Suffragette’s Legacy Alive and Well
Rochester museum keeps Anthony’s ideology intact
By Deborah Blackwell
Deborah Hughes, president of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, never expected to get a late-night text telling her that the NBC variety show “Saturday Night Live” just did an opening sketch featuring America’s most famous suffragette, Susan B. Anthony.
And she certainly didn’t expect that it would be a satirical message about the current political climate on abortion rights.
“I had no idea it was coming. I woke up and looked at my phone and then saw the SNL clip the next day. It was good social commentary, but not historically correct,” she said.
It was the ending statement of the sketch on Jan. 14 made by Kate McKinnon, playing the Anthony character — “Abortion is murder” — that really caught Hughes’ attention. According to Hughes, Anthony did not take on the issue of abortion and to put a historical figure into current time does not always work, she said.
“Although Susan B. Anthony’s history is very present in today’s marches, it is not accurate to say she was pro-life or pro-choice,” said Hughes. “Anthony never made a formal statement we can quote about abortion, and we don’t feel comfortable inserting interpretation. So as a museum we will not put words in her mouth, as much as we might love to.”
Although Hughes loved seeing how SNL accurately recreated the front parlor of the Susan B. Anthony House, addressing the unexpected dialogue on where Anthony stands on issues relevant today is challenging, she said.
“One of the challenges about being the director of the museum is we need to be non-partisan. But here we are telling the story of one of the most political people who ever existed,” said Hughes. “We have spent years trying to clarify for people who Susan B. Anthony is and where the museum stands.”
Hughes’ personal context to be politically engaged makes it difficult for her to find the fine line for herself and says it is one of the greatest struggles she now faces on a daily basis.
“If we start quoting Susan B. Anthony, people would be shocked to hear echoes of the leaders of today. I see the spirit in reform and arc of justice because that’s how we move forward and make positive things happen,” she said. “But the kind of threat that the current movement is to our society is creating a momentum that can be really bad.”
A century of transition
Anthony’s lifetime between 1820 and1906 was one of the times of greatest change in this country. America went through a civil war, and leading up to that Anthony was an abolitionist who was very critical of a society that included people owning other human beings. Hughes said Anthony carried a passionate belief in “we the people,” and equal rights for everyone, even the people you disagree with.
That message is still visible by the number of people who continue to visit Anthony’s grave, according to Christine L. Ridarski, city historian, city of Rochester.
Last fall, more than 10,000 people lined up to pay their respects on election day 2016, some waiting more than two hours to place flowers, balloons, candles, notes and “I voted” stickers at Anthony’s grave, she said.
“They were patient, they were respectful. This moment was significant not just for people voting for Clinton; it was a momentous and historic occasion, voting for the first woman president,” said Ridarski. “Even those who ended up being disappointed in the election results took away something good from that experience at the gravesite that day.”
WROC-TV 8 in Rochester did a live Facebook stream from the cemetery that garnered 10 million live views and reached 23 million people, according to Ridarski. National media outlets including CNN, NPR, USA Today and The Washington Post also covered the special occasion.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote in New York. Ridarski said the community is reflecting back on that history, what it took to achieve and reach this milestone and what lessons can be learned from women winning that fight and applying them to today.
Rochester and the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House are celebrating the anniversary with several special events throughout the year.
Anthony’s 200th birthday will be observed in 2020, as well as the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House.
“We have a passionate story and we want to keep telling it,” said Hughes.
VoteTilla ~ July 16-22
The VoteTilla is a week-long navigational celebration in honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York state. A core group of canal boats will set out from Seneca Falls on July 17 and arrive in Rochester on July 21. Throughout the week, VoteTilla boats will dock at several towns and villages along the route, where partner organizations will offer programming and excursions or add their own boats to the fleet. Community members can greet the passing boats and participate in special events.
The last leg of the trip — titled the “Last Mile” — will be celebrated with a parade in Rochester on Saturday, July 22, and there will be a concluding celebration at the Anthony Museum on Madison Street.
For more information visit https://susanbanthonyhouse.org/blog/category/events/, or www.facebook.com/RocSuffrage/ or call 585-235-6124.
Who Was Susan B. Anthony
Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906) dedicated her life to helping bring equality to women, minorities and people whose voices were quieted by society. Known as the leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Anthony was born on Feb. 15 in Adams, Mass., and spent most of her life in Rochester, where she worked tirelessly to bring voting rights to all American citizens regardless of race or gender. She helped fight against slavery and initiated and promoted many other causes including equal pay for equal work, advanced rights for nurses, women in education and women in publishing.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, allowing all women over age 21 to vote, passed in 1920, 14 years after her death.
A Susan B. Anthony and Women’s Suffrage Timeline
1777 Women lose the right to vote in New York and other states followed soonafter.
1820 Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15 in Adams, Massachusetts, the second of seven children.
1845 The Anthony family moves to Rochester, N.Y. Their farm on what is now Brooks Avenue becomes a meeting place for anti-slavery activists, including Frederick Douglass.
1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton held the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. called the Seneca Falls Convention. She proposed women’s suffrage. Two years later the first national women’s rights convention took place in Worcester, Massachusetts, where more than 1,000 participants from 11 states attended.
1851 Susan B. Anthony attends an anti-slavery convention in Syracuse, N.Y. where she meets Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
1852 Susan B. Anthony attends her first women’s rights convention.
1853 Susan B. Anthony is denied a voice at The World’s Temperance Convention in New York City.
1854 Anthony circulates petitions for married women’s property rights and women’s suffrage. She is refused permission to speak at the Capitol and Smithsonian in Washington. She begins her New York state campaign for women’s suffrage in Mayville, Chatauqua County, speaking and traveling alone.
1856 Susan B. Anthony becomes an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
1857 Susan B. Anthony calls for education for women and blacks at New York State Teachers’ Convention in Binghamton.
1866 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the American Equals Rights Association, an organization formed to secure rights for all Americans regardless of race, color or gender. The association included both men and women, blacks and whites.
1869 Wyoming was the first territory granting unrestricted suffrage to women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the National Woman Suffrage Association and Anthony calls the first Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington D.C.
1870 Utah territory grants suffrage to woman and the 15th Amendment to the Constitution removed voting restrictions for men based on race and color, but did not include verbiage to include a woman’s right to vote. Stanton and Anthony oppose the amendment and continue their fight, arguing the 14th Amendment does allow women the right to vote.
1871 The Anti-Suffrage Society is formed.
1872 Victoria Woodhull of the Equal Rights Party runs for first female President of the United States. Susan B. Anthony registers and casts a vote in Rochester, NY. She is arrested a few days later, along with several other women who are arrested for voting illegally.
1873 Susan B. Anthony is denied a trial by jury and fined $100, which she never pays.
1878 Women suffrage amendment is first introduced into Congress.
1890 The Progressive Era begins, women from all classes and backgrounds enter public life and the issue of women’s suffrage becomes part of mainstream politics.
1898 “The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, A Story of the Evolution of the Status of Women” is published. Anthony establishes a press bureau to feed articles on woman suffrage to the national and local press.
1905 Susan B. Anthony meets with President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., about submitting a suffrage amendment to Congress.
1906 Susan B. Anthony attends suffrage hearings in Washington, D.C., She gives her “Failure is Impossible” speech at her 86th birthday celebration. Anthony dies at her Madison Street home on March 13.
1917 New York State Constitution grants women’s suffrage, the first Eastern state to fully enfranchise women.
1920 The 19th Amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, grants women over age 21 full voting rights.
Timeline information courtesy of the National Women’s History Museum (www.nwhm.org) and Susan B. Anthony Museum & House (http://susanbanthonyhouse.org).