Susan Brownell Anthony’s life dedicated to social reform may have been foreordained by her birth, in Adams, Massachusetts, into the large family of a Quaker abolitionist. Tales of her childhood support the image of the forceful personality that was to emerge on lecture platforms in the 1850’s. As a young teacher in western New York, Anthony addressed such thorny issues as equal pay for women teachers and broader educational opportunities for girls. The abolition of slavery was, of course, the dominant concern of mid-19th Century reform, and she became acquainted with eminent leaders of the movement such as Frederick Douglass who visited the family home in Rochester.
The temperance movement attracted her support because she, like other feminists of her time, recognized in alcohol abuse the widespread victimization of innocent women and children who had to suffer the physical dangers and economic hardships of living with hard-drinking men. When the Sons of Temperance barred women from their ranks, Anthony organized the Daughters of Temperance.
Anthony’s celebrated collaboration with Elizabeth Cady Stanton dates from their meeting in 1851. Because Stanton’s duties as a wife and mother limited her travel during the 1850’s, Anthony was often the more visible spokesperson for women’s full legal and social equality and, as such, the more frequently ridiculed. In 1872, Anthony decided to test the protection of the 14th Amendment by attempting to register and vote in Rochester. She was arrested, tried and fined, but she refused to pay.
Today, when activists have the benefit of mass media and electronic communications, it is easy to forget the sheer physical exertion involved in the work of reform in years past: travel, writing and distributing newspapers, starting local groups, petitioning legislative bodies, pamphleteering and public speaking. Anthony, a brilliant organizer, averaged 100 speaking engagements each year during her most active period.
She once remarked that, “It has always been thought perfectly womanly to be a scrubwoman in the Legislature and take care of the spittoons; that is entirely within the charmed circle of woman’s sphere: but for women to occupy any of those official seats would be degrading.” She also said: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”