Sunday 18 November 2012

What price suffrage?

On 18 November 1872, exactly 140 years ago today, a US Deputy Marshal arrested a woman in Rochester, New York. Her crime? Casting a vote in the recent presidential election. Attempting to take a part in the governance of her nation. Hoping to have her voice heard.

Supporters of women's right to vote, both male and female, used various protesting tactics throughout the nineteenth century, from petitions to speeches and articles, and organisation-building to solitary door-to-door canvassing. In the late 1860s, the protests became more refined when mock ballot boxes were set up, sometimes in the same room as the official ballot. In Vineland, New Jersey, on 11 November 1868, 172 women voted in a mock election. And over the next four years, many American women attempted to vote, and the focus of our story was one of those women. Her name was Susan B. Anthony.

A tireless worker for women's rights in the nineteenth century, Anthony made the ultimate gesture of protest and casted her ballot regardless of the laws that forbade her. She was tried and convicted, although it could hardly be said to be a fair trial. Anthony was not allowed to testify in her own behalf, the judge (Justice Ward Hunt) directed the jury to find her guilty, and had even prepared his opinion before the trial had begun. The sentence was a $100 fine. "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty," she stated as the punishment was read out. Indeed, she never did. The US government never attempted to collect the fine and in 1874 Anthony petitioned Congress to wipe it out.

To think there was a time when people spent all their spare time and social (and financial*) capital on trying to take their place in the democratic system, whereas now fewer and fewer people seem willing to engage themselves, seems incredible. I hear it said that people don't feel engaged or included. These women weren't engaged or included. But rather than shy away, they fought back and engaged themselves. They taught themselves and each other, working together and sharing news and resources, and maintained their commitment to taking part in the governance of their nation. The stories of the suffragists (and their more radical cousins, the Suffragettes) seem just as relevant as ever.

*Anthony, a single working woman, got herself into $10,000 ($180,000 in modern money) of debt to pay for a women's rights newspaper, the Revolution.