Guilty of Being a Woman

Some people think I look cheap.

In his opening remarks, District Attorney Richard Crowley stated the case against Susan B. Anthony.  On the 5th day of November, 1872, she had voted — and, Crowley said, “At that time she was a woman.”

Her lawyer, Henry Selden, responded, “The defense wishes to concede that Miss Susan B. Anthony is indeed a woman.”  That didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the courtroom.  Over many years she had been working to promote women’s rights; she had traveled the country making speeches and writing articles.  Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was the best-known of the women who were involved in the struggle for equal treatment under the law.

She had become the defendant in United States v. Susan B. Anthony because she contended that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.  It grants privileges of citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”  From a legal standpoint, then, the question in this case became, “is a woman a person?”

Prior to the election of 1872, she had consulted Selden, who had been a judge and New York state official.  He agreed that her reading of the 14th Amendment was correct; that under its provisions, women were entitled to vote.

Miss Anthony (as she was known) took Selden’s written legal opinion to the registrar of voters in Rochester and demanded that she, along with several other women who had accompanied her, be allowed to register.  The registrar probably thought, “Damn, why does stuff like this always happen on my shift?”

Following the election, Susan B. Anthony was charged with Unlawful Voting.  The trial began in June, 1873; the presiding judge was a guy named Ward Hunt.  He was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a shockingly bad judge.  Among other things, Hunt did not permit the defendant to testify in her own behalf.  She was not deemed competent — after all, she was a woman.

At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Hunt directed the jury to find her guilty, and didn’t even send them out to deliberate!  He announced “their” verdict, and then read an opinion that he had obviously written before the trial began.  Hunt ordered the defendant to pay a fine of $100, to which she responded, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

She didn’t, either, but Judge Hunt didn’t pursue the matter.  He undoubtedly knew that if he pushed it, Susan B. Anthony would appeal, and he’d wind up looking — well, like the jerk he was.  The case was important because it increased attention on the issue of equal rights, but it wasn’t until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, that women finally gained the legal right to vote.  Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see that day; she died in 1906.

Her vow to never pay a dollar is a little ironic, since her likeness was put on a U.S. dollar in 1979.  It was the first portrait of an actual woman (not an allegorical character) to appear on U.S. currency.  The Susan B. Anthony dollar was not a popular coin because it was too similar in size and shape to a quarter (see photo), so people frequently overpaid with it in vending machines and such.

Here’s an idea, though — maybe we should gather up 100 Susan B. Anthony dollars, take them into the District Court in upstate New York, and pay her fine with them.  You know, just to sort of say on her behalf, “So?  What do you think of me now?”

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One response to “Guilty of Being a Woman

  1. Great post about a great leader. I’m proud that she and Frederick Douglass were good friends who generated support for each other’s quests for gender and race equality.

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