Susan B. Anthony once said, “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.” It was more than just a quote, it was her lifestyle. Anthony lived every day fighting for women’s suffrage until the day she died, 14 years before the 19th Amendment was passed to grant women the right to vote.
Feb. 15 is not just the day after Valentine’s Day. It is the birthday of the women’s suffrage leader.
Anthony was one of the most visible leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Born a Quaker, she believed everyone was equal under God, and that guided her through life. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 and partnered with her for more than 50 years to fight for women’s rights.
Katherine Jellison, a professor and the chair of the history department at Ohio University, first started learning about Anthony in the 6th grade, and has learned all about her many contributions to the women’s rights movement.
“If Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the rhetoric of the movement, Susan B. Anthony was the voice,” Jellison said.
Stanton wrote speeches and documents to legitimize and further the women’s movement, and Anthony acted as the face and voice of the movement. She would give the speeches and recruit followers to help with the movement.
Anthony knew she had a better chance of making a change if she petitioned for a federal law for women’s right to vote instead of trying to change individual state laws. She was not only instrumental in the creation of the 19th amendment, but in training the next generation of suffragists.
“She was right to stick to her gut on the federal law,” Jellison said. “She kept suffrage in the spotlight year after year, always showing up and speaking about suffrage. She was a workaholic, and a great example of civil disobedience.”
Though Susan B. Anthony was instrumental in the creation of the 19th amendment and the women’s rights movement, history is sometimes critical of her on the basis of acceptance. Though Susan B. Anthony was active in women’s rights, it wasn’t directed toward all women.
delfin bautista, who uses the lowercase spelling of their name, teaches women’s, gender and sexuality studies and discusses the problematic nature of Anthony’s actions with their classes.
“Her main problem was not seeing all women as equal, specifically black women,” bautista said. “We don’t talk about her as much, but when we do, she’s lifted up as this iconic hero and other, more problematic aspects of her are never discussed.”
Anthony sometimes compromised her typically inclusive ideals to still the voices of women who weren’t white. African-American women in particular had the worst end of the bargain, because not only were they being silenced by the women they were supposed to be allied with, but their male counterparts had recently been given the right to vote in the 15th amendment.
It has been argued that perhaps Anthony silenced the voices of black women because she knew the issue of women’s suffrage was difficult enough without confronting racist policies as well. Though her views were racist, many argue she was simply a victim of her time.
“Part of me is saddened or angered by her exclusiveness, but part of me understands that was the culture of the time,” bautista said. “It doesn’t justify it or make it correct, it just helps people to better understand the context.”
Aubrey Kelly, a freshman studying art history, is currently taking a women’s, gender and sexuality studies class and is learning about Anthony’s problematic nature.
“I was always taught that Susan B. Anthony was this rockstar activist,” Kelly said. “Which she was, and she made great strides for women, but at the price of implementing racist ideals that shut down the voices of women of different races. There are things she could’ve done differently, and should’ve done differently.”
As women were getting more desperate for the vote, Anthony started to use ethnic baiting, arguing that if “ignorant immigrant men” could vote, why couldn’t the “finest white women?”
Jellison agrees that Susan B. Anthony should’ve handled elements of her activism differently.
“Strategically, if she would’ve utilized her friendship with Ida B. Wells to win the support of the African American community, women’s suffrage might’ve happened a lot sooner,” Jellison said. “Morally, she should’ve done that to support them and their rights, which she believed were equal to her own.”
All in all, the professors agree Anthony was a victim of her time. Instead of focusing on her criticisms and what she could’ve done differently, the professors think Susan B. Anthony Day should be celebrated as a way of learning from the past and building on what she accomplished.