable momentum,” describes Wagner.    

Thanks to her prior lecturing experience, Anthony also excelled as a public communicator. Her commanding presence and flair for drama electrified audiences as she gave as many as 100 speeches annually for decades. She tailored her message to diverse groups of potential voters, from miners to farmers to new immigrants.    

“She was bright, charming and direct with a homey style full of humor that made sophisticated arguments for equality accessible to all,” says Wagner.    

Anthony leveraged her celebrity profile and women’s rights newspapers to further spread the suffrage message. Letter writing represented another key tactic to keep supporters engaged. At suffrage headquarters, she kept meticulous records of every activist contact and updates within a sophisticated CRM system years before computers.    

“She was highly organized, tactically smart and dedicated well beyond belief in cultivating personal relationships with journalists, donors and lawmakers to masterfully shape public opinion,” praises Neuman.    

Thanks to her pioneering advocacy infrastructure, Anthony’s national suffrage network swelled to over 5,000 active volunteers by the 1890s distributed across 26 states. She mobilized this grassroots army to circulate petitions, arrange Hearings, lobby legislatures, and sustain interest in state and federal voting rights amendments year after year.    

Successes and Sacrifices     

Anthony’s tireless efforts did yield important milestones. By 1902, her 50th year advocating for suffrage, she had mobilized campaigns securing full voting rights for women in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho. These successes brought the first female voting blocs ever to shape critical elections.    

Anthony also mentored a new generation of activists like Alice Paul, who looked to follow in her footsteps through their own civil disobedience.    

But she faced plenty of frustrating defeats as well over her long career, including fierce opposition and ridicule. The campaign’s public battles sometimes took a toll on Anthony’s personal stability in her later years. She never married or had children—unable to reconcile such obligations with her complete devotion to the cause.    

Financial hardship also plagued her perennially from funding travel, rallies and lobbying efforts on her meager budget.    

“Susan sacrificed money, relationships and reputation for decades by attacking entrenched social conventions so publicly,” observes Neuman. “But she powered relentlessly onward believing future women’s equality hinged on the vote.”    

Anthony’s Legacy of Civil Disobedience     

As suffrage amendment proposals continued to fail nationally, Anthony shifted to more direct protest actions to accelerate change—and establish key civil disobedience tactics still impactful today.    

She organized public marches to raise awareness, like a 1906 “Prophets Walk” to the presidential inauguration. She even arranged the bizarre 1870 “Impeachment of President Grant” stunt at a Congressional Hearing for declining to adopt women’s enfranchisement—a piece of cheeky street theater that landed dozens of activists briefly in jail.    

But Anthony’s most memorable act involved willful voting crime. In 1872, Anthony walked defiantly into a polling station in Rochester, New York, to cast her ballot as an unauthorized female voter—baiting authorities to arrest her for the misdemeanor charge.    

Her raid was premeditated alongside a group of fellow women voters to force an indictment and criminal trial over suffrage exclusion. They sought to publicly shame all-male officials and courts for the injustice of barring female citizens from elections—especially as black men had secured voting rights in 1870.    

“She flouted the law intentionally to spotlight its absurdity and challenge male authority to define electoral eligibility,” analyzes Roesch Wagner.    

Anthony delivered open court testimony attacking the wording of the 14th Amendment that failed to universally affirm citizen voting privileges regardless of sex—setting up an appeal to the Supreme Court. But while the judge dismissed the charges on a technicality, he refused Anthony’s team’s constitutional arguments.    

Anthony died in 1906 without ever securing the legal female ballot to which she dedicated her life toward. And yet, her courageous direct action and relentless campaigning paved the way for successor suffragists.    

Younger activists like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns carried Anthony’s momentum into the 20th century. They staged disruptive protests, pickets and hunger strikes outside President Wilson’s White House after 1915 that forced his endorsement finally of the 19th Amendment to grant women full voting rights in 1920.    

Today, American women enjoy many hard-fought civic privileges thanks to Susan B. Anthony’s Foundational courage—appointing leaders, owning property, accessing birth control, and retaining jobs after marriage or having children.    

And yet the popular vote still eludes its first female president over 200 years since the country’s founding. American women also continue trailing most developed nations worldwide for political representation, holding under 30 percent of national legislative seats.    

“Anthony proved one committed individual could shift culture and laws dramatically. But she always asserted freedom requires vigilance by each generation to sustain and build on gains,” concludes Wagner.    

As new anti-abortion rulings now threaten to erode women’s sovereignty over their own bodies, Anthony’s intense conviction serves as a model. Her words ring as relevant as ever: “Failure is impossible, for it is the privilege of women of the present to stand on the achievements of women of the past.”    

The battle for universal gender rights first ignited by that daring band of early suffragists in Seneca Falls remains unfinished today. But thanks to ancestors like Susan B. Anthony, who sparked the flame, the fire still burns bright.     

Nora Activist

Nora Activist

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