How Susan B. Anthony Fought the Law in 1872
In November 1872, Susan B. Anthony headed to a barbershop in Rochester, New York to register to vote. She was accompanied by three of her sisters and a small group of other women. After the confused registrars conferred, they decided to allow the women to register. Four days later, Anthony and her entourage all cast their official votes.
But on November 18, the activist and her fellow female voters were picked up by U.S. marshals and jailed. (Upset by her arresting officer’s manner, Anthony later recalled challenging his polite request that she come down to the precinct later: “‘What for?’ I asked. ‘To arrest you,’ he said. ‘Is that the way you arrest men?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then I demand that I should be arrested properly.’” Totally unprepared to escort anybody, the officer was forced to pay their streetcar fare out of his own pocket.) Bail was set at $500 apiece—worth over $9000 today. Though the other women paid up, Anthony refused. She insisted she had done nothing unlawful; after all, the newly-passed Fourteenth Amendment stated that the United States could not deprive any person of life, liberty, property, or due process. Anthony wanted her case to go to the Supreme Court on a writ of habeas corpus, so she was frustrated when, after she refused to pay and had her case referred to a grand jury, her lawyer paid her now-increased bail, explaining that he “could not see a lady [he] respected put in jail.” Anthony was devastated—being released meant that she could never bring her case to the Supreme Court.
She would have to settle for sending shockwaves through the local courts instead. On January 24, 1873, the grand jury—all male, of course—charged Susan B. Anthony with “knowingly, wrongfully, and willingly” voting, despite being unable to lawfully vote. Anthony vowed to spend the months before her trial appealing to the people of Monroe County, where the trial would be held.
Her strategy: Give lectures in all 29 Monroe County towns on the topic, “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” Her speech quoted countless judges, presidents, and legal scholars, urging listeners “wherever there is room for a doubt to give its benefit on the side of liberty and equal rights for women.” Her speeches were so popular that, worried they would influence potential jury members, the case was moved to the federal circuit court in a neighboring county. In response, Anthony spoke in nearly every town in Ontario County, too.
Duly warned about the defendant’s ability to give a fiery, persuasive speech, the court prevented Anthony from testifying at her own trial. Even more controversial was the judge’s instruction that the jury find Anthony guilty. Justice Ward Hunt read the jury a written statement laying out Anthony’s violations of the law and concluding, “upon this evidence I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.”
Ultimately, the jury wasn’t even asked for its opinion, and Anthony was found guilty of voting without the right to vote. (One juror would later say that, had they been allowed to weigh in, he and his peers would have rendered a not-guilty verdict.) Given the chance to speak after her conviction was handed down, Anthony delivered a barnburner of an oration—despite Judge Hunt’s constant interruptions. “Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject,” she proclaimed. “Not only myself individually, but all of my sex, are, by your honor's verdict, doomed to political subjection under this, so-called, form of government.” Hunt’s reply: “The court cannot listen to a rehearsal of arguments the prisoner’s counsel has already consumed three hours in presenting.” After repeatedly silencing Anthony’s objections, he sentenced her to pay a fine of $100, as well as the costs of the prosecution.
Anthony swore “never to pay a dollar of [the] unjust penalty”—and never did. Though she received widespread acclaim for her stance—an 1873 newspaper called Anthony “The Woman Who Dared”—she never would see women vote legally. Fourteen years after her death, the Nineteenth Amendment she had helped forge became law, but during her lifetime, she encountered the truth of her own words again and again: “Woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself.”