Here’s some Thanksgiving trivia. On Thanksgiving 135 years ago, the suffragist Susan B. Anthony was arrested in her Rochester, N.Y., parlor for committing the crime of voting while female.
After a generation of unrelenting suffrage activism, Anthony decided to claim the right to vote in the 1872 presidential election, casting her ballot for Ulysses S. Grant. She persuaded three election inspectors to accept her ballot by arguing that the 14th Amendment gave women the right to vote in federal elections. Anthony also talked her three sisters and 10 other women into joining her.
All were arrested three weeks later. Even the three well-meaning male election inspectors faced jail time. Anthony, a public relations maven, dramatically played up the arrest, demanding to be handcuffed by the embarrassed marshal (who declined). As Anthony boarded a streetcar with the marshal, she loudly announced: “I am traveling at the expense of the government. Ask him for my fare.”
Anthony, who faced $500 in fines and up to three years in prison, did a lot of public lecturing on: “Is it a crime for a citizen of the U.S. to vote?” But the trial was rigged. The judge literally instructed the 12 men of the jury to find Anthony guilty, a legal injustice Anthony recorded in her diary as “the greatest outrage history ever witnessed.” Refusing to be silenced at the sentencing, Anthony passionately inveighed “against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the Government.” She reminded the court that fugitive slaves and their defenders had been very recently tried in the same court system.
When the judge fined her $100, Anthony promised “not a penny shall go to this unjust claim.”
And not a penny ever did. While the fine went uncollected, Anthony used the case as a cause celebre, drawing some sympathy for the plight of disenfranchised women. But clearly not enough. The three-generation struggle by women would not be rewarded with success until 1920. Anthony never voted for president again.
In a charming postscript, at Anthony’s intervention, President Grant pardoned the two male electors who had been jailed after chivalrously refusing to pay their $25 fines for permitting Anthony to vote.
Anthony worked for the vote for the sake of equality, as an inalienable right of citizenship. But she was also an arch-critic of authoritarian government and a champion of justice.
In 1898, she wrote after Hawaii’s annexation by the United States:
“I wonder if when I am under the sod — or cremated and floating up in the air — I shall have to stir you and others up. How can you not be all on fire? … I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake up — and raise your voice in protest against the impending crime of this nation upon the new islands it has clutched from other folks — Do come into the living present & work to save us from any more barbaric male governments.”
Anthony would have similarly denounced today’s American government that brings us a war without end, the disastrous occupation of Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, renditions and renewed threats against Iran.
This Thanksgiving, how can we not be all on fire?
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., and edits its newspaper, Freethought Today. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.