Petition to US Congress for Women’s Suffrage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the most prominent women’s rights campaigners of her time, Susan B. Anthony was particularly interested in winning the right to vote (suffrage) for women and spent the better part of her life advocating for such. On November 5, 1872, she and fourteen other women in the first district of Rochester, New York’s Eighth Ward tested the American electoral system by attempting to register and vote in the national election. She and the other women were arrested two weeks after the election and charged with voting illegally, but only Anthony’s case was pursued; she was tried in federal court in June 1873. In United States v. Susan B. Anthony the court eventually decided against Anthony and fined her $100, along with court costs. At this point, Anthony petitioned the US Congress to revoke the fine, which she never paid and which the government never compelled her to pay. In this way, these women were the first to actually vote in a US election, which did not become a legal right for women nationwide until the Nineteenth Amendment came into force in 1920.

Summary Overview

One of the most prominent women’s rights campaigners of her time, Susan B. Anthony was particularly interested in winning the right to vote (suffrage) for women and spent the better part of her life advocating for such. On November 5, 1872, she and fourteen other women in the first district of Rochester, New York’s Eighth Ward tested the American electoral system by attempting to register and vote in the national election. She and the other women were arrested two weeks after the election and charged with voting illegally, but only Anthony’s case was pursued; she was tried in federal court in June 1873. In United States v. Susan B. Anthony the court eventually decided against Anthony and fined her $100, along with court costs. At this point, Anthony petitioned the US Congress to revoke the fine, which she never paid and which the government never compelled her to pay. In this way, these women were the first to actually vote in a US election, which did not become a legal right for women nationwide until the Nineteenth Amendment came into force in 1920.

Defining Moment

Although the women’s rights movement had been active before the Civil War, the movement was mainly put on hold as the nation decided its stance on slavery. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York and the 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, were evidence that the antebellum women’s rights movement was gaining momentum. Many women’s rights activists had been deeply involved in the abolition movement as well, which gave them invaluable experience in how to organize and communicate their reform platforms. After the Civil War concluded, many women returned their attention to women’s rights and, in particular, to women’s suffrage. This was a time in American history when many other social reforms and civil rights were emerging. Many fought for more than women’s rights to vote, pushing for equal pay and equal access to higher education for women. Others took up the cause of temperance (the abolition of the sale of alcohol and certain drugs), as they were seen as detrimental to stable family life, an issue in which women had a vested interest.

As for suffrage, Anthony, along with other activists, saw the newly enacted Fourteenth Amendment as an opportunity to test the system. This amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, was part of the Reconstruction efforts after the Civil War, and was designed to grant former slaves US citizenship, with due process and equal protection under the law. It was the citizenship clause of the amendment on which Anthony focused, reasoning that because women were US citizens, they too had the right to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which gave the federal government oversight of elections, was also seen to be in their favor, as it too had a clause stipulating that citizen’s right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Anthony and the National Woman Suffrage Association decided to challenge the new laws through the courts to see if women’s suffrage could be gained by such means. As such, in 1872, a group of women including Anthony tried to register to vote in Rochester, New York. As they were successful in this, many returned to actually vote in the election, and they were allowed to do so by the federal election inspectors. Anthony used this challenge as a key theme of one of her speaking tours, which she undertook before her trial in June 1873. At the trial, the judge gave a directed guilty verdict to the jury. Anthony was ordered to pay a fine, but instead, she petitioned Congress to overturn the fine.

Author Biography

Susan Brownell Anthony, born on February 15, 1820, in Adams, Massachusetts, was one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the nineteenth century. She was a particular proponent of women’s right to vote (or suffrage) and to higher education and equal pay for equal work, although she was also active in the abolitionist and temperance movements. She had a working partnership for most of her life with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While Stanton wrote copiously, Anthony traveled and lectured tirelessly, sharing their ideas for reform far and wide, which included petitioning state and federal legislatures. A leader in the suffrage movement, Anthony organized the National Woman Suffrage Association with Stanton, which eventually merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. With her suffrage colleagues, Anthony ensured the history of the early movement was documented and disseminated to school and university libraries. She died on March 13, 1906.

Document Analysis

By the time Anthony sent her petition to Congress in 1874, she had already been found guilty of voting illegally. She felt she had done nothing wrong and did not agree to pay the fine. In this document, Anthony appeals her conviction to Congress and asks for her fine to be overturned. In her appeal, Anthony relies upon legal arguments involving the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as well as prior legal arguments made by her lawyer designed to appeal her conviction.

Throughout the document, Anthony addresses members of Congress in language they would easily understand. As they are in charge of making the laws, she speaks to them in legal terms. She quotes verbatim from her lawyer, Henry Selden, at times, knowing that the words of a man, and a lawyer, may well hold more weight with them than the words of a woman found guilty of a crime. Anthony presents the facts of her case, and the history of how her case came before the courts, in a concise, dispassionate, and logical manner, which is in direct opposition to the more passionate tones of her public speeches on suffrage. She makes the point that before attempting to vote, she asked the opinion of a respected (male) lawyer, and that he “advised her that she had such right” (he repeated this when called as a witness at her trial). She also makes the point that the election inspectors also “decided that she had a right to vote, and received her vote accordingly.”

Anthony also insists that because of this, she truly believes she has the right to vote and, therefore, voted in good faith. She is also concerned that her verdict and sentence were directed to the jury by the judge in the case and that, therefore, she was denied her constitutional right to a trial by jury. She feels that because of these irregularities, her conviction is unjust. Further, she states that because the court system gives her no access to appeal or “no means of reviewing the decisions of the Judge, or of correcting his errors,” she should not have to pay the fine and, therefore, asks Congress to overturn her sentence by remitting the fine.

Essential Themes

As a woman, Anthony could not legally vote in elections in 1872, and yet she dared to do so. Change was in the air, and progressive women and men began advocating for a woman’s right to vote. As amendments had been introduced to ensure that some black men were able to vote after the Civil War, many women saw this as an opportunity for them to gain the same right.

Anthony’s legal and constitutional challenge for the right of women to vote set the stage for the growth of the suffrage movement over the following several decades. These events also provided her with an opportunity to embark on a speaking tour about suffrage and to sway many other women, and especially men, to her cause. Anthony actually wanted to be arrested, for the sake of publicity, and published three thousand copies of her lawyer’s argument in 1873 as pamphlets, mailing them to key newspapers. In 1874, she also published an account of her trial.

After losing her case, Anthony was portrayed as either a martyr for the suffrage cause or as a common criminal. However, Anthony is remembered as a feminist icon and a champion of women’s rights. Americans did not forget this trailblazing woman, and she was the first woman to appear on a US dollar coin. Although Anthony died more than a decade before American women finally won the right to vote in 1920, her life’s work set the stage for change.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York: NYUP, 1988. Print.
  • Gordon, Ann D., ed. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. 6 Vols. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1997–2013. Print.
  • ________. The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. Washington, DC: Federal Judicial Center, 2005. Digital file.
  • Hull, N. E. H. The Woman Who Dared to Vote. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 2012. Digital file.
  • Sherr, Lynn. Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. New York: Times Books, 1995. Print.
  • Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, and Susan Brownell Anthony. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton–Susan B. Anthony Reader: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. Ed. Ellen Carol DuBois. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992. Print.
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