One of the most prominent leaders in the fight for women’s suffrage, Anthony spent decades traveling the country, giving speeches, petitioning Congress and publishing a suffragist newspaper. Alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and organized the first Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington. When the 19th Amendment passed, more than 14 years after her death, it became widely known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
Other aspects of Anthony’s legacy have stirred debate among historians and advocates. Conservatives have long celebrated Anthony, saying she was fervently antiabortion. The Susan B. Anthony List, a nonprofit organization in her name, focuses on promoting and supporting antiabortion politicians. But others reject this interpretation of the suffragist’s views, claiming the Susan B. Anthony List “hijacked Anthony’s name and fame to promote their own cause.”
After appearing at Tuesday’s event at the White House, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, celebrated the “sweet moment,” tweeting that Anthony “fought for the rights of all, including the unborn.”
But historians who have closely studied Anthony’s life say the suffragist would not have wanted to be pardoned. Anthony’s conviction was a point of pride for her, a symbol of the lengths to which those in power would go to prevent women from voting, said Ann Gordon, a former Rutgers University professor and editor of “The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.”
“Susan B. Anthony would have been adamantly opposed to being pardoned. She was very clear about that,” said Deborah L. Hughes, president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. “To pardon her for it is to give validity to the trial."
The White House did not consult with the museum before announcing the pardon, Hughes said. “And as the national historic landmark that bears her name, it would have been reasonable to consult with us.”
Anthony, who was born into a Quaker family in Massachusetts, was an anti-slavery activist from a young age. But in recent years, and particularly after the protests that followed George Floyd’s police killing, Anthony and other suffragist leaders have been called out for excluding Black Americans in their fight for voting rights.
She withdrew her support for the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote in 1870, reportedly saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
But Gordon disputed that interpretation of Anthony’s words and rejects the idea that she was racist. Anthony was “recognized by Black activists, male and female, as a leading advocate of a right to vote,” for all citizens, Gordon said. She worked closely with Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells and frequently met with leaders in Black churches and with Black students on college campuses.
Still, many say she didn’t do enough to advocate for Black voting rights. Raquel Willis, a Black transgender activist and communications director for the Ms. Foundation for Women, tweeted Tuesday, “It makes sense that Trump would pardon Susan B. Anthony, a white feminist who didn’t mind turning her backs on Black folks.”
The pardon also sends the message that Anthony was the most important suffragist, said Allison Lange, an associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, “and that’s a message that I don’t agree with.”
There’s a reason Anthony’s face is perhaps the most recognizable among suffragists. She was one of the few who spent substantial time and money distributing portraits of herself, Lange said. She borrowed the strategy from anti-slavery activists such as Douglass and Sojourner Truth, who aimed to shape an image of Black leadership that challenged racist and sexist stereotypes.
She voted in the 1872 election with other women in her hometown of Rochester. They believed their right to vote was protected by the 14th Amendment, which defined U.S. citizenship.
Her arrest, and the subsequent highly publicized trial, helped spread her message to an even larger audience, according to “The Trial of Susan B. Anthony for Illegal Voting,” by Douglas Linder. She embarked on a speaking tour across the surrounding counties, giving a lecture titled “Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?”
“I stand before you tonight, under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote,” she said in a speech. “It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the national Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.”
At her trial, a judge directed a jury to return a guilty verdict without deliberation. Before giving her sentence, the judge asked Anthony whether she had anything to say. She did, and delivered what Gordon called “the most famous speech in the history of the agitation for woman suffrage.”
The proceeding, she said, had “trampled under foot every vital principle of our government.” She said she had been denied justice under “forms of law all made by men,” “failing, even, to get a trial by a jury not of my peers.”
The judge sentenced her to pay a fine of $100. Anthony refused, promising to “never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty."
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