Democracy on Trial: United States v. Susan B. Anthony

Posted by Pete on Jun 17th 2021

Arrested for voting in 1872, Susan B. Anthony put her freedom on the line to fight for suffrage...

The US has a long and still unfinished history of voter suppression.

But the disenfranchised have always fought back, from Thomas Dorr's Rebellion in 1840s Rhode Island to the civil rights struggles in 1960s Selma.

One lasting episode in this history of revolt is the arrest and trial of Susan B. Anthony for the crime of voting while being a woman in 1872.

Anthony's trial for illegally voting began on this day, June 17th, in 1873.

Click to view our Susan B. Anthony tea towel

Already by the Reconstruction era, Anthony was a leading figure in the US women’s movement.

Since speaking at the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1852, she had been driving forward the suffrage struggle begun at Seneca Falls.

After the Civil War – during which Anthony, as a fervent abolitionist, had campaigned for Union victory – the women’s movement made a ‘new departure.’

With Confederate reaction crushed and Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens (momentarily) on top in Washington, a series of radical amendments were made to the Constitution.

When the 19th Amendment was finally passed in 1920, it was thanks to the tireless campaigning of women like Anthony.

Click to view our 19th Amendment Heroines coaster set

Meant to secure the civil and political rights of black freedmen, many feminists believed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments implicitly enfranchised women as well.

In particular, the Fourteenth read:

“All persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Beginning in 1871, it was decided that women activists would attempt to vote in US elections until someone was arrested and tried.

The hope was that a case would reach the Supreme Court, and the suffragist reading of the Constitution would win out. American women would be enfranchised by judicial decree.

Hundreds of attempts to vote were blocked without any arrests, including 64 women in Washington D.C. – accompanied by Frederick Douglass, a long-time friend of the movement.

But then, in Rochester, New York, Susan B. Anthony managed to vote in the 1872 election, which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Horace Greeley for the presidency.

Anthony was then promptly arrested on 18 November.

The patriarchy meant to nip this new suffrage campaign in the bud…

Anthony died before the passing of the 19th Amendment, but her legacy lived on in the likes of suffragist Alice Paul.

Click to view our Alice Paul tea towel

But Anthony was one of the most formidable campaigners in 19th century America. Before her trial, she went on a whirlwind speaking tour of Rochester.

“We must get the men of Rochester so enlightened that no jury of twelve can be found to convict us.” 

For all her efforts, though, the actual trial was a farce.

Afraid of her speaking tour, the authorities moved the trial out of Rochester, hoping to find a less agitated jury elsewhere. Not that the jury mattered – the presiding Judge, having read his guilty verdict (which had been written before the trial) literally forced the jury to convict Anthony.

It was neither the first nor the last time that the principles of justice in the United States would be torn up to prevent the expansion of democracy.

Anthony was ordered to pay a fine of $100. She refused, but then the Judge declined to imprison her – because then she would be able to take her case further up the system toward the Supreme Court.

The Establishment knew her strategy, and it cut her off.

A few years later another suffragist, Virginia Minor, did manage to get a Supreme Court hearing on women voting, but the judges ruled against the feminist reading of the Constitution.

As has often happened in US radical history, the judiciary proved an ineffective tool. Women’s suffrage would end up being won through mass mobilisation in the electoral and legislative arena.

Regardless, Susan B. Anthony’s trial remains a landmark in the struggle for a non-gendered franchise in America – and a lesson that voting rights once won must be defended.

Click to view our Susan B. Anthony tea towel