Susan B. Anthony, born 196 years ago this month, certainly didn’t need others to speak for her. But she had a knack for making allies from throughout the progressive movements of the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries. So when she spoke in Peoria in 1870, it wasn’t unusual for an audience member to defend her when a conservative attacked her women’s-rights positions.
“At Peoria, the editor of the Democratic paper stated that the laws of Illinois were better for women than for men,” reported historian Ida Husted Harper in her two-volume “Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony.”
“Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, whom she never had seen, was in the audience, and sent a note to the president of the meeting, asking that Miss Anthony should not answer the editor but give him that privilege. He then took up the laws, one after another, and – illustrating by cases in his own [law] practice – showed in his eloquent manner how cruelly unjust they were to women and proved how necessary it was that women should have a voice in making them. He also offered the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted: ‘We pledge ourselves, irrespective of party, to use all honorable means to make the women of America the equals of men before the law.’”
Ingersoll, a Peoria military and political leader renowned worldwide as a “freethinker” and orator, was a prominent Republican when Republicans were the anti-slavery, relatively liberal party, and Democrats – like the editor challenging Anthony – were “state’s rights”-oriented and conservative. But more than a momentary meeting of the minds, the Peoria incident was typical of Anthony’s wide-ranging interests and impacts.
Indeed, February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, so it’s appropriate now to recall Anthony – born Feb. 15, 1820, in Massachusetts – because besides leading a decades-long crusade to extend voting rights to women, she was an ardent abolitionist before the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, working with the Underground Railroad and activists Harriet Tubman and William Lloyd Garrison.
Plus, besides women’s suffrage, Anthony advocated for women’s rights ranging from equal pay for equal work, to the rights to own property, to be joint guardians of children and to enter into contracts.
Co-publisher with advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton of The Revolution weekly (which had the motto “Men, Their Rights and Nothing More; Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less”), Anthony personified a devotion to progressive causes, featuring coverage not just about women’s issues but of politics and finance, educational reforms and the labor movement.
She had a brief alliance with the National Labor Union, but then concentrated on all-women’s trade unions, an idea that by 1903 evolved into the Women’s Trade Union League, the first all-women’s union to demand better working conditions.
Similarly, Anthony developed alliances with farmers groups such as the Grange, which supported women’s suffrage. In fact, her last public appearance, in 1903, was at the National Grange convention in Rochester, N.Y.
Also, born into a Quaker family, Anthony through the decades was described as an agnostic like Ingersoll, but she also was quite active in the Unitarian Church and in her faith life seemed to enjoy an ecumenical appreciation of religion that mirrored her social-reform instincts. In fact, New York City’s large Cathedral of St. John the Divine has a sculpture honoring four “spiritual heroes of the 20th century”: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein and Susan B. Anthony.
Finally, Anthony’s contributions were ably summed up by the late Eleanor Flexner in her 1959 book “A Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States.” Flexner wrote, “If Lucretia Mott typified the moral force of the movement, if Lucy Stone was its most gifted orator, and Mrs. Stanton its most outstanding philosopher, Susan Anthony was its incomparable organizer, who gave it force and direction for half a century.”