In 1979 the Susan B. Anthony silver dollar first appeared in the pockets and purses of the American public. The coin was controversial; people found it too similar in size and weight to the quarter and awkward to deal with. But the abolitionist and women’s suffrage campaigner for whom it was named would likely have been pleased, as she was accustomed to causing discomfort and was no stranger to controversy.
Susan Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, fittingly enough in a Massachusetts town named for a revolutionary hero, Samuel Adams. The famous middle initial would come later, when she adopted it in honor of a beloved aunt. Raised and educated in the Quaker faith, she would eventually leave its strictures behind and adopt Unitarianism. But her early religious upbringing and her family’s example imbued her with a zeal for equality. Such was this passion that she made the unusual decision not to marry, declaring “I never found the man who was necessary to my happiness. I was very well as I was.” She hoped her example would be followed by others, later saying, “If women will not accept marriage with subjugation, nor men proffer it without, there is, there can be, no alternative. The woman who will not be ruled must live without marriage.”
Slavery was her first target. Even in her teens, she showed a flair for organization and helped bombard Congress with antislavery petitions. Later she worked on the Underground Railroad, assisting Harriet Tubman in conveying runaway slaves to freedom. An unapologetic radical, she proclaimed a vision of racial equality far more advanced than many of her fellow antislavery activists.
But the cause for which she is most remembered today is that of voting rights for women. To Anthony, this and the abolitionist struggle were seamlessly linked and invested with equal moral urgency: “Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.” After the Civil War, she cofounded the American Equal Rights Association, with the goal of winning the vote for blacks and women. Some senior abolitionists—savoring the triumph of the destruction of slavery and determined to secure the political rights of those who had been freed–looked askance at her determinedly dual approach.
But Anthony would not be swayed. Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her partner in many endeavors, she co-founded The Revolution, a newspaper devoted to the cause of women’s rights. But the publication soon slipped from her control, and the tension between the campaign for black voting rights and the struggle for female suffrage threatened to overwhelm the movement. Anthony controversially campaigned against what would become the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, because it guaranteed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” but made no mention of votes for women.
Despite this, her fame continued to grow, and in 1872 her encouragement of a group of suffragists in New York to cast votes in the presidential election led to her arrest. The United States v. Susan B. Anthony was a spectacular trial that gave her an enviable platform, and she was not about to waste it. Ignoring the judge’s commands to keep quiet, she shouted from the dock, “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 was found guilty and fined but refused to pay. The judge did not dare sentence her to prison. (Anthony was posthumously pardoned by President Donald Trump.)
Susan B. Anthony devoted the remaining decades of her life to the cause of votes for women, becoming a figure of national and international renown. She was supported by celebrities and feted at the White House by presidents of both parties. In one of her later public utterances, Anthony modestly said, “There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause…with such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible!”
Anthony celebrated her 86th and final birthday in the nation’s capital, dying at home in New York a few days later, her struggle for women’s voting rights yet unwon. But not long before, she had looked to the future with satisfaction, observing, “We old fighters have prepared the way, and it is easier than it was fifty years ago when I first got into the harness. The young blood, fresh with enthusiasm and with all the enlightenment of the twentieth century, must carry on the work.”
Her ultimate victory was imminent. In 1920, the centenary of her birth, the short, pithy, and powerful Nineteenth Amendment was ratified: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Failure was indeed impossible.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.