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Susan B Anthony's 1873 trial and the downfall of patriarchy

The trial, United States v. Susan B Anthony, began on June 17, 1873 and was closely followed by the national press
Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906), American feminist leader, fought a lonely battle (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906), American feminist leader, fought a lonely battle (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At a time when most women were illiterate, could not own property, had few legal rights and were almost 'subservient' to men in their daily lives, Susan B Anthony wanted to change the country. And so, at an early age, she started campaigning for women's rights. Born into a Quaker family that was committed to social equality and reform, she is hailed to be one of the early suffragists because of whom American women today have the right to vote.

Lately, however, she has seen a fair amount of criticism. Especially in light of former President Donald Trump pardoning her on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, when critics from all circles came forward to voice their concerns about the celebration of her life. Nonetheless, on the anniversary of her arrest, here's a deep dive into the social reformer and women's rights activist who played a key role in the women's suffrage movement.


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Who was Susan B Anthony? 

“Here, in the first paragraph of the Declaration, is the assertion of the natural right of all to the ballot; for how can "the consent of the governed" be given, if the right to vote be denied?”

Susan B Anthony was born on February 15, 1820. Her brothers were supporting the anti-slavery movement and moved to Kansas in order to focus on that. One of them would fight against pro-slavery forces during the Bleeding Kansas crisis, while the other would go on to become a mayor. 

She is known to have started her activism journey early on taking inspiration from the radical ideas of George Thompson, William Lloyd Garrison and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was finally introduced to the latter in 1851. Soon they would become close friends and form a close relationship that affected the larger women's movement as a whole.

One of Anthony's biographers said, "Susan became one of the family and was almost another mother to Mrs Stanton's children." During the early years of their relationship, "Stanton provided the ideas, rhetoric, and strategy; Anthony delivered the speeches, circulated petitions, and rented the halls. Anthony prodded and Stanton produced."

What happened in 1872?  

On June 6, 1872, the pioneering feminist was fined for voting in a presidential election at Rochester, New York. On election day, Anthony and fourteen other women managed to convince election inspectors to allow them to cast ballots. But this was not appreciated by most people around her. 

On November 18, 1872, she was arrested by a US deputy marshal and charged with illegally voting. While the other women who voted were also arrested, they were released pending the outcome of Anthony's trial, which had generated a massive controversy. She was later convicted in this widely publicized trial. It is here that she delivered the famous speech, 'Is it a Crime for a US Citizen to Vote?'

She said, "We no longer petition Legislature or Congress to give us the right to vote. We appeal to women everywhere to exercise their too long neglected 'citizen's right to vote'."

The trial 

The trial, United States v. Susan B Anthony, began on June 17, 1873 and was closely followed by the national press. Anthony couldn't speak to the press until the verdict had been delivered as there was a common law at the time that prevented criminal defendants in federal courts from testifying. Justice Ward Hunt had refused to allow her to do so. 

When Justice Hunt sentenced Anthony to pay a fine of $100, she  famously responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty." And she did not. And that was the end of it. In a speech given a year later, Anthony said, “It is downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government.”

Susan B Anthony died at the age of 86 of heart failure and pneumonia in her home in Rochester, New York, on March 13, 1906. Till the end, she continued to campaign for women's suffrage across the country. Anthony did not live to see the achievement of women's suffrage. Following her death in 1906 — after five decades of tireless work and 14 years before the 19th Amendment was passed — the Democratic and Republican parties both endorsed women's right to vote.