On November 1, 1872–four days before Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected as President of the United States–Susan B. Anthony and her three sisters walked into a voter registration office in Rochester, New York. After a local inspector contacted a legal professional and required them to take an oath of registry, all four women obliged and walked out of the office as registered voters. This was a surprising result, to put it lightly, as the state of New York would not allow women to vote for another 45 years, and nationwide suffrage for women would not be legalized for another 48 years.
While this event was not the first time women attempted to cast ballots without the legal right, the developments that occurred afterwards generated unprecedented national attention and helped generate new interest in the growing women’s suffrage movement. After Anthony, her three sisters and about a dozen other women successfully voted after completing the standard oath of registry, they were all arrested less than two weeks later on charges of illegal voting. The arrests were an unexpected and dispiriting turn of events, but Anthony–always a gifted publicist as well as a strong leader–managed to use the upcoming trial as an opportunity to expose the injustices of the current voting regulations and cultivate further support for her movement.
Before the trial even began, Anthony went on a speaking tour across greater Rochester to generate support for the women’s suffrage movement. In front of large crowds, Anthony cited the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment–which grants citizenship rights to all people born or naturalized in the United States–as legal proof that federal authorities could not deny women the right to vote. As Anthony concluded her speeches, “Are women persons? Being persons, women are citizens, and no State has a right to many any new law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.”
Despite Anthony’s ability to connect with her audiences and generate support for the movement, the 1873 federal trial of United States v. Susan B. Anthony was essentially rigged against her from the start. Judge Ward Hunt, who later was appointed to the Supreme Court, directed the all-male jury to find Anthony guilty–an action that was declared unconstitutional years later. Judge Hunt also polled the jury for their opinions during the trial, and forbid Anthony from speaking or testifying. On June 18, 1873, Hunt found Anthony guilty of illegal voting. He wrote the decision before the trial even began.
Anthony was found guilty and fined $100, which she ultimately refused to pay. Despite the verdict, the trial of Susan B. Anthony arguably only helped to further her cause. Daily coverage from national publications like the Associated Press illustrated just how rigged the court was against Anthony in the first place, and depicted Anthony herself as a passionate and pioneering advocate of women’s rights. And although her supporters would have to wait another 47 years for the federal government to validate their cause with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, the trial helped to transform Anthony’s life mission from a niche cause into a national movement.
To learn more about women’s suffrage, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.
David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.