Susan B. Anthony, Illegal Voter

Susan B. Anthony wound up in front of a federal judge for illegally voting in the 1872 election. The Post’s response to her actions, and to her cause, isn’t something we’re proud of.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress

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Voter fraud — at least the potential of it — has been getting a lot of media coverage during this 2016 election. Illegal voting is nothing new, but 144 years ago, it had completely different ramifications. Back then, the media was focused on an incident that took place in Rochester, New York, on election day, November 5, 1872.

The Post reported on the incident in its November 11 issue:

November 11, 1872—There is a great deal of conflicting practice as to the admission and denial of the claim of women to vote. Thus far their efforts toward exercising the elective franchise in [Philadelphia] have been fruitless. The attempt made by a number of ladies in Washington, a year or two ago, to have their names placed on the voting list, also failed. Just prior to the recent election, a number of other ladies tried it in Brooklyn without success. … In the face of all these failures and adverse decisions, it is announced from Rochester, New York, that 16 ladies, headed by Miss Susan B. Anthony, did actually vote on Tuesday last in that city.

But, unfortunately for the “cause,” not more than one woman in a hundred cares anything about voting.

On November 18, authorities arrested Anthony along with 14 other women who had cast ballots in Rochester. The women were released pending the outcome of Anthony’s trial, which was scheduled to take place six months later.

The Post’s editors at the time didn’t take the case — or the cause of women’s suffrage — seriously. Shortly after Anthony’s arraignment, the Post ran this item:

April 5, 1873—The indictment against Miss Susan B. Anthony, for voting, charges that “She was a person of the female sex, contrary to the laws of the United States, in such cases made and provided.” This may have a tendency to discourage persons being born females, contrary to the laws of the United States. Persons of the female sex should always read the Constitution before being born, and then such mistakes would not occur.

This was relatively lighthearted teasing. Usually the Post covered the topic of women’s rights in general, and of Susan B. Anthony in particular, with a tone of ridicule. For example:

March 30, 1872—An obscure Alabama paper wants to know if Susan B. Anthony is the wife of Mark Anthony. No — happily for Mark.


August 12, 1876—This cruel report is current: It is rumored that Susan B. Anthony will now try the stage, as Desdemona, with Dr. Mary Walker as Othello.

 [Dr. Mary Walker was the first female U.S. Army surgeon and, as of 2016, the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.]


November 19, 1881—Susan B. Anthony wants the name of the Pullman cars changed to either Pull-man-and-woman or Pull-irrespective-of-sex cars.

Worried that a trial would give publicity to the women’s rights advocates, the district attorney had the case moved to a federal court. Not only would Anthony be prevented from testifying in a federal court, but the trial would be held without a jury.

On the third day of the trial, the judge asked Anthony if she had anything to say. She did, and she began to defend her actions and denounce the trial, despite the judge repeatedly ordering her to sit down and be quiet.

When the judge handed down his decision shortly afterward, the Post reported:

July 12, 1873—Susan B. Anthony has been convicted at Canandaigua, New York, for illegal voting and fined $100 and costs. She is determined to appeal, which she has a right to do, but will have her labor and the payment of heavy costs for her pains. The inspectors of the election poll, who received her vote, were fined $25 each and costs.

Anthony refused to pay the fine. Ordinarily, the court would have ordered her jailed in response. But such a move would have allowed Anthony to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, giving her even greater publicity. So the court simply failed to pursue the matter.

In the late 1800s, the Post was written primarily for a female audience. Yet the editors assumed, as revealed in the first excerpt above, that women by and large cared nothing for voting. American women would have little to complain of, the editors believed, if people like Susan B. Anthony didn’t stir them up:

February 26, 1870—[Anthony] has waged war in behalf of her unhappy sisters against the conjugal tyranny of which she, a celibate, had never felt the yoke. … Miss Anthony attacked an abuse from which she had never suffered — and from which, so long as it shall take two to make a bargain, she can never suffer — and awakened the attention of the wives of America to wrongs which they knew not, until she told them, that they endured.

It is curious to see the difference in how The Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman — both eventually purchased by Cyrus Curtis — presented Susan B. Anthony. You might expect the editors of Country Gentleman, written for farmers and their wives, would have little sympathy for Anthony, but their coverage was more thoughtful and sympathetic:

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress

September 17, 1891—The longer I live and the more I observe, the more I am impressed by the wonderful accomplishments of women during the past 25 years, and by the still greater possibilities for progress that the future promises. I can easily remember the time when the only avenues of employment open to a woman were sewing, teaching, or drudging in her sister’s family until some man should offer to marry her — not because he cared for her society, but because of her ability to drudge. Now, women are to be found in almost every vocation of life, and wherever they have been employed, they have proved apt, industrious, and trustworthy.

I am not one of those women who clamor for the right of suffrage, although I see no reason why an intelligent woman who has property should not have as much voice in political affairs as an ignorant man who has no possessions to protect, but for the comfort of those of my sex who do desire the right to vote, I want to give my opinion. As woman is becoming so great a power in every avenue of life, I firmly believe that the time is not far distant when she will not only be allowed to vote but will be earnestly solicited to cast her ballot.

I am proud of my sex.

Take up our magazines today and compare them with those of 25 years ago. Notice their phenomenal excellence of growth and notice also the increase in the number of female contributors. Is there any significance in these two facts?

Woman is advancing so rapidly in intelligence and cultivation that it will soon be an unheard of event for her to sign a paper without having read it, or to make any of those blunders in business transactions that are now so frequently attributed to her. There never was a time when woman was so well fitted to become the companion of husband and children as the present; and the future has in store greater possibilities in that direction.

“The hand that rocks the cradle” has ruled the world in the past and will rule it yet more potently in the future.

Featured image: Susan B. Anthony (Library of Congress)

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  1. It’s an interesting fact that women were finally able to vote in 1920, the centennial of Susan B. Anthony’s birth. She passed away in 1906, not all that long before what she personally put into motion decades earlier would finally ignite in the major way it did in the U.S.

    The Post’s reporting on her between 1870 to 1881 runs the range of absurd to degrading, if not cruel. I can only conclude the writers were male, and frankly scared of losing dominance. This was a woman to be reckoned with, they knew it, and their articles were their way of putting her and any other women ‘getting such ideas’ in their place.

    It was good to read the 1891 article by Susan herself and the shift that had taken place by that time. I’d be very interested in reading Post features from the 1900s and ’10s leading up to the 19th Amendment, and those written after it had passed!

    If Susan B. Anthony were alive today, I’m pretty sure how she’d feel about Donald Trump. As far as Hillary goes, it may very well be that she’d be pleased we have a woman (finally) running for President, yes, but the extremely bizarre, polarizing circumstances of this election otherwise would have her feeling this is NOT what she had in mind, putting both hands over her face in utter disbelief.


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