By: Caiti Anderson
The women’s suffrage movement developed and empowered some of the most infamous women in American history. The name Susan B. Anthony is inextricably linked to the effort to expand voting rights. Although many can recognize Anthony as an important leader in the suffrage movement, remarkably few know that she voted in the 1872 presidential election and was subsequently arrested for illegal voting. Her trial made national news and marked the initial use of civil disobedience within the women’s suffrage movement. Martin Naparsteck explores Anthony’s trial in the book, The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: An Illegal Vote, a Courtroom Conviction and a Step Toward Women’s Suffrage.
As Narparsteck describes, Anthony’s decision to vote was not a light undertaking. Anthony, along with her friend and fellow suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt betrayed by the exclusion of women from the Fifteenth Amendment. Both women dedicated themselves to the abolition movement during the Civil War and expected that women would be recognized at its end. The Fifteenth Amendment’s granting of voting rights exclusively to black men fractured the suffrage movement and pitted friends against each other. Famed abolitionist and longtime women’s suffrage advocate Fredrick Douglass led the side that supported the Fifteenth Amendment, while Anthony and Stanton vehemently opposed its glaring omission of women. It is in this environment that Anthony decided to employ a new tactic to fight for women’s suffrage.
The plan was simple. First, Anthony would attempt to register to vote. Presuming that she would be denied registration based on her sex, she would then sue, claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment granted her the right to vote. This “test case” would be appealed until it finally reached the Supreme Court, who would hopefully find the registration laws unconstitutional.
However, even the best laid plans can go awry. When Anthony arrived at the registration station in November, 1872, the officials allowed her to register to vote. A week later, Anthony successfully voted “a straight Republican ticket.” A U.S. Marshall arrest arrested Anthony two weeks later for illegally voting in a federal election. Anthony was going to trial, even if it was not the one she originally desired. Rather than suing against women’s inability to register to vote, Anthony faced criminal charges for illegally voting. Her case would not be one that challenged the constitutionality of disenfranchising women; that would be decided in Minor v. Happersett in 1875.
The outcome of Anthony’s trial seemed cemented in failure from its beginning. A newly appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ward Hunt, presided over the case. Hunt’s distaste for the trial, and for Anthony’s attorneys, is evident throughout the trial records. Before the jury began their deliberations, Hunt stated “that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.” Notably, this is the only criminal case in American history where the judge directed the jury to find a verdict. Unsurprisingly, the jury found Anthony guilty of illegal voting, and Hunt fined her $100. Although Hunt prevented Anthony from testifying during the trial, she triumphantly declared, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” In one of history’s more ironic twists, Hunt disappeared into relative obscurity, yet Anthony remained a prominent figure.
Anthony’s trial is an important story in the both the women’s suffrage movement and the journey to increase voting rights in the United States. Unfortunately, Naparsteck’s book represents missed opportunity to fully explore this topic. A significant portion of the book – close to half of it – is direct quotes without adequate explanation or commentary. These lengthy passages can make the book inaccessible to modern readers. Further, the extensive quotations prevent the development of a deep analysis. Moreover, Narpasteck focuses on aspects of Anthony’s life that, in this reviewer’s opinion, are irrelevant and unnecessary. For example, he dedicates a portion of the book comparing Anthony and Stanton’s body types. This comparison does not contribute to the relevant analytical stance regarding Anthony’s work, and does nothing to contribute to the book overall.
And Anthony? She never paid that fine: instead, she ended up on a coin.
Note: For an excellent essay on Anthony’s trial, please click here.