CRP's Blog

‹ Back To All Posts
March 24, 2021

Susan B. Anthony Votes by Bill Greer



by Bill Greer


Women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony died sixteen years before the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women across the United States the right to vote. Yet a century after women won that right, Anthony has a legitimate claim to being the first New York woman to vote for president.

The year 1872 had been a bitter one for Anthony as Election Day approached. Early in the prior year, she had embraced the revolutionary argument that Victoria Woodhull had presented to Congress: that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution already guaranteed women the right to vote. “Go ahead! bright, glorious, young and strong spirit,” she had written Woodhull, “and believe in the best love and hope and faith of S. B. Anthony.” But before that year was out, Woodhull’s advocacy of broad-based women’s rights and social reforms, the basis of the campaign she was mounting to win the presidency, proved far too radical for Anthony, who was focused solely on the vote.

At the convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association in January 1872, the Anthony and Woodhull forces faced off. Backed by Anthony’s longtime partner Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull demanded the radical platform of reforms proposed by her new political party. No, Anthony countered; the suffragists would back whichever established party put a women’s suffrage plank in its platform and nominated candidates backing women having the ballot. When the convention closed with an outburst of enthusiasm for Woodhull and her spontaneous nomination as the convention’s candidate for the presidency, Anthony suffered a humiliating defeat. The suffragists convened again in May, and Anthony faced a repeat when Woodhull’s partisans again called for her nomination. Anthony’s only recourse was to tell the janitor to shut off the gas, plunging the auditorium into darkness. “The fiasco perfect,” Anthony confided in her diary. She was hurt, demoralized, near to losing any knowledge of herself.

Nor did Anthony have any success with the established parties. With the Republican Party split, she had three shots. First was the Liberal Republicans, the breakaway faction that refused to support incumbent president Ulysses Grant. Arriving at their convention in Cincinnati, Anthony was determined “to see how liberal they are,” as she told a reporter. When the convention closed with the nomination of New-York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley for president, she got her answer—not a word for women or their rights in the party platform. In Philadelphia, the establishment Republicans wouldn’t so much as allow a woman on the floor of their conclave. They acquiesced only to saying the “party is mindful of its obligations to the loyal women of America for their noble devotion to the cause of freedom. Their admission to wider fields of usefulness is viewed with satisfaction, and the honest demand of any class of citizens for additional rights should be treated with respectful consideration.” When the Democrats later embraced Greeley, “swallowing Cincinnati hoofs, horns and all,” as Anthony lamented in her diary, she accepted the Republicans’ pathetic mention of women as her only option. She would “clutch it as the drowning man the floating straw,” she wrote. She would support the incumbent President Grant.

In a dark state, Anthony returned to her home in Rochester, New York. For the first time in years, a rigorous speaking schedule had not kept her away from home as an election approached. Realizing that this year she met New York’s requirement of thirty-day residency in her election district, she determined to vote.



On November 1, Anthony gathered documents proving her right to vote. She intended to assert that right under the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. No matter the bitterness she held against her nemesis, she hadn’t rejected the argument Woodhull had presented to Congress almost two years earlier.

Anthony led her sisters to a barber shop that was doubling as the registry office and polling place of the first election district of Rochester’s Eighth Ward. She asked the gentlemen present whether this was the place to register. Mr. Beverly Jones, the chair of the three-member board of inspectors for the district, said it was. Several men watched: inspectors Edwin Marsh and William Hall, two federal supervisors of elections, a marshal, and a poll watcher employed by the Democratic Party.

She and her sisters would like their names registered, Anthony said. Jones informed her that as she was a woman, the New York State Constitution did not allow it.

She didn’t claim any rights under the New York Constitution, Anthony said, nor was she appearing as a female. She was presenting herself as a citizen of the United States and asserting her rights under the US Constitution. Was Jones conversant with the Fourteenth Amendment? she asked.

Jones was. A debate ensued between Anthony and the inspectors and federal supervisors. Anthony read the amendment and argued its points. Jones and Marsh came around. The third inspector, Hall, argued back. One federal supervisor could see no grounds for not registering the ladies. Hall relented, since the supervisor was a respected friend. Anthony became the twenty-second registered voter in the district.

Anthony walked away amazed. She had hardly imagined prevailing. A denial would have served her goal, enabling an appeal to the federal courts as a test case. The act of voting, successful or not, promised more. Could she really get away with it?

Anthony carried her documents to Henry Selden, a leading Rochester attorney. She asked for a legal opinion: Was she entitled to vote? Selden promised an answer before the election. Irrespective of his answer, Anthony resolved to cast her ballots. She wouldn’t be alone. When registrations closed, eligible voters in the Eighth Ward’s first district included fifteen women.

On Monday, Selden assured Anthony she was as lawful a voter as he himself was. Tuesday morning, Anthony appeared at the polls with several others. Inspectors Jones and Marsh were willing to proceed. The third, Hall, again protested. As the argument heated up, Hall was ready to throttle his colleagues. Finally, reason prevailed. The inspectors voted, and Hall acknowledged that majority ruled. The three men were caught between a rock and a hard place no matter what. Whether they denied an eligible person or allowed an ineligible one, they were liable.

Immediately another barrier arose. Anthony had been challenged, Jones told her. Although the law did not allow inspectors to identify the challenger, Sylvester Lewis was standing there. He was the poll watcher for the Democratic Party who had seen her register.

Anthony accepted the challenge. Jones presented a Bible. Anthony placed her hand upon it. “Do you swear that you will fully and truly answer all such questions as shall be put to you touching your place of residence and qualifications as an elector?” Jones asked. Anthony swore yes. Jones asked questions about residence and citizenship. Hearing the answers, Jones found no qualifications in which Anthony was deficient.

Jones turned to Sylvester Lewis and asked if he renewed his challenge. He did. If she persisted in her claim to vote, Jones told Anthony, she would have to take the general oath in the election law. Back came the Bible. “Do you swear that you are twenty-one years of age, that you have been a citizen of the United States for ten days, and an inhabitant of this state for one year next preceding this election, and for the last four months a resident of this county, and for thirty days a resident of this election district, and that you have not voted at this election?” Jones asked.

Anthony answered yes. Lewis threatened to round up twenty Irish women to offset these women if they voted. But the law was the law, and the general oath satisfied its requirements. The inspectors handed her ballots for the seat in the Twenty-Ninth US Congressional District, New York State’s at-large congressional seat, New York statewide offices, a seat in the New York Assembly, and electors to the Electoral College. Anthony marked the ballots, folded them in half so no one could see which candidates she favored, and handed them back. The inspectors deposited the ballots in their respective boxes. Anonymous as they were, the ballots would be counted.

The women accompanying Anthony repeated the process. The news flashed across the country. Even the patronizing New York Times, which election morning had told women, So what if you can’t vote, you control those who do. Make every man you can sway—and there are few you can’t—promise to vote for Grant, lauded Anthony’s leadership, with one caveat. The editors assumed the “ladies at Rochester showed their capacity for an intelligent exercise of the franchise by voting for Grant.”

That evening Anthony wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She had gone and done it, she told her friend. She had been on the go constantly for five days. Now she was so tired. But it was worth all the effort. If the suffrage women worked to this end, what strides they would make.

Two weeks later, a US marshal showed up at her house to arrest her. Her ordeal was just beginning.


Bill Greer is the author of A Dirty Year: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in Gilded Age New York, published by Chicago Review Press, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Greer. 


No Comments

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply