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200 Years after Susan B. Anthony’s Birth, Examining Her Role in the History of Women’s Voting Rights

Purple stamp featuring an illustration of Susan B. Anthony.

Susan B. Anthony stamp, National Postal Museum. © United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

You may know Susan B. Anthony  for her efforts for women's right to vote (suffrage) and as the determined face on the U.S. dollar coin. But as we reach her 200th birthday on February 15, 2020, there's more to her life and legacy to explore.

Anthony's career in politics spanned nearly seven decades, beginning with her early work in the anti-slavery movement through her death just 14 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. The amendment declared that the right to vote shall not be denied on account of sex.

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Red silk shawl with honeycomb-style patterned border and fringe on the ends.
Susan B. Anthony’s silk shawl, National Museum of American History.
 

This new video from our National Museum of American History museum highlights how Anthony's red shawl was a common sight in Washington, D.C., as she visited the offices of legislators to speak  about women's voting rights.

 

As the video explains, Anthony trained women who went on to fight for suffrage (the right to vote) using tactics they learned at her side. One of Anthony's political powers was motivating people to share a common cause. She worked closely with her lifelong friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton to found the National Woman Suffrage Association, which grew into one of the largest groups advocating for women's voting rights.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony sit at a small table for this formal photograph. Anthony points at a single book open on the table.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (around 1870) by Napoleon Sarony, National Portrait Gallery.
 

But there were some who disagreed with Anthony and Stanton's path toward the vote. The now-closed Votes for Women exhibition at our National Portrait Gallery included the portrait above of Anthony with the following label:

"Susan B. Anthony worked tirelessly for sixty years to change restrictive voting laws and empower women. Her activism began with abolitionism in the 1840s, but she later opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage to African American men. Regrettably, her profound frustration with the dominant male chauvinist culture of the nineteenth-century United States moved her to adopt racist positions in the hopes of reaching her goal."

In 1869, Anthony said, "The old anti-slavery school say women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first."

This narrow focus on voting rights for white women caused a rift among organizations working for women's suffrage. Many suffragists disagreed with Anthony, including Lucy Stone and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Lucy Stone led the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The AWSA supported voting rights for African American people as part of their work for women's voting rights. Author and public speaker suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper also spoke publicly in favor of the 15th Amendment (granting African American men the right to vote) as part of the larger push for suffrage.

The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870—though it wasn't until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that African Americans could legally vote unimpeded. Anthony wasn't there to witness the ratification of the 19th Amendment but, like she said in her last public address at a 1906 birthday celebration for her in Washington, D.C., "failure is impossible."

In 2020, as we mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, we have the unique opportunity to consider the legacies of those who worked to expand the vote and those who continue to protect the right to vote today. Learn more about the suffrage movement in the upcoming exhibit Creating Icons: How We Remember Woman Suffrage at our National Museum of American History.

Sara E. Cohen works as the Digital Content and Audiences Coordinator for Because of Her Story. She works to share women's history from across the Smithsonian on this website, in our newsletter, and on Smithsonian social media channels.

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Activism
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