Susan B. Anthony: Her Life and Contributions to History

Susan B. Anthony is one of the most remarkable persons one will ever find in American history. She not only helped in the creation of the first womens rights movement in the United States, she led it tirelessly and brilliantly until her death. She was determined and dedicated, letting no one and nothing stand in her way. She faced opposition and even derision from people who had never met her, and worse, from those closest to her. But she never once faltered in her resolve.

Although she did not live to see her greatest goal attained, it is an unarguable fact that her work for The Cause did more to gain women the right to vote than that of any other person. Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820, the second of eleven children (Susan B. Anthony: A Biography, by Kathleen Barry, page 10). Her parents were Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read. Daniel was a Quaker, while Lucy was raised a Baptist.

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Their unique union was formed against the wishes of the Quaker community in which Susan was raised. Her parents defiance of the social norm set by the sedate Quaker community perhaps served as Susans earliest inkling that sometimes what society said was normal was not always right (Barry, 6). Susan had a very commonplace childhood, with no indication of her future. If anything, she was rather a homebody. But this childhood is precisely why she was an effective womens leader: She understood the situation of the common woman (Barry, 12). In the world in which Susan was raised, women had a very limited role.

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They were expected to stay at home and work like slaves, but if they went out into the world for a paying job, they were compensated at a fraction of the wages a man would receive for an equal position. A married woman could not own property; Her husband took custody of the property when they married. She also could not draw a paycheck; The money was handed directly to her husband, irregardless of the fact that she had worked for it.

Women could not attend college. There were no women doctors, ministers, lawyers, or senators. They could work outside the home in only a few professions, at a fraction of what a man would make in the same profession. Most of all, women could not vote. At this time in U.S. history, the common man was fighting for his rights: His right to vote, his right to own land. But it was unthinkable for a woman to even mention having the own rights. Susan B. Anthony was born into this world. But she would spend the majority of her life trying to change it (Failure is Impossible, by Lynn Sherr, page xix). Susan was educated by her father, in a home school that he started for his daughters. As a wealthy industrialist, he was able to hire a tutor to live at their home and teach his daughters (his sons attended regular school). However, he also attended to much of their education himself (Barry, 19).

Although Quakers agreed with the rest of the male nation on the status of women in daily life, one thing they valued was education. Every Quaker child, whether male or female, was allowed to get as much education as they wished. So when Daniel saw how much Susan enjoyed learning, he arranged to have her sent to a boarding school. It was at this school that Susan first heard Lucretia Mott, the famous womens rights pioneer, speak (Barry, 29). However, Susan had to return home when her father went bankrupt during the Depression. Susan and all her sisters who were old enough had to start teaching to help support the family (Barry, 31). In 1845, Daniel moved his family to Rochester, NY, center of the anti-slavery movement. Every Sunday, a group of abolitionists, including the famous Frederick Douglass, would meet at the familys farm to discuss the latest news and ideas about how to end slavery. Susan participated actively in these discussions, and eventually became an engineer in the Underground Railroad that ran near their farm (Sherr, xx).

In a time when most abolitionists thought the solution was to send the slaves back to Africa, Susan wrote privately in her diary of her dream of an egalitarian world, when all people, black, white, male, and female, would be equal (Barry, 42). On one occasion, however, she discovered that just because people claim to believe in abolition does not mean that they are ready to confront its results. A freedman attended a Quaker meeting one day, and some of the members left in protest. Susan was quite indignant, writing a letter to a friend stated: The Friends raised quite a fuss… about a colored man sitting in the meeting house and some left the meeting on the account. The man was … very polite, but still the pretended meek followers of Christ could not worship their God and have this sable companion with them what a lack of Christianity is this.

In addition to her increasing involvement in abolitionism, Susan became an ardent member of the temperance movement. Public drunkenness was a large problem in the early 19th century, much more than it is today (Sherr, xx). Around this time, the two sisters to whom Susan was the closest both married. As they drifted further from Susan and became more and more involved in family life, Susan was forced to become more involved in her work. By this time, she was teaching away from home (Barry, 43). She was offered the headmistress post at a new womens academy, which she accepted and kept for two years (Barry, 43). But after two years had passed, she felt unfulfilled by the life she was leading. She yearned to do something worthwhile with her life. She became much more involved in the temperance and anti-slavery movements. Then, in 1851, came the event that would change her life forever. Although Susan had been dabbling in womens rights, her main focus had been the temperance movement.

In 1851, she met the woman with whom she would form the friendship that fashioned a revolution (Sherr, xxi). Susan B. Anthony was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two hit it off immediately. Lat! er on, her willingness to canvas New York, county by county, year after year, was one of the greatest reasons for Susans effectiveness. In contrast, Elizabeth Cady Stanton contributed to the womens rights movement primarily from home, where she combined writing fiery essays and influential arguments for womens rights with raising a family (Travels for Reform). Together, they would write, socialize, revolutionize, and reform for near a half century. When Susan attended a womens rights convention later that year with Elizabeth, she immediately realized the problem inherent in the womens rights movement: Women could sign all the petitions that they wished, but without the right to vote, the reins of power were still held securely in the hands of the men. Sometime in 1851, Susan attended a temperance society meeting in which she dared to voice her opinion. After being told by the chairman that women were not invited to the meeting to speak, but to listen and learn, Susan stormed out, livid. Several women followed her, and this event prompted Susan and Stanton to organize the Womens Temperance Society (Barry, 66).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was voted president, the first time a woman had been president of any society. However, some more conservative members insisted that men be allowed to join the society. The mens first act was to vote Stanton out of office and replace her with a man. Enraged, Anthony and Stanton quit the Society, having learned their first painful lesson in politics (Barry, 71). Susan also attended a teachers conference in New York City, in which she had to fight for her right to speak among the men. They were complaining about the lack of respect for teachers prevalent in society. Susan felt that she had something to add to the discussion, and although no women had hence spoken, she rose to her feet and addressed the President. In her own words, she described the reaction: If all the witches that had been drowned, burned, and hung in the Old World and New had suddenly appeared on the platform, threatening vengeance for their wrongs, the officers of that convention could not have been thrown into greater consternation … those frightened men could not decide what to do; how to receive this audacious invader of their sphere of action. (Sherr, 19).

After a debate among the men, they agreed to let Susan speak. This was her comment: It seems to me you fail to comprehend the cause of the disrespect of which you complain. Do you not see that so long as society says woman has not brains enough to be a doctor, lawyer or minister, but has plenty to be a teacher, every man of you who condescends to teach, tacitly admits before all Israel and the sun that he has no more brains that a woman? Then she sat down (Barry, 77). For the next nine years, Susan would attend every state teachers convention, insisting that women should speak, hold offices, serve on committees, and get equal pay. She was also a strong advocate for coeducation in higher learning. Opposed by men and women alike, she kept going, forcefully delivering the speeches written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Fifty years later, in 1900, the University of Rochester agreed to let women be educated alongside men. Susans diary entry was short and to the point: Well they let the girls in said there was no alternative (Sherr, 27)

Hardly knowing how it had happened, Susan had evolved from a simple Quaker farm girl to a radical reformer. She picked New York, her familys home, for the site of her first project. She determined to win property rights for married women in the State of New York. Starting on December 26, she campaigned door-to-door in every county seat in the state until the beginning of May, she collected 6,000 signatures in only ten weeks (Barry, 78). Elizabeth Cady Stanton then delivered a fiery address to the State legislature, arguing their cause. But the New York Senate fell into peals of laughter at the mere idea (Sherr, xxiii). Undaunted, the derision only fueled Susan and Elizabeths resolve.

Susan B. Anthony was the first womens rights reformer without a husband or family to tie her down. Because she did not have these obligations, she was able to travel freely, greatly enhancing her effectiveness (Barry, 87). Susan was a good public speaker, direct, forceful, and to-the-point. She was extremely composed, able to remain calm and cool even in the midst of derision and booing. She succeeded in part because of her commanding demeanor, which demanded respect (Barry, 103).

It must not be forgotten that Susan also championed abolition. She was a so-called radical abolitionist, or one who believed that the United States Constitution was a proslavery document, and must be abolished and a new constitution created before slavery could be done away with. In the year before the Civil War erupted, Susan and a group of radical abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison campaigned in New York City under the slogan No Compromise with Slaveholders. Immediate and Unconditional Emancipation (Barry, 147). They were met by mobs of pro-slavery mobs. Susan saw the greatest reason for the continuance of slavery to be apathy of Northerners. In the Spring of 1861, shortly after the first shots were fired in the Civil War, she and a group of abolitionists attempted to hold a meeting in Buffalo. The riots reached such intensity that the Mayor ordered the City police to control the mobs, but the police sided with the pro-slavery rioters instead, and turned off the gas to the meeting to strike terror into the abolitionists. But Susan reacted as she did in every situation: she stood her ground. She refused to leave the platform until the lights were turned back on. Only then did she adjourn the meeting (Barry, 147).

During the Civil War, abolitionists were so concerned about winning the freedom of the slaves that they ceased any support they may have been offering for womens emancipation. The advice given to leaders of the womens movement was to wait until the War was over. But Susan worried that if they did not continue to agitate, they might even lose some hard-won rights that had been gained. She was right. In 1862, the New York Legislature repealed nearly all of the Married Womans Property Acts, which she had gotten passed only two years earlier (Barry, 149). Susan was livid, but unable to do anything about it due to the War. Because of a lack of support, Susan was forced to focus most of her activities on slave emancipation, at least until the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In 1865, an Amendment to the Constitution was proposed that would give due process and equality of protection to all persons born in the United States. That was, all males born in the United States (Barry, 164). Former allies of the womens rights movement, abolitionists now felt that the most important issue was to obtain the right for Black men to be able to vote and own property. They believed that trying to force the issue of womens rights would end in no ones rights being granted. Anthony and Stanton agitated ceaselessly for recognition of the plight of women. In late 1865, the womens rights societies merged with the Anti-Slavery Society in a consolidation of the two great social movements of the day (Barry, 169). Susan and Elizabeth believed that working together, they could both accomplish their goals. But they were stunned by the mens agenda: The men merely wanted the support of the women to gain the vote for Blacks, and cared nothing for supporting the womens cause. Enraged, Susan and Elizabeth broke with the joint movement to stand on their own (Barry, 173).

The womens rights associations were severed into two suffrage associations (Barry, 204). Susan and Elizabeth founded the National Suffrage Association, and published a suffrage newspaper titled The Revolution. They were more radical than most of their sister suffragettes, and sadly, after five years of hard work, the newspaper went under (Barry, 221). Susan and Elizabeth sold the paper to Theodore Tilton, an abolitionist, who made it into a society journal. Susan grieved over what she saw as a tragic loss to the womens movement. Worse, she was left with the papers ten thousand dollar debt (Barry, 223). Undaunted, she left to perform lectures until the debt was paid (Barry, 224)

Susan B. Anthony was a remarkable woman. Her tenacity and determination shone from her, and were reflected in the thousands of women who were inspired by her words to reach for higher heights. Without Susan, the suffrage movement no doubt would have come about eventually, and women eventually would have won the right to vote. But Susan B. Anthonys courage and determination to the Cause enabled its goals to be realized sooner than any could have hoped. Her life was dedicated to making the world an equal place for all humans, no matter what their race or gender. On her deathbed, her last words were to a young woman who Susan wanted to be her successor. The woman protested that maybe she would not be permitted to take Susans place. Susan grasped her hand and looked into her eyes, and with the same resolute determination with which she had faced her entire life, said: Make them (Barry, 355).


  1. Sherr, Lynn. Failure is Impossible. Times Books, Random House. 1995
  2. Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York University Press. 1988
  3. Travels for Reform: The Early Works of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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Susan B. Anthony: Her Life and Contributions to History. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

Susan B. Anthony: Her Life and Contributions to History

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