On Susan B. Anthony’s Birthday, Celebrate Women’s Suffrage, but Don’t Whitewash the Movement’s Racism

By February 15, 2022Women's Rights

Susan B. Anthony always dressed in black, maybe because she was raised a Quaker; or possibly because she mourned the unfinished business of woman’s freedom throughout her life’s work.

Born 202 years ago February 15, 1820, she is the first person history students cite when asked to name a suffragist. She was the first-ever woman whose image was engraved on a U.S. coin in 1979. Her bronze statue, included in a trio with activists Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, is erected in NYC’s Central Park. She is the G.O.A.T. feminist.

Anthony, first a teacher, then staunch anti-slavery abolitionist, found it infuriating that white men, whom she considered generally repressive and often drunken, had total legal power over their wives and children, money and property. She became a female agitator who recognized that unless women could vote they would keep fighting the same battles for equality over and over again. She traveled many miles, gave hundreds of speeches, collected thousands of signatures on petitions and organized everyday women to push for women’s voting rights, before dying of heart failure in March 1906, just after turning 86.

“Woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself.” 

There is more to her story, however. The reveals, not much mentioned, in history books are her lesbian identification and racist leaning. She was not always racially biased, and some scholars speculate whether her ideologies were influenced by a lifelong friendship with suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton (married, supposedly straight and mother of seven) who devolved into ugly racist discourse when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1869 giving Black men the vote.

Stanton spoke along the lines of: “We educated, virtuous White women are more worthy of the vote [than low-minded Black men],” according to historian Lori Ginzberg in a 2011 NPR interview. Ginzberg argues convincingly that “racism and elitism were enduring features of the great suffragist’s [Susan Anthony’s] makeup and philosophy.”

Fifteenth Amendment

Stanton and Anthony both opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, despite respective histories with anti-slavery movements and long friendships with Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. If not for Douglass’s powerful speech at the first Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, NY (1848), the resolution for women’s rights might not have taken flight, but neither activist reciprocated, instead positioning their objection to Black men voting as a preference toward universal human rights for all [implying all women].

Anna Howard Shaw describes their partnership in The Story of a Pioneer (Pilgrim Press 1994): “Mrs. Stanton was a master of words and could write and speak to perfection of the things Susan B. Anthony saw and felt but could not herself express.”

For more than half a century, Anthony fought tooth and nail for the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s right to vote), but only for White women. In 1920 when the law was ratified, Black women were excluded and remained so until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the roots of discrimination having been planted 175 years before.

LGBTQ Impact

Susan B. Anthony was a mastermind, also important because historians are uncovering the remarkable role lesbian women (both Black and White) played in leading feminist movements since the 19th century. Maya Salam of the New York Times wrote, in a piece entitled, How Queer Women Powered the Suffrage Movement (2020): “For many suffragists, scholars have found, the freedom to choose whom and how they loved was tied deeply to the idea of voting rights.”

Among Susan B. Anthony’s many accomplishments:

  • Anti-slavery efforts leading to abolishment of slavery in the U.S.
  • Leadership in the American Equal Rights Association (AERA)
  • With Stanton, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association (split from AERA) supporting women’s rights first or simultaneously women’s and Black men’s rights, as opposed to Black men’s rights first
  • Important catalyst for passing the Married Women’s Property Act
  • Feminist icon

Q. Why the most iconic? A. Photographs are worth a thousand words when it comes to countering racist and sexist newspaper cartoons. Borrowing from Douglass and Truth, she realized the effectiveness of selling her own portraits, the size of baseball cards — to raise money and awareness at a time when photos were uncommon. Hundreds of images of her and Stanton and many others are archived in the Official Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester, NY.

LGBTQ scholar Lillian Faderman’s book, To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done For America – A History (Boston: Mariner 2020), details the impact of dozens of lesbian suffragists. The most legendary was Susan B. Anthony, whose relationship with suffragist Anna Elizabeth Dickinson and longterm “Boston marriage” to Emily Gross, wife of a wealthy Chicago businessman, were kept discretionary but figured largely in her life, according to her letters. She was not “abnormal” or “unsexed,” as critics described her.

Anthony expressed on one occasion the wish “to live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women.” Likely, she would be both elated and shocked in 2022: elated that we elected the first U.S. female vice president, but shocked that Kamala Harris is a women of color; elated over the LGBTQ movement, but shocked that the Equal Rights Amendment is still in limbo; and elated that women are vastly elevated in our society, but shocked that equal pay is still a pipedream despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Would she say it’s still a man’s world and we’re just passing through?