Friday, February 15, 2013

Susan B. Anthony

Bonus non-Monday post! But first a note: Be not afraid, for the header will be back. Flickr had a glitch and lost it, and I keep forgetting to put it back up.

And now for today's special two-part post on the hot topic currently on everyone's minds! Yes, that's right: women's suffrage!

Part 1: Votes for Women

Today, February 15th, is Susan B. Anthony's birthday, and there is currently a display in the library about her. That display (of items and documents behind glass) coordinates with another display (of books you can check out) by the reference stacks. There is nothing we like more, in the library, than displays. Every time anything remotely interesting happens, we look at each other and say, "Do you think we can do a display on that?" The answer is always yes. So we're doing these displays, and I'm in charge of the book one. In deciding what to put in it, I realized that I didn't know enough about Susan B. Anthony, so I started reading about her. And then I got this grand idea that I should include in the display a sampling of contemporary newspaper articles about her, because hey, it would only add ten additional hours of work!

I decided to focus on the time Anthony got arrested for voting and was put on trial. I thought for sure there would be some great articles on that, and I was right! It was really fun watching the trial unfold as told by journalists who had no idea what to make of Anthony. One referred to her as "that sublime and infatuated pantaloonatic," which is now my preferred term for trailblazing women. As I was watching things progress, I was awaiting the triumphant moment when the judge hands down Anthony's sentence, which was a fine of $100, and she jumps up and cries out, "I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty!" (It is possible I'm imagining that moment as being more dramatic than it was . . . but honestly, I can't see how it wouldn't be dramatic.) I waited and waited and read every article about her sentencing that I could find, but it did not appear. "This is strange," I said to myself. "Did it even happen? Is it apocryphal?" The newspapers were emphatic: she never said it. Take this Philadelphia Inquirer article for example:


It says right there, in print: "The judge then sentenced her to pay a fine of one hundred dollars and costs of prosecution, and immediately added . . ." It is the and immediately added that interests me. Because, according to Anthony, it isn't true. According to her account of her own trial, she made a whole speech between the judge announcing the fine and then telling her she would not "stand committed" (i.e. go to jail). "I will never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty" was only the beginning of it; she goes on for a whole paragraph. In her account, she does a great deal more talking during her sentencing than the judge does.

It's hard to tell how accurate this is. Another account by Anthony's friend has Anthony saying little more than, "I don't have any money and in fact I'm ten thousand dollars in debt." And Anthony's account does seem suspiciously eloquent. On the other hand, Anthony was quite accustomed to public speaking and the accounts agree on other shorter but equally eloquent remarks she made. In fact, she was so famously vocal that there was jokes going around in the newspapers about how funny it was that the judge even bothered to ask the legally-required question at the beginning of the sentencing: "Does the defendant have anything to say why the sentence should not be pronounced?" Why bother asking, comment the newspapers; of course she had something to say. Susan B. Anthony always has something to say. All accounts then agree that when Anthony started talking, the judge told her to stop.

It's possible that Anthony found herself somewhat cowed by the strikingly unjust judicial system and all the men in charge of it. What she reported herself saying may have been what she wanted and intended to say had she not been facing a hostile judge intent on committing a brazen act of injustice -- not only did he find her guilty, but he announced that he would find her guilty before her trial started, and never asked the jury for their verdict, instead demanding they find her guilty. Under these circumstances, it may not have been possible for her to say what she wanted, so when she wrote up her account, she added in the things she would have said. Knowing people would be interested, it was an opportunity for her to make the case to the public that she had not been able to make in court.

But it's also possible that the men in charge of newspapers were willing to report on the antics of these "wild women" who voted only insofar as they were amusing (and losing). Few articles show outrage at her daring to vote; they're amused at the idea. A woman! Voting! Ahahahahahahahaha. What a pantaloonatic! One much-reprinted article noted in its report of Anthony's arrest that she did indeed admit to being a woman at the time that she voted, har har. The tone of almost all the articles is jocular if not outright condescending. When Anthony was arrested, the general response was surprise. The New York Herald-Tribune said that their voting had "taken on a new and less good-humored phrase." I am not sure what they thought good humor had to do with women trying to exercise their constitutional rights, but it seems they thought it was kind of a joke. Women were so powerless that the antics of suffragists could be tolerated because they were not perceived as a threat. But Susan B. Anthony was a bit threatening -- even if she was quiet in court, she certainly wasn't outside of it. Which could explain why, if Anthony stood up (as I imagine it) and declared to the judge that she would not accept her sentence, it seemed less funny and more frightening, and was left out of the news. What if women were to vote? What might they do?

Part 2: The Woman Voter

By coincidence, the same day that I read the above article, I ran across a book in the stacks called The Woman Voter: An Analysis Based upon Personal Interviews (1955). This is how it begins:

"It cannot be denied that women are fascinating. But it can also be said, without being at all facetious, that the voting behavior of women is even more fascinating."

The book is little more than a pamphlet -- sixteen pages of summarized interviews in which women show themselves to vote in neither a more nor less fascinating way than men. I wouldn't say women or their opinions are exactly denigrated, but there is a tone of pleasant surprise: Why, women are well-informed! They are interested in politics! They understand that politics affect their lives! Their opinions are not identical to their husbands'! Sometimes they even influence their husbands' opinions!

Without being at all facetious, I was baffled as to why such a book should exist. And then I realized that women had only been voting for 35 years by that point. Voting was new for women, and women voting was new for the government. It's almost like women were new for the government. Who are these creatures? What do they want? How can we get them to vote for us? Which just goes to show how important the right to vote was, since the government didn't have to care about women at all until they had it.

I suppose this post is just an excuse to spend some time thinking about Susan B. Anthony and what she and other supporters of women's suffrage believed and accomplished. It isn't only about voting, after all. There was something else she said (or wanted to say) at her trial that struck me: "As then, the slaves who got their freedom must take it over, or under, or through the unjust forms of law, precisely so, now, must women, to get their right to a voice in this government, take it; and I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity." It's really about rebelling against unjust laws, whatever they may be. Since we have a lot of those, I think it's worth remembering Susan B. Anthony not just in the context of women's rights, but in the wider context of justice; standing up for civil rights over, under, or through unjust laws, at every opportunity.

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