Reviewed by Donna C. Schuele, Department of Criminology, Law & Society, University of California, Irvine.
Susan B. Anthony’s trial on the charge of illegal voting has all the makings of a great story. Anthony, a master of self-promotion, engineered the gripping drama and then made sure that events received broad media attention as they unfolded. However, the American woman suffrage movement, including Anthony’s trial, receded from historical memory after ratification of the 19th Amendment. Fortunately, the topic enjoyed a renaissance beginning in the 1990s, culminating in the 2004 HBO feature film Iron-Jawed Angels, starring Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank as the fiery Alice Paul. Journalist Lynn Sherr made Anthony’s writings widely accessible in 1996, and scholar Kathleen Barry’s biography, originally published in 1988, was reprinted in 2000. Two PBS documentaries focusing on the suffrage movement and Anthony’s life, including one produced by Ken Burns, were released in 1995 and 1999. The Anthony trial was even referenced in the “Equal Fights” episode of the animated Powerpuff Girls series in 2002. Meanwhile, primary sources related to the Anthony trial became widely available. The account of the trial, originally published by a Rochester newspaper in 1874, was reprinted in 2002 and 2003, and a website devoted to the trial, including a plethora of primary source documents, was created by University of Missouri, Kansas City law professor Douglas Linder in 2001.
Notwithstanding this revived attention, what has been lacking is a scholarly but accessible treatment that would place Anthony’s trial and the early suffrage movement in the wider context of post-bellum history, particularly Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age politics, government, law, and constitutionalism. The award-winning Landmark Law Cases and American Society series, published by the University Press of Kansas, offers a platform well-suited for such a project. The series, edited by Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, is composed of compact, authoritative volumes that illuminate significant cases by blending social and legal history. Written by leading scholars, these books are particularly useful for undergraduate courses. The series aims to trace cases’ origins, issues, personalities, and consequences, and The Woman Who Dared to Vote does that in an engaging way. The narrative is grounded in the personalities of Anthony, other suffrage leaders, and the men who played crucial roles in the trial. It offers a good overview of the early movement, focusing on the leadership struggles that left Anthony feeling marginalized by the time she rounded up a group of local women to vote in the 1872 presidential election. Devoting two chapters to the [*186] three-day trial, Hull provides a detailed account of the courtroom drama and highlights the various miscarriages of justice that led to Anthony’s conviction.
However, The Woman Who Dared to Vote falls somewhat short of meeting the larger goal of the Landmark Cases series, to use notable cases as vehicles for increasing our understanding of American law and society. Because most of the cases featured in the series ultimately landed in the United States Supreme Court, their outcomes more obviously had broad and lasting effect. With Anthony’s case, which ended at the trial level, the significance for American law and society is more complicated. Although it set no precedent, this case was part of a larger strategy known today as the New Departure, involving thousands of suffrage activists seeking judicial review of women’s right to vote. Taken with the New Departure case that reached the Supreme Court, Minor v. Happersett (1875), Anthony’s case provides an excellent opportunity to place the strategy itself in a larger context. While The Woman Who Dared to Vote does not itself undertake this broad analysis, the text nevertheless can be used to show how the constitutionalization of the issue of female voting during the early woman suffrage movement played a crucial role in the vast changes in post-bellum law and society.
It is no accident that the Anthony and Minor cases arose in a brief period, the late 1860s to mid 1870s, that yielded the greatest variety of strategies – rhetorical, organizational, political, and particularly legal and constitutional – for women to obtain the vote. While historians have closely attended to the rhetoric, organization, and personalities of the early movement, and to a lesser degree have situated the suffrage fight in Reconstruction and Gilded Age partisan politics, the movement’s use of the legal system and marshaling of constitutional arguments has not received sustained attention. (The book’s bibliographical essay illustrates this point, noting a few sources that deal with constitutional issues, although none provides a significant treatment of the place of woman suffrage in American legal history.) The Woman Who Dared to Vote highlights the significance of the New Departure strategy (as well as the schism that created the rival National and American Woman Suffrage Associations) in the struggle for leadership in the early years of the suffrage movement, and Hull persuasively argues that Anthony’s even limited ability to use the federal justice system as a forum to advance the cause allowed her to reclaim the leadership spotlight.
However, it is possible to use the schism, the strategy, and the trial to make much more extensive claims about American constitutionalism. The New Departure evidenced a quickly formed but well-developed belief by certain activists and lawyers that the Civil War Amendments had revolutionized American federalism, fundamentally changing the relationship between the national government, the states, and individual citizens. No longer was the protection of individual rights to be primarily entrusted to the states, but instead individuals could appeal to the federal government for relief from the excesses of majoritarianism, particularly at the state level. Moreover, the New Departure illustrated the power of the [*187] 14th Amendment to launch a new form of constitutionalism, marked by the erosion of an elitist, top-down view of government power. Now grassroots understandings of the existence and scope of individual rights might be pressed and vindicated through strategic litigation. Indeed, Susan B. Anthony’s criminal trial and Virginia Minor’s civil action were but two of hundreds of attempts by ordinary women to advocate an interpretation of the newly ratified 14th and 15th Amendments as encompassing women’s right to vote. Suffrage activists realized early how the 14th Amendment gave courts a powerful role in advancing the causes of social movements, by providing an efficient opportunity to end-run a cumbersome, expensive democratic process laden with checks and balances designed to stymie change. Now activists could claim victory by winning over just a few jurists. Even better, the 14th Amendment opened the federal courts to rights-seekers, where lifetime appointments insulated Article III judges from political fallout. Finally, the New Departure was launched at an auspicious time in American jurisprudence, when notions of the law as a science were gaining ascendancy yet natural law arguments remained persuasive. Attorneys arguing early 14th Amendment cases, such as Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), or Minor v. Happersett (1875), could launch a two-pronged attack, making the recognition of individual rights, including rights for women, appear logically determined, or alternatively an acknowledgment of the higher source of American law. That the Supreme Court ignored for decades the radical government restructuring inherent in the 14th Amendment is also a crucial part of the story.
The Woman Who Dared to Vote contains the building blocks to allow a contextualized law and society focus on the New Departure. Hull initially paints women’s rights leaders’ interest in suffrage as stemming from their work in temperance reform. However, she soon settles on the more traditional interpretation that highlights the role that abolitionism played among these leaders, first in creating a focus on rights that included not only slaves but women, and then in shaping the women’s rights movement immediately after the Civil War. Hull describes the post-war coalition between victorious anti-slavery activists and women’s rights advocates that took advantage of the climate of constitutional reform to promote universal suffrage as a fundamental human right. She then details the collapse of that coalition in the face of fears that the cause of women would hamper the cause of freedmen, and the resulting formation of competing woman suffrage organizations.
At this point, Hull takes up the NWSA’s development of a two-prong New Departure strategy to obtain woman suffrage via the 14th and 15th Amendments, which allowed Victoria Woodhull to seize the limelight. Although Anthony came to view this newcomer as both a liability and a rival, Woodhull’s appeal to Congress to enact legislation giving women the vote, along with attorney Francis Minor’s civil disobedience strategy to achieve female voting rights through litigation, set the stage for Anthony to reassert herself as the undisputed leader of the suffrage cause. The book then moves to the heart of the story, recounting in meticulous [*188] detail the events surrounding Anthony’s voting in the 1872 federal election, her arrest under the Enforcement Act of 1870, and her subsequent criminal trial and conviction.
The Woman Who Dared to Vote concludes with an exposition of Minor v. Happersett and the Supreme Court’s refusal to use the 14th and 15th Amendments to ban states from denying the vote on the basis of sex. The failure of the New Departure strategy clarified the remaining options for achieving woman suffrage: state-by-state campaigns or modification of the federal Constitution along the lines of the 15th Amendment. In a postscript, Hull briefly discusses the ratification of the 19th Amendment, portraying it as the product of a new generation of suffragists. More to the point, the amendment was the culmination of a political-constitutional strategy that positions Anthony as a constitutional visionary.
With the additional context suggested here, The Woman Who Dared to Vote can be used to illustrate a crucial turning point in American constitutional history. Additionally, as framed, the text would work well in courses focusing on social history, women’s history, leadership and biography. Hull deftly demonstrates the personality-driven nature of the woman suffrage movement and the difficulties that leaders faced in directing the cause on a national level. She makes a convincing case that Anthony’s voting gambit and the subsequent arrest, trial, and conviction restored her to a position of leadership in the wake of the NWSA/AWSA schism and Victoria Woodhull’s rise to prominence. In this way, we come to understand what motivated Anthony to “dare to vote” and then use her trial as a way to promote the cause of woman suffrage to a skeptical audience across the United States. The Woman Who Dared to Vote allows readers to better understand Anthony’s dogged pursuit of a national, constitutional solution to women’s inequality, and more largely to grasp Susan B. Anthony’s fierce, unwavering dedication to one of the longest-running civil rights causes in American history.
Barry, Kathleen. 2000. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. Bloomington, IN: 1st Book Library.
Linder, Douglas. 2001. Famous American Trials: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/anthony/sbahome.html).
Scherr, Lynn. 1996. Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony In Her Own Words. New York: Times Books.
Bradwell v. Illinois 83 U.S. 130 (1873).
Minor v. Happersett 88 U.S. 162 (1875).
The Slaughterhouse Cases 83 U.S. 36 (1873).
Copyright 2013 by the author, Donna C. Schuele