Indiana AAUW
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Women, Men and Suffrage

Nancy Kohlhoff, Valparaiso branch

(Ed Note: This is the ninth in a series of our exclusive publication of the manuscript written by Nancy after much research to fill in the gaps left by history books when dealing with women’s issues and their struggle to gain the vote.)

Chapter Nine

Susan B. Anthony was born in Adams, MA, on February 15, 1820 and died in Rochester, NY, March 13, 1906. Her life was described by some as "a splendid failure." At her death, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was at a standstill and women still did not have the vote. Most influential men in 1906 happily believed that now Aunt Susan, that immovable old maid, was gone, the woman question would die out with her.

But Susan left a legacy that female and male suffragists did not forget. Since before the Civil War, Susan declared that "the charter of women’s liberties must be written into the [United States] Constitution itself." In 1920, fourteen years after her passing and 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, that is what happened.

Susan was a remarkable woman, in part at least because she was fathered by a remarkable man. As biographer Rheta Dorr stated it, "Daniel Anthony, Susan’s father, had a mind which transcended the limits of the ant hill." Although an orthodox Quaker, Daniel Anthony was a man of courage and independent mind, and these values he imputed to Susan.

Hungry for Education

Before she was five years old, Susan learned to read and write. She soon after shocked the Adams village schoolmaster by demanding to be taught long division. "Not every teacher in the 1820s was capable in imparting so much of higher mathematics, nor did any of them expect to teach it to girls."

In 1838, Susan and her sister Guelma were sent to Deborah Moulson’s Select Seminary for Females in Hamilton, PA, a small town near Philadelphia. The curriculum there combined the "vulgar branches of learning" with "The Principles of Morality, Humility and the Love of Virtue." Miss Moulson, ill most of the time from consumption, "brooded constantly on death and the probably dread punishment coming to all through man’s first disobedience." As a result, Susan had little opportunity to learn much of anything but Morality, Humility and Love of Virtue.

Daniel Anthony’s cotton mills failed in the economic panic of 1838. Consequently, Susan and her sister returned home, now a 32-acre farm in Hardscrabble, NY, near the town of Rochester. After Mr. Anthony went bankrupt, the farm was purchased with his wife’s inheritance even though it could not be deeded to her legally.

Susan Becomes a Teacher

Since teaching was the most respectable profession open to unmarried women at the time, Susan became a teacher. After several assignments in village schools, she became "assistant principal" at a girl’s boarding school in New Rochelle, NY. Although she had hoped to learn much from her association with the principal, Miss Eunice Kenyon, Susan found Miss Kenyon seriously ill when she arrived. As a result, Susan "was obliged to take over not only all the classes but the entire responsibility of the household." She also had to "act as sick nurse while the doctors dosed the invalid with huge quantities of calomel, bled her until she fainted, blistered her into consciousness and then gave her more calomel." Despite the treatment, Miss Kenyon recovered.

It was during her stay in New Rochelle that Susan read voraciously from New York newspapers and from books not found "in the libraries of good Quakers." She soon aligned herself with the extremist position of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. To her brother-in-law Arron McLean she wrote, "There are three colored girls here who have been in the habit of attending Friends meeting where they have lived, but here they are not even allowed to sit on the back seat. One long-faced elder dusted off a seat in the gallery and told them to sit there."

Her brother-in-law warned her not to "jeopardize her own position" thereby trying to "niggerize" the New Rochelle Friends. Susan flashed back, "Since school today, I have had the unspeakable satisfaction of visiting four colored people and drinking tea with them."

Susan decides against Marriage

In 1843, Susan accepted a position as head of the girls’ department at Canajoharie Academy, an innovative school for both boys and girls. For two years, she taught there and lived as a "paying guest" in the home of her cousin Margaret, her Uncle Joshua’s married daughter. She was transformed. She dropped the plain garments of the Quakers as well as the plain speech. Now that her father had established himself again financially and she did not need to send money home, she lavished $36 on a winter wardrobe which included a "white silk-ribbed bonnet." Canajoharie fell in love with Susan, and she fell in love with the "joys of life." As her students’ accomplishments became apparent, she was lauded the smartest woman in town.

At least one marriage proposal came to "the smartest woman who ever came to Canajoharie." A rich widower "with a fine farm, a big house and a sixty-cow dairy" proposed because "she looked so strong and well, and…reminded him of his dead wife." But Susan declined to "be the second woman to wear her life out in a dairy of sixty cows." Then, an event in cousin Margaret’s life turned Susan away from marriage forever. After giving birth to a fourth child, Margaret lay dying for several weeks. Lingering over his wife’s sick bed, husband Joseph complained that he had a headache. "I have had one for days," whispered Margaret. "Oh, yes," retorted Joseph, "but I mean that I have a real headache, very painful. Yours is just a natural consequence." Susan was shocked to her "heart’s core."

Growing restless of the joyful life, Susan began to question her real purpose. At 28, she had come as far as a female teacher was allowed. She wanted to leave the "mere excitement and delight in popular success" in Canajoharie and begin a life of service to society. Depressed over the lack of alternatives, she wrote to her father that, "rather than this continued inaction, I would like to join the men who are rushing to the California gold fields!"

(Quotes from Dorr, Rheta C., Susan B. Anthony, the Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation, AMS Press, New York, 1928; general background from various published sources on woman’s history. Copyright 1993)

(Ed note: this and previous chapters of this series may be found on our website at, click on "other links.")