10 Trailblazing Facts About Susan B. Anthony

Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Scewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

When people think of the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony is one of the names that immediately comes to mind. Although she didn't live long enough to vote (legally, at least), her contributions to the women’s rights movement were part of a chain of events that culminated in the 19th Amendment. Here are 10 facts you might not know about Anthony’s life and legacy.

1. Susan B. Anthony was born into a family of abolitionists.

A large house
Susan B. Anthony's childhood home, photographed in 1897.
Internet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Susan Brownell Anthony was born into a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1820. She was the second of seven children, and her entire family was full of activists. Anti-slavery meetings were eventually held at their farm every Sunday, and her father became friends with prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. These experiences shaped her views on equality, and some of her earliest activist work was in support of the abolitionist movement.

2. Anthony was a teacher for 10 years.

Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Susan B. Anthony in her younger years
Wikimedia/NYPL Digital Gallery // Public Domain

Teaching was one of the few professions open to women of Anthony's era. She taught from 1839 to 1849, eventually becoming principal of the girls' department at Canajoharie Academy in upstate New York. During her decade as a teacher, she spoke publicly about the need for higher pay for female teachers, as well as more professional opportunities for women.

3. She was BFFs with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in 1870

A mutual acquaintance, Amelia Bloomer, first introduced Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851. You could say it was friendship at first sight. Stanton later said of her first impression of Anthony, "I liked her thoroughly, and why I did not at once invite her home with me to dinner, I do not know." More than pals, they were also close collaborators with similar views. Together, they would eventually found the National Woman Suffrage Association and also start up a women's rights newspaper called The Revolution. Although their personal lives were very different, they found a way to use it to their advantage. Anthony, who never married or had children, was free to attend rallies and speaking engagements across the country. Stanton had seven children, so she wrote from home as a means of influencing the movement.

4. Anthony's first public speech was about the dangers of alcohol.

Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress/Wikimedia // No known restrictions

Anthony didn’t attend her first women's rights convention until she was in her thirties. Before that, she was active in the temperance movement, which advocated stronger liquor laws and preached the dangers of heavy drinking. She gave her first public speech at a Daughters of Temperance event, but when she was denied the right to speak at a Sons of Temperance convention a few years later, she and Stanton decided to form their own Women's State Temperance Society. They launched a petition to get the state legislature to limit the sale of liquor, but it was revoked because most of the signers were women and children. Anthony and Stanton realized they’d never be taken seriously until women gained the right to vote, so their priorities started to shift around this time.

5. Anthony cut her hair and dressed differently to prove a point.

Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with
Amelia Bloomer in the outfit she designed, with "bloomers"
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many activists and suffragists argued that women should be free to wear less restrictive clothes than the corsets and heavy underskirts that dominated in those days. To prove their point, many women wore trouser-like bloomers (named for Amelia Bloomer, who advocated them) under their skirts. Following in the footsteps of Stanton, Anthony cut her long, brown hair and started wearing bloomers, albeit somewhat reluctantly. She was ridiculed for her new look, and ultimately decided that the negative attention detracted from the message she wanted to convey. She reverted back to her old ways after a year.

6. She believed that riding bicycles was one of the best ways to fight the patriarchy.

Women cyclists
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bicycles were kind of a big deal for women in the 19th century. The machines gave women a sense of independence and mobility that they hadn't enjoyed before, allowing them to leave their houses without having to ask their husbands for a ride. As Anthony once put it, "I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood."

7. Anthony opposed the 15th amendment.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony circa 1890
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the biggest criticisms lobbed against Anthony and Stanton is that they didn’t support the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote. The pair were upset that the amendment didn't include women, so they splintered from other suffragist groups and formed their own National Woman Suffrage Association. "There was a battle among abolitionists … between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans," Lori D. Ginzberg, who wrote a biography about Stanton, told NPR. Anthony and Stanton opted for the latter, and their decision has been the subject of controversy ever since.

8. She was jailed for voting.

A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election
A monument at the site where Anthony voted, illegally, in the 1872 election

Anthony and 15 other women showed up at the polls to vote in the presidential election of 1872, which pitted Horace Greeley against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant. Considering that women were barred from voting at the time, this was a symbolic gesture as well as an act of civil disobedience. (But for what it's worth, Anthony voted for President Grant.) When Anthony was later politely asked by an officer to come down to the precinct to face arrest, she demanded that she be "arrested properly" in the same way a man would be arrested. This request was granted, but her trial wasn’t exactly fair. She wasn't permitted to testify, and the judge instructed the jury to find her guilty. Anthony was ultimately handed a fine of $100, which she refused to pay. Although her actions greatly influenced the suffrage movement, she never did have the chance to vote legally. The 19th Amendment passed 13 years after her death.

9. Her face was almost carved into Mount Rushmore.

Workers construct George Washington's image on Mount Rushmore
Rise Studio, Rapid City, S. Dak, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In 1937 Congress considered adding Anthony's face to the famed mountain after the Washington and Jefferson portions were completed. However, that idea was scrapped after the House Appropriations Committee said the funds must only be used to complete the sculptures that were already underway (which, at that time, included the Lincoln and Roosevelt sections).

10. Anthony was the first woman to appear on circulating U.S. currency.

Susan B. Anthony on the one-dollar coin
Alex Bergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The U.S. Treasury Department decided to set a new precedent by putting Anthony's face on a one-dollar coin starting in 1979. However, it looked a little too much like a quarter and cash registers didn’t have a designated space for them, so the coin wasn't widely circulated. Anthony may get a second chance, though, when she appears on the back of the redesigned $10 bill. (The timeline for the redesign, announced in 2016 and initially expected to debut in 2020, is currently unclear.) Other influential women expected to appear on the redesigned $10 include Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER