The Truth Behind Woman Suffrage

Susan B. Anthony, suffragetteSusan B. Anthony, suffragette (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)

In the lore of American history, the story goes that American women won the right to vote after Susan B. Anthony was arrested and beaten for voting in 1872. A popular meme on Facebook accompanies this story with a photograph that clearly shows a woman being knocked to the ground. In fact, the story about Anthony is only partially true. Anthony was arrested for the crime of voting in 1872, but she was not beaten. And the photograph is not of Susan B. Anthony, but of the British suffragette, Ada Wright, who was beaten in 1910 for demanding the right to vote in England.

On November 5, 1872, Anthony, four of her sisters, and several other women from Rochester, New York, cast ballots in the presidential election. Their argument, which was one adopted by other suffragists in the US, was that the Fourteenth Amendment granted women the right as citizens to vote; in fact, the Constitution did not expressly exclude women from voting as citizens. Suffragists dubbed their argument the New Departure theory. Around the country, more than 150 women in ten states had varying degrees of success in registering to vote and then voting in the presidential election that year. Some, like Anthony, successfully voted. In a letter to her dear friend and fellow suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony wrote gleefully, “Well I have been & gone and done it!!—positively voted the Republican ticket—strait—this A. M. at 7 o’clock—& swore my vote in, at that….

About three weeks after the election, a Deputy US Marshal came to the Anthony home and arrested her on the orders of William Storrs, US Commissioner, serving the US circuit court in Rochester, and empowered to issue warrants for arrest when federal laws were violated. The Marshal escorted her to the office of the US Commissioner where she was questioned about her crime. The inspectors, who had allowed Anthony to vote, as well as fourteen other women who voted, were also among those arrested. Anthony and the other women were arrested under the Enforcement Act of 1870, which stipulated, in part, “Any person…who shall vote without having a legal right to vote; or do any unlawful act to secure…an opportunity to vote for himself or any other person, shall be deemed guilty of a crime.” This law was one of two enforcement acts designed to protect the rights of former slaves to vote, hold public office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection under the law, and to prevent fraud and corruption. Anthony was charged with voting for a representative of the Congress of the United States without having the right to vote. A grand jury indicted the fifty-two-year- old Anthony in January of 1873, and set the trial date for May. She was the only one of her group to be tried; it was clear that since Anthony was well known for her suffrage activities, she was going to be held accountable.

Anthony’s arrest and trial became big news. Newspapers around the country reported on the story. She refused to pay bail, but her attorney, Henry Selden, paid the bail himself. Anthony’s trial was set for May, and not being held in jail until trial, she managed to keep her speaking and travel engagements. Anthony spoke to crowds across Rochester and surrounding counties. She told her audiences, “I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted illegally…. I shall endeavor this evening to prove to you that in voting, I not only committed no crime, but simply exercised my “’citizen’s right,’ guaranteed to me….” A judge changed the trial venue from her home in Monroe County to Canandaigua in Ontario County in part because he believed that her speech had tainted any possible juror in Monroe.

After a month’s delay, the trial opened on June 17, 1873 with Supreme Court Associate Justice Ward Hunt presiding. Spectators crowded the courtroom for a two-day spectacle. US District Attorney Richard Crowley presented the government’s case, while in Anthony’s defense were Henry Selden and John Van Voorhis.

In his opening statement to the court, Crowley offered that the defendant, at the time of the voting crime, “was a woman. I suppose there will be no question about that.” Instead, Crowley argued that the question was “whether or not the defendant committed the offence of voting for a representative in Congress upon that occasion.” Representing the state, Crowley stood firm on the ground that Anthony, as a woman, did not have the right to vote, and was therefore guilty of the crime of voting. Declared incompetent as a witness—again because she was a woman—Anthony was not able to testify on her own behalf. After the state rested, Selden argued for several hours. He covered many parts of the Constitution as well as relevant case law to argue that women, as citizens of the United States, had the right to vote, and that he, as her attorney, had advised her that she had the right to vote. Therefore, Anthony had voted in good faith and should not be considered a criminal for voting.

The “trial” was a mockery. In addition to declaring Anthony incompetent to testify, Justice Hunt, the presiding judge, waited until opposing attorneys finished their arguments and then pulled out a statement, evidently written ahead of the trial. In it he declared that he was already certain that Anthony was not able to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment and rejected the idea that she had unknowingly cast an “illegal” ballot. He instructed the jury to find Anthony guilty of the crime of voting. Despite the protests of her lawyers over the lack of professionalism, a guilty verdict was rendered without polling the jurors. Instead, the judge simply dismissed the jurors before they were polled. The following day, Anthony’s lawyers called for a new trial because her Constitutional right to a trial by jury had been violated. The judge denied the motion.

Judge Hunt then ordered Anthony to stand and asked if she had anything to say before sentence was pronounced. “Yes, your honor,” replied Anthony, “I have many things to say; for in your rendered verdict of guilty you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.” She had, she said, been diminished from a citizen to a subject. The judge finally interrupted her and said that she could not be allowed to continue. She continued anyway. Finally, Anthony sat down and the judge pronounced her sentence. She was to pay a $100 fine and the costs of the prosecution. Anthony pledged that she would never pay the fine, “and I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that “’Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”

Susan B. Anthony never paid the fine. Her case ended there, because her seemingly well-meaning attorney paid her bail, but another case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Virginia Minor of St. Louis had also attempted to register to vote in the 1872 election. When denied by the election registrar, Reese Happersett, Minor filed suit against Happersett in the Missouri state courts. Before the Supreme Court, Minor’s lawyers argued that the Fourteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. In 1875, in Minor v. Happersett, the Supreme Court—now including Hunt—unanimously ruled that women were certainly citizens but that citizenship did not necessarily convey the right to vote. Therefore, the federal government did not have the right to decide who could or could not vote; only the states could make that determination.

Minor v. Happersett meant that the only way women could get the vote was either by changing state laws or by amending the federal constitution. For the next forty-five years, those were the courses that women pursued. For all of the drama of the story about Anthony’s failed, supposedly violent effort to win the vote, it actually took a long, hard, legal struggle for America to achieve woman suffrage.

About the Author

DeAnna Beachley

DeAnna Beachley teaches U.S. History and Women's Studies at the College of Southern Nevada. She is currently working on a study of what happened to the National Woman's Party women who picketed the White House for the vote in 1917.

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