Happy birthday, Susan B. Anthony

Happy birthday, Susan B. Anthony
By Annie Laurie Gaylor

February 12, 2004

Feb. 15, which is Susan B. Anthony's birthday, ought to be a national holiday.

Susan B. Anthony devoted most of her life to winning suffrage for women. Long before women won this civil right, she was arrested and convicted for daring to cast a ballot in the 1872 presidential election.

In the dramatic case of the U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, she was fined $100 for voting for Ulysses S. Grant. At the sentencing, in which the judge continually attempted to censor her, Anthony pointed out that the laws under which she was prosecuted were "all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men and against women."

Anthony made an impassioned courtroom vow never to pay the $100 fine -- which, in today's terms, translates to roughly $1,300. "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty," she said.

Convinced that all the other wrongs against women would be righted once women won political equality, Anthony was single-minded in her pursuit of women's suffrage.

Yet suffrage was far from Anthony's only interest.

She worked for several years as an abolitionist, promoted female economic independence and spoke freely on topics such as prostitution and "sex slavery." Pre-Virginia Woolf, she wrote in her diary in 1853 that a "woman must have a 'purse' of her own."

Throughout her life, Anthony continually urged women to "wake up," to "be all on fire," to "shake up" the country, to "agitate, agitate, agitate." She beseeched young women to "work to save us from any more barbaric male governments."

Anthony, a noted critic of American aggression and imperialism, would be out agitating today for justice and against war and attempts to turn back the clock on women's gains.

In Susan B. Anthony's day, it was a crime for women to vote. Today, the real crime is the number of women who fail to vote.

Forty percent of American women failed to exercise their right to vote in the last presidential election, something that would surely have disappointed Anthony and the early suffragists.

Women are still paid only 79.7 cents for every dollar paid to men, even in professions dominated by women, according to a November 2003 congressional study.

Women fill less than a quarter of state legislative seats. Only 13 percent of the U.S. Senate and 14 percent of the House of Representatives is female. The United States ranks 59th out of 181 nations in which women are elected to national legislatures.

The United States has never elected a woman president, while currently there are 17 heads of state who are women worldwide.

Anthony might be disappointed in the lack of progress for women, but she would exult in the potential power of the gender gap. "Awakened" women voters could determine the outcome of the next presidential election.

A contemporary of Anthony's once proposed the idea that Feb. 15 even be proclaimed a national "Woman's Day" holiday in Anthony's honor.

A national holiday to celebrate women's rights is long overdue. But another day off with no mail delivery is not what women need most today.

The best memorial to Anthony would be for women to finally make use of that weapon bequeathed to us by our hardworking feminist foremothers -- the right to vote.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, who lives in Madison, Wis., is director of the Feminist
Caucus of the American Humanist Association, and editor of the anthology,
"Women Without Superstition: No Gods - No Masters" (Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997), which includes a chapter on Susan B. Anthony. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.