Susan B. Anthony: Women’s Right to Vote

The National Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with the exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, through January 3, 2021. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

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Susan B. Anthony, undated. (Records of the Women’s Bureau, National Archives)

More than any other woman of her time, Susan B. Anthony recognized that many of the legal disabilities women faced were the result of their inability to vote.

Anthony worked tirelessly her whole adult life fighting for the right to vote, and she was instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront of American consciousness.

She spoke publicly, petitioned Congress and state legislatures, and published a feminist newspaper for a cause that would not come to fruition until the ratification of the 19th Amendment, 14 years after her death in 1906.

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Petition to Congress from Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joselyn Gage, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of the National Woman Suffrage Association, 1873. (National Archives Identifier 306687)

Despite this, she found satisfaction in casting a ballot (albeit illegally) in Rochester, New York, on November 5, 1872. What followed was a trial for illegal voting and a unique opportunity for Anthony to broadcast her arguments for woman suffrage to a wider audience.

Anthony had planned to vote long before 1872. She reasoned that she would take the first opportunity as long as she met the New York state requirement of voters residing in their homes for at least 30 days prior to the election in the district where they cast their vote. Anthony’s logic was based on the recently adopted 14th Amendment that stated that “all persons born and naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States.” Anthony reasoned that that since women were citizens, and the privileges of citizens of the United States included the right to vote, states could not exclude women from the electorate.

The 15th Amendment’s reference to the “right of citizens of the United States to vote” suggested women’s right as citizens to vote. Fundamentally, woman suffragists’ objective was to validate their interpretation through either an act of Congress or a favorable decision in Federal courts.

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15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified February 3, 1870, (National Archives Identifier 299797)

On November 5, 1872, in the first district of the Eighth Ward of Rochester, New York, Anthony and 14 other women voted in an election that included choosing members of Congress. The women had successfully registered to vote several days earlier but, a poll watcher challenged Anthony’s qualification as a voter.

Taking the steps required by state law when a challenge occurred, the election inspectors asked Anthony under oath if she was a citizen, if she lived in the district, and if she had accepted bribes for her vote. Anthony answered these questions to their satisfaction, and the inspectors promptly placed her ballot in the boxes.

Nine days after the election, U.S. Commissioner William Storrs, an officer of the Federal courts, issued warrants for the arrest of Anthony and an order to the U.S. Marshal to deliver her to county jail along with the 14 other women who voted in Rochester. Based on the complaint of Sylvester Lewis, a poll watcher who challenged Anthony’s vote, the women were charged with voting for members of the U.S. House of Representatives “without having a lawful right to vote,” a violation of section 19 of the Enforcement Act of 1870.

Anthony’s attorneys researched a way to appeal her arrest and detention to the Supreme Court of the United States. They decided that a petition to the district court for a writ of habeas corpus would ensure it would reach the Supreme Court, even though Congress in 1868 had repealed the provision for appeals on writs of habeas corpus from the lower Federal courts to the Supreme Court. Attorney John Van Voorhis argued that Anthony had a right to vote and petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus that would bring Anthony before the court so that the judge could rule if she were properly held in custody.

Judge Nathan Hall of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York granted the petition. The U.S. attorney announced that he was unprepared for argument, and the judge rescheduled the hearing for January in Albany.

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Hearing transcript for U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, page 1, 6/17/1873-6/18/1873. (National Archives Identifier 278300)

At the district court session in Albany, Anthony’s attorney Henry Selden broadened the argument he made previously and insisted Anthony had a right to vote. He acknowledged that the question of women’s right to vote was still unresolved and that the government had no justification for holding her as a criminal defendant. Anthony’s release from custody was eventually denied.

Anthony’s trial began in Canandaigua, New York, on June 17, 1873. Before a jury of 12 men, Richard Crowley stated the government’s case and called an inspector of election as a witness to confirm that Anthony cast a ballot for congressional candidates.

Henry Selden had himself sworn in as a witness and testified that he advised Anthony that the Constitution validated her capacity to vote. In transcripts of Susan B. Anthony’s testimony in her own defense, it is clear that she was thoughtful and deliberate in her account of how she made the progression from interpretation of the Constitution to affirming her perceived rights under its principles.  

Judge Hunt declared that “The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law.” He rejected Anthony’s argument that her good faith prohibited a finding that she “knowingly” cast an illegal vote and stated that “Assuming that Miss Anthony believed she had a right to vote which was illegal, and thus is subject to the penalty of law.” He surprised Anthony and her attorney by directing the jury deliver a verdict of guilty.  

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U.S. vs. Susan B. Anthony, Record of Conviction, 6/28/1873. (National Archives Identifier 278304)

In her sentencing, Susan B. Anthony was given the opportunity to address the court, and what she said stunned everyone in the courthouse:

Your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural right, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex, are, by your honor’s verdict, doomed to political subjection under this, so-called, form of government. 

Ultimately, Anthony was fined $100 and the cost of prosecution. In steadfast defiance, she declared that she would never pay a penny of her fine, and the government never made a serious effort to collect. In the end, Susan B. Anthony’s protest echoed the old revolutionary adage that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

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