American History · biography · history

Arrested for Voting: Susan B. Anthony’s Fight for Suffrage

August 2020 marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment was passed. This amendment provided women with the right to vote in the United States. It is hard to believe that it was not until 1920 that the female citizens of America received a right that should have been automatic as a citizen of the country. This right is often taken for granted today and it can be difficult to imagine a time when a woman would actually be arrested for voting in an election! It is important to remember this anniversary and to remember how hard the women who came before us fought. They fought so we could participate in government and in the decision making of this country. It is critical that we exercise this right every opportunity we have. During August (and likely the months beyond), I would like to highlight some of the tactics the suffragettes used to have their voice heard, famous standouts, and highlight how much hard work was put into the movement.

No self respecting woman should wish or work for... | Sutori

November 5, 1872

Dear Mrs. Stanton,

Well I have been and gone and done it!! –positively voted the Republican ticket–strait this a.m. at 7 Oclock–and swore my vote in at that–was registered on Friday…then on Sunday others some 20 or 30 other women tried to register but all save two were refused…Amy Post was rejected and she will immediately bring action for that…and Hon Henry R Selden will be our Counsel–he has read up the law and all of our arguments and is satisfied that we our right and ditto the Old Judge Selden–his elder brother. So we are in for a fine agitation in Rochester on the question–I hope the morning’s telegrams will tell of many women all over the country trying to vote–It is splendid that without any concert of action so many should have moved here so impromptu…I’m awful tired–for five days I have been on the constant run–but to splendid purpose–So all right–I hope you voted too.


Susan B. Anthony

Most people have heard of Susan B. Anthony. She was at the forefront of the early women’s rights movements and spent over fifty years of her life fighting for the right to vote. She gave countless speeches, petitioned legislatures and Congress, and published her own feminist newspaper. This November of 1872, Anthony was determined to vote.

Social Welfare History Project Anthony, Susan B.
Susan B. Anthony

Her argument was that the recent 14th Amendment (this amendment stated that all people who are born in the United States are citizens and are entitled to the “privileges” that citizenship provides, including the right to vote). There was nothing in the amendment that specified any restrictions in regards to sex. Anthony believed that since she, and many other women, were born in the United States and considered citizens that they were entitled to the privilege of voting. Clearly, the male dominated government did not see it this way.

In November of 1872, Anthony and her sisters went to the voter registration office. Boldly, Anthony approached the election inspectors and demanded to be registered to vote. Naturally, the inspectors refused on account of Anthony’s sex. That did not deter her. She pulled out her copy of the Constitution and quoted the 14th and 15th Amendment. She was refused for a second time, so she had to turn to other methods.

“If you refuse us our rights as citizens,  I will bring charges against you in Criminal Court and I will sue each of you personally for large, exemplary damages!” She threatened the young inspectors after almost an hour of back and forth debate. In the end, she got her way. Anthony and fourteen other women were registered to vote in Rochester, New York.

The Rochester Union and Advertiser stated “Citizenship no more carries the right to vote than it carries the power to fly to the moon…If these women in the Eighth Ward offer to vote, they should be challenged, and if they take the oaths and the Inspectors receive and deposit their ballots, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law”. Many other media outlets of the time agreed with this sentiment.

To a modern reader, it seems ridiculous that a woman would receive so much backlash for just registering to vote. Yet, Anthony was forcing herself into the political sphere that society deemed she did not belong. This was an attack against the hierarchy of society and a threat to the male dominant political power. It seems that throughout history ( and to this day) those in power are never fond of sharing.

Susan B. Anthony, newspaper depiction 1873

On November 5, Anthony and a group of women cast their votes. Anthony herself voted for President U.S. Grant and the Republican party (who at the time, was the progressive party). According to the Woman’s Journal (printed June 28, 1873), women also attempted to vote in Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York using Anthony’s argument. The media began to quickly pick up the unusual story of women successfully casting a ballot. Some outlets were quick to support while many others denounced Anthony’s and the other women’s actions.

On November 14, a warrant for Anthony’s arrest was issued by United States Commissioner, William C Storrs. She was charged with voting in a federal election without having the “lawful right to vote”. The 1870 Enforcement Act was cited as the law she violated (this was passed to prevent individuals from casting willful illegal votes). Anthony disagreed as she believed she had the inherent right to vote being a citizen of the United States of America. On January 24, 1873 a grand jury (consisting of entirely male members) charged Anthony with knowingly voting for members of Congress without having the right to vote due to her sex. Anthony was going to have to stand trial.

Susan B. Anthony used this publicity to her advantage and went on speaking tours around the county to bring awareness to the injustice of this trial and the ridiculous nature of preventing women from voting. She drummed up support for her upcoming trial. Anthony and her followers knew that if she won this case, then women would be given the right to vote.

“Friends and Fellow-citizens: I stand before you to-night, under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last Presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but instead, simply exercised by citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any State to deny…”

Anthony’s Is it a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote? speech (which was given as part of her speaking tour in Monroe County) was a very interesting read. Many of her points highlighted the hypocrisy of the governments argument. She cited the words of the founding fathers and how no where in their works were women prevented from exercising these rights. The words of the Constitution were gender neutral. She also brought to attention how denying a citizens right is nothing different than a monarchy, which they had just escaped from about 100 years earlier.

“What, I ask you, is the distinctive difference between the inhabitants of a monarchical and those of a republican form of government, save that in the monarchical the people are subjects, helpless, powerless, bound to obey laws made by superiors, while in the republican, the people are citizens, individual sovereigns, all clothed with equal power, to make and unmake both their laws and law makers…”

This argument was interesting as well:

” In all the penalties and burdens of the government, (except the military), women are reckoned as citizens, equally with men…The United States government not only taxes, fines, imprisons and hangs women, but it allows them to pre-empt lands, register ships, and take out passport and naturalization papers….” The open question here is why does the government treat women like citizens, allows them to get citizenship papers, but refuses to honor their privileges as a US citizen.” 

Anthony was really rallying the people of Monroe county to her cause, so much that the government conveniently moved the trial to take place in another county, Ontario County. This did not stop Anthony as she just moved her speaking tour to this county.

The trial began and Anthony was present in court with her two lawyers, Henry R. Seldon and John Van Voorhis. The dice were stacked against her. The laws were made by men, the jury was composed 100% by men, and the judge was a man. Anthony was not even permitted to speak in her defense at the trial.

Women's Suffrage - Great Gatsby

Her lawyer, Seldon, spoke for her and announced his reasoning for her innocence (which is pretty much reflected in Anthony’s own argument above). He concluded that the only reason this was even at trial was due to her sex.

Yet, even after the long speech by Seldon the trial ended up being a farce. Judge Hunt stated that, “The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law…Upon this evidence [evidence that Anthony knowingly cast an illegal ballot] I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty”.

Essentially, the judge ordered the jury to find the defendant guilty and the jury never took a vote during this trial. Another of Anthony’s citizen rights was pushed aside as she failed to receive a fair trial.

Her lawyer argued this and demanded a new trial as her right to trial by jury was overturned, but the motion was quickly denied. But, the Judge did finally give Anthony the opportunity to speak in her defense.

Judge Hunt: “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?

Susan B. Anthony: Yes, you honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizen ship, I am degraded from the status of citizen to that of a subject…

A back and forth begins between Judge Hunt and Anthony. Hunt tells the “prisoner” she must cease speaking.

Susan B. Anthony: “But your honor will not deny me this one and only poor privilege of protest against this high-handed outrage upon my citizen’s rights. May it please the Court to remember that since the day of my arrest last November, this is the first time that either myself or any person of my disfranchised class has been allowed a word of defense before judge or jury.”

Judge Hunt: “The prisoner must sit down-the Court cannot allow it.”

Anthony: “All of my prosecutors…not one is my peer, but each and all are my political sovereigns, and had your honor submitted my case to the jury, as was clearly your duty, even then I should have had just cause of protest for not one of those men was my peer….each and every man of them was my political superior; hence, in no sense, my peer. Even, under such circumstances, a commoner of England, tried before a jury of Lords, would have far less cause to complain than should I, a woman, tried before a jury of men…Precisely, as no disfranchised person is entitled to sit upon a jury, and no woman is entitled to the franchise, so, none but a regularly admitted lawyer is allowed to practice in the courts, and no woman can gain admission to the bar—hence, jury, judge, counsel must all be of the superior class…”

Judge Hunt: “The Court must insist—the prisoner has been tried according to the established forms of law”

Anthony: “Yes, your honor, but by forms of law all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women; and hence,  your honors ordered verdict of guilty, against a United States citizen for the exercise of “that citizen’s right to vote,” simply because that citizen was a woman and not a man…”

Susan B. Anthony was a fighter and held strong to her beliefs and her rights as a citizen. Judge Hunt sentenced Anthony to a $100 dollar fine and she had to pay the costs of the prosecution. That fine would be about $2,113.09 in currency today. This was her response:

“May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty…I shall work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that “ Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God’”.

Anthony never paid the fine and is, to this day, still recorded in the books as a convicted felon. While the trial did not result in the verdict that she wanted, the spectacle she made attracted the media and brought more awareness to the cause. Susan B. Anthony continued to spend her life fighting for women’s rights and the right to vote. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Their goal was to fight that women were to be included in the fifteenth amendment (which granted African American men the right to vote). Together they wrote a newspaper, The Revolution, which spread the word of their organization. In 1905, Anthony met with the President Theodore Roosevelt to lobby to include women in the 15th amendment.

Suffragist – The Official Susan B. Anthony Museum & House

Despite her life work, it was not until 48 years after the year Anthony got arrested that the women of the United States got the right to vote. Anthony herself died in 1906 which was only 14 years before the 19th amendment was passed. Even at age 86, she was still participating in National Suffrage Conventions.

In an obituary by the New York Times (March 13, 1906), just two hours before her passing, she is recorded to have said, “To think I have had more than sixty years of hard struggle for a little liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.”

It is important to remember those strong women who came before us and fought against exclusion solely due to their sex. Without their struggles, we would never have received the rights we deserve. I hope to highlight more about the suffrage movement in America and other incredible female figures


She Votes! Podcast hosted by Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr (2020), specifically episode 1 “Convicted!”

Susan B. Anthony’s Speech before the Circuit Court (transcript)

The Trial of Susan B. Anthony for Illegal Voting by Doug Linder (2001)

Susan B. Anthony Obituary, New York Times (1906)

Newspaper Account of Susan B. Anthony’s 1873 Trial for Voting (United States v. Susan B. Anthony) June 20, 1873

The Woman’s Journal: Boston, Chicago and St Louis, Saturday, June 28, 1873. Miss Anthony’s Case,intention%20of%20violating%20citizens’%20constitutional

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