Woman Who Dared VoteThe Woman Who Dared to Vote
by N. E. H. Hull

Those of us who are natives of Rochester, New York, have two big hometown heroes — Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They were friends and allies in the two greatest causes of their age. Schoolchildren growing up with these heroes learn to see that freedom means not only my freedom, but your freedom as well, that we must desire for others the same good we desire for ourselves.

We also learn more complicated truths, especially when we see how these two friends sometimes argued fiercely over serious differences on matters of tactics and priorities of timing. Yet arguing strongly for what you honestly believe to be the best course of action, though it may put you head-to-head opposite a friend, is a very different sort of argument from invective denigrating your opponent’s honor, intelligence, or patriotism. The causes these two fought about were close to both their hearts. That gave them a common core of agreement, however much their strategies diverged. They were never disrespectful of each other’s priorities, even when their own priorities were different.

Anthony and Douglass at teaIn a park near Anthony’s house here in Rochester, there is a sculpture depicting Anthony and Douglass opposite each other across a tea table, in earnest yet relaxed discussion. They look deeply involved and thoughtful, gesturing to make their points, yet also focused on each other, listening intently. When I see this sculpture, I imagine that this meeting occurred in the midst of their post-Civil War disputes, and I see in it the strength between two friends willing to hear each other out, and while yet unconvinced, to drink tea together.

Two of the greatest speeches in American oratory have their roots here in our western New York soil during those years of struggle. One was Douglass’s Fifth of July speech, given in Rochester in 1852, in which he asked bitterly, “What, to an American slave, is your Fourth of July?” The other was Anthony’s 1873 reply to the Judge at her sentencing for illegal voting, in which she passionately protested “laws made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women.”

There are times in history when we are ready, as individuals and nations, to expand our minds and hearts in wonderful new ways. It’s often after agony that we discover clearer vision. We see as plain and good some truth we’ve been rejecting. We see as brothers and sisters people we’ve been ignoring. We suddenly are disgusted by rot and decay we had taken for granted as normal and inevitable. We are inspired with the energy to break from apathy and build something fresh, something better.

The years immediately after the Civil War were one such graced moment. People who had worked a lifetime for the abolition of slavery saw their hopes become reality, while  people who had been indifferent to the question were inspired by the idealism of the times to become supporters, and even those who had hated abolitionism were ready to accept it as inevitable. In the aspirational mood of the age, so many hopes of other reforms began flying high. There was a general sense that this was the hour for a new age to begin. The trouble with such periods of zeal is that they eventually grow cold and die. So much seems to be achieved in sudden spurts when there is this general enthusiasm for national betterment, with long stretches of backsliding in between. For people with hopes of their own, there is a sense of urgency to these moments, a push that says, “Now — quick — before we lose the momentum –“

The women had hoped that during this wave of post-war reform, they too would become voters. Knowing that such ripe moments are brief, they chafed at advice to “wait — one thing at a time — your turn will come later.” In their agitation at risking a lost opportunity, they even threatened withholding their support from the 15th Amendment enfranchising black men, unless it also included women. When that amendment was adopted with no mention of sex, a movement immediately began to launch a 16th Amendment, specifically enfranchising women.

In the midst of all this agitation and argument, some voices began suggesting a fresh viewpoint on the problem. In 1869, Virginia Minor and her husband Francis began to say, in effect, “Just vote!” Could it be that simple? Could it be that women already had the franchise and needed only to exercise it? In 1870, Victoria Woodhull presented a memorial to Congress setting forth the same reasoning as the Minors’. The 14th Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, had declared: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Woodhull Memorial argued that one of the “privileges and immunities” of a citizen was the right to vote. By this reasoning, the 14th Amendment guaranteed voting rights to all citizens, though it had not specifically mentioned voting.

The best way to clarify this point was to put it to a practical test. Leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement called on women across the country to turn out for Election Day in November 1872, to assert their right to be registered and to vote. If they were refused and turned away, as was thought likely, they were to file lawsuits against those officials who had denied them their guaranteed right as citizens, carrying their cases through appeals if necessary, hoping to get a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court which would settle the question in their favor.

In Rochester NY, Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were ready for the battle. A few days before the election, they presented themselves at a local barbershop which was serving as a voter registration location and announced that they wanted to be registered as voters. The three local election inspectors were thrown into some consternation. Their first reaction, to simply say “no”, was countered by Miss Anthony inquiring whether they had ever heard of the 14th Amendment, which she produced and read to them, along with an explanation of its present applicability. Two election supervisors were called into the consultation. One of them was convinced enough to throw his influence behind the women, carrying two of the inspectors with him. The third, while not so convinced, surrendered to the majority and the women were registered.

On Election Day, however, when they turned out to vote, they were faced with a challenge at the polls from an onlooker. The law provided that, if a voter’s eligibility was challenged, the voter might take an oath to tell the truth and then answer whatever questions were put concerning his eligibility. If the challenge was not withdrawn, the voter might still vote if he were willing to take a second oath stating that he was indeed eligible. Susan and the other women took the required oaths, and the inspectors then received their ballots as the law directed.

Letter to Stanton excerptWhen Susan got home, she quickly wrote to her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “Well, I have been and gone and done it!! Positively voted –” There was a sense of giddy excitement. A precedent had just been established, one that might set the stage for larger numbers of women at future elections. The excitement took a sharp turn a couple of days later, though, when arrest warrants were served on all the voting women and on the three complicit inspectors.

We all know “Aunt Susan’s Trial” as a set piece. We visit her house, stand in the parlor where she was arrested, and gawk at her worn alligator handbag. But without context, it’s crushed into an iconic tableau, a myth, rather than an encounter with a woman as real as ourselves. This book fits the trial into a carefully nuanced context. It’s not a complete biography of Anthony or a sweeping history of the women’s movement. It provides just enough context to carry us intelligently through the situation as it stood in November 1872, when Susan and the other women went to the polls, and in June 1873, when Susan’s case came to trial.

The story of the trial is a story of legal maneuvering and counter-maneuvering. Susan and her friends campaigned on lecture platforms throughout the Rochester area arguing their cause, winning an unexpectedly large public response. The prosecution, fearing the Rochester jury pool had been biased toward the women, moved for a change of venue to the nearby city of Canandaigua instead. Susan’s legal advisor, Henry Selden, who had given his opinion before the women registered that they were within their rights in doing so, agreed to represent Susan in court. But he found himself facing a judge who seemed to have already decided the case before it was even argued. Judge Ward Hunt refused to allow the jury to give their verdict, on the grounds that there was no point for a jury to consider, and directed that the jury’s verdict be entered as “guilty”.

Susan B. Anthony had been refused the right to take the stand as a witness in her own defense, and had been forced to sit silently throughout the trial. But when the Judge asked the standard question before sentencing — “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?” — Susan took the opportunity to burst out with one of the most famous speeches ever made by an American woman. “Yes, your Honor, I have many things to say –” And she went on to say them with spirit and directness.

I’ve been working on a recording of the trial transcript for LibriVox, and when I got to Susan’s speech, I found myself reading that entire section straight through in a single take, without careful re-recording and editing. As a non-fiction reader, I usually read in a calm and neutral tone of voice. With Susan’s speech, that just wasn’t possible. I was back there in her parlor, seeing her picking up the old alligator bag and marching firmly off to take her case to court, and she was 100% real and alive to me. Even my impossible Rah-chester accent was suddenly called into service, as I realized that Susan was a Rochester woman too, and may have sounded just like me. This time, when I spoke her words, they weren’t a set schoolroom speech — I had walked with Susan through all the events leading up to that speech, and the words arose out of all that had gone before. They were part of a whole story for me now.