Happy 200th birthday to the woman who dared
Three years before Susan B. Anthony and a small group of women cast their ballots for president in Rochester in 1872 in an audacious act of defiance that jump-started the women’s suffrage movement, she addressed a gathering in Detroit on the cause.
“Susan B. Anthony looked down upon a fair audience at Young Men’s Hall last evening, though the majority went there, just as people every day go into menageries, to see how the animal looked,” was how the Detroit Free Press led its report of the event.
“People went there to see Anthony, who has achieved an evanescent reputation by her strenuous endeavor to defy nature,” the piece went on. “No one woman in a hundred cares to vote, cares aught for the ballot, would take it with the degrading influences it would surely bring.
“She could not deny that the more a woman tried to be a woman — a wife, a good mother — the more she would win the respect of the opposite sex. Old, angular, sticking to black stockings, wearing spectacles, a voice highly suggestive of midnight Caudleism at poor Anthony, if he ever comes around, though he never will.”
At the time, it was 1869 and Anthony was 49 years old.
On February 15, the nation, but especially Rochester, where Anthony made her home, celebrates the 200th anniversary of Anthony’s birth. Recently, 1,200 people packed the Rochester Riverside Convention Center for an annual event marking Anthony’s birthday hosted by the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House.
There is no shortage of glowing tributes to her in the media. Google honored her with a Google Doodle. Her place in history firmly established, Anthony today is largely portrayed as the heroine she was.
But the press wasn't always so kind to her.
Like American society’s acceptance of the long, slow march to women’s suffrage that Anthony led, the media attention paid to her while she was alive evolved over time. During the course of her life, she was characterized as an animal, a man, a threat, and a laughingstock in her younger years and, as she aged, a sweet and strong woman of dignity and grace.
“The press could be brutal to Anthony,” said Deborah Hughes, the president and chief executive officer of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House. “In the early years, she was a caricature and they did everything to discredit her and the women’s movement.”
As Anthony rose to prominence, news reports of her routinely dripped with the casual misogyny of the times. Reporters, the vast majority of them men, fixated on her appearance, remarking on her dress, describing her as frumpy and stern, and as having “a masculine jaw line” and a “vinegar visage.”
News accounts of the same events, too, contained wild contradictions. Where one reporter would cast her voice as too loud, intimating manliness, another would write that her voice was too soft, suggesting she was weak.
Many depictions of her were unquestionably abusive.
The Weekly Caucasian out of Lexington, Missouri, whose name leaves little to the imagination of the newspaper’s editorial stance, referred to her a few months before she defiantly cast her ballot as, “The mule-straddling crowing hen and cackling rooster of the cackling hennery.”
Around the same time, newspapers across the country ran blurbs, intended to be humorous, about how furniture dealers had taken to calling the single bed frames they manufactured for hotels and boarding houses “Susanthonies.”
“Susan B. Anthony, sex not known, of untellable age, whose only loose joint appears to be the middle, demonstrated the intolerance of strong-minded females at once,” began a report on the Equal Rights Convention of 1869 in the Coshocton Democrat, a newspaper in Ohio.
“They were making the argument that women who take on these public roles and demand these rights that had traditionally been reserved for men are a threat to society,” Christine Ridarsky, historian for the city of Rochester and editor of the book, “Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Equal Rights,” said of the press. “They get that message across in some cases by portraying her as overtly manly or sometimes even as monstrous.”
THE WOMAN WHO DARED
Perhaps the most glaring example of the maltreatment Anthony endured in the press, was a political cartoon that ran on the front page of the New York Daily Graphic in 1873 as she was awaiting trial on federal charges for voting without having the right to cast a ballot.
Titled “The Woman Who Dared,” Anthony stands front and center in what appears to be a public square sporting a harsh expression and transgendered persona. Atop her head sits a stovepipe hat of stars and stripes, a fashion accessory worn by men. She wears men’s boots on her feet and leans on an umbrella, one arm akimbo.
Around her, the world as Americans knew it has been turned upside down. In the background, a woman dressed as a police officer stands at attention, and men tote babies and groceries. Meanwhile, placard-waving demonstrators, all of them women, mimic men’s political rallies. Should Anthony prevail at her trial, the editors wrote, “the results will be such as our artist has predicted in the surroundings.”
In other words, this is what will become of the United States if women get the vote. Women take possession of public spaces and conduct political forums, hold well-paying jobs, and wear uniforms, while men help with food preparation and child rearing.
The illustration, said Anthony scholar Ann Gordon, a professor at Rutgers University, suggested Anthony’s mission was unmistakably broad. “There isn’t another illustration of her that has so many messages simultaneously,” Gordon said.
At the same time, Gordon noted, the placement of the cartoon and other media coverage of her after her vote represented something of a turning point for Anthony in that she and the women’s suffrage movement were making the front pages.
“She’s badly attacked in the early days if they don’t like her ideas,” Gordon said. “And she’s also getting attacked because she’s a single woman doing things women shouldn’t be doing alone. There was no husband who is going to shoot you. She was exposed.
“But another measure one could take is that her speeches were often covered in great detail,” Gordon went on. “To me, that is a mirror of what the press is thinking about her and assuming about its audience. If readers couldn’t go hear her, they’re going to want to read about her.”
HER VOTE WAS COVERED, SORT OF
Anthony and a small group of women cast their ballots for president in the Eighth Ward of Rochester on November 5, 1872, a few days after she had persuaded election inspectors to register them.
It is tempting in retrospect to imagine that an act of defiance with such ramifications would have made the front pages. But in most cases, it didn’t.
The Democrat and Chronicle, for instance, made no mention of the event itself until Anthony was arrested two weeks later. Even then, the newspaper ran a single paragraph ripped out of another newspaper, The New York Examiner.
“To vote illegally is a penal offense,” the blurb read in part. “The lady voters have been prosecuted. If they have not the right of voting, some women will have a chance of being made equal with some men by being sentenced to the same prison.”
The press initially deemed her vote as insignificant and the potential consequences as fleeting. The New York Times published a single paragraph the following day under the heading “Minor Topics.”
Another Rochester daily newspaper of the day, the Rochester Union and Advertiser, devoted six sentences to the vote on the day it occurred, concluding, “It is safe to say that in the event the votes cast by women today in this city should determine the result between any two candidates, the matter will be taken into the courts.”
But the Union and Advertiser touched on the topic again in the ensuing days with more substantive editorials that acknowledged the heightened stakes. One of them lambasted “the progress of female lawlessness instead of the principle of female suffrage” and “the efforts of Susan B. Anthony & Co. to unsex themselves and vote as . . . both criminal and ridiculous.”
“The people of the male sex, and the officers of the law, who should take proper cognizance of the outrage upon the ballot box in the Eighth Ward of this city, appear to ignore it and treat it as a joke. But it is no joke,” read one editorial under the headline, “The Women Voting Nonsense.”
Despite its obvious bias and dismissive misogyny, the items recognized that the event could lead to a momentous societal shift.
The real shift in the way the media covered Susan B. Anthony would not occur until the following year, however, when the judge in her case, Ward Hunt, directed the jury to render a guilty verdict.
His order, and opinion, which he had written in advance to, as he said, ensure that “there would be no misapprehension about my views,” was widely panned in the press as unconstitutional.
“Things changed after that because people were so outraged at what Hunt had done,” Gordon said. “The press became less concerned with the voting issue than this horror that could happen to anyone. It really shifted the emphasis.”
The trial of Anthony made women’s suffrage a national issue. But the sham that was the outcome, coupled with burgeoning momentum for the cause, had the effect of eliciting broad sympathy for Anthony and women’s suffrage.
'KEEP THEM TALKING'
Anthony, who died in 1906 at the age of 86, would not live to see the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the vote ratified in 1920.
But toward the end of her life, media coverage of her had shifted markedly. That was due, in part, to society’s realization of the justness of her cause, but also her steadfast weathering of the press’s barbs with optimism and humor and her willingness to be available to the press.
Showman and circus owner P.T. Barnum is widely credited with coining the mantra, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but it was a concept that Anthony seemed to have innately understood.
“One of the interesting things about Anthony is she totally understood the power of the press and knew how to use it,” said Hughes, of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House. “She was a genius about that. . . . She understood, keep them talking. She knew how important it was to be out in public.”
A week or so before her death, the Democrat and Chronicle, which had ignored her history-making vote a generation earlier, published a glowing feature story on Anthony by the suffragette journalist Rheta Child Dorr, who worked for the New York Evening Post.
“Miss Anthony would assuredly have sunk beneath the abuse which has been heaped on upon her head had it not been for the keen sense of humor which is one of her characteristics,” Dorr wrote. “A laugh is always just behind her lips.”
The piece recalled Anthony’s retort to an editor of a western New York newspaper who had once sniped in print, “Susan B. Anthony blew into town yesterday, wearing a bonnet that looked as if it belonged to Methuselah’s youngest daughter.”
Anthony reportedly quipped, “If I had a vote and he wanted it, he wouldn’t care if I looked like Methuselah’s oldest daughter.”
Dorr went on to wonder, “Just why Miss Anthony more than all the other early advocates of woman suffrage was picked out for personal abuse is not clear at the present time. No one who knows her can understand it. No woman of her dignity, sweetness, and gracious womanliness could ever have been the unsexed virago described in the newspapers of 40 years ago. It is possible that her being unmarried had something to do with it.”
Of course it did. That much was reinforced when The Baltimore Sun ran Dorr’s piece upon Anthony’s death with a subhead of “Spinsterhood Target for Abuse.”
In the last months of her life, the derogatory references to her in the media were fewer and farther between. “The figure of Miss Anthony,” as The Philadelphia Press reported in 1905, “was simplicity itself.”
“That bonnet, with the kind blue eyes beneath it, those spectacles, that plain dress and quaint red shawl, and, above all, that sweet, gentle voice, spelled ‘mother’ as plainly as the fine word ever was written,” the newspaper reported. “Not a hint of mannishness but all that man loves and respects. What man could deny any right to a woman like that?”
David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.