The theme for Women’s History Month 2019 is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence.” This year we honor women who have led efforts to end war, violence, and injustice and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society. These women embraced nonviolent methods to bring much needed social change for the common good of all American citizens.
For many generations, women have resolved conflicts in their homes, schools and communities. They have rejected violence as counterproductive and stressed the need to restore respect, establish justice, and reduce the causes of conflict as the surest way to peace. From legal defense and public education to direct action and civil disobedience, women have expanded the American tradition of using inclusive, democratic and active means to reduce violence, achieve peace, and promote the common good.
From women’s rights and racial justice to disarmament and gun control, the drive for nonviolent change has been championed by visionary women. These women consciously built supportive, nonviolent alternatives and welcoming communities as well as advocating change.
These women have given voice to the unrepresented and hope to victims of violence and those who dream of a peaceful world. Perhaps you know such women in your own community, who exemplify these qualities, who strive to ensure equality, justice and human dignity for all.
You don’t have to be a celebrity or rise to international fame to be an advocate for peace and nonviolence, the momentum for change oftentimes begins in communities where by its merit it can spread to reach every corner of the world.
If that sounds overly optimistic, let’s take a look at the life of one woman who quietly began to light a fire for social change in her little corner of the world.
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 into a Quaker family with strong ties to the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and upstate New York. The Anthony farm in Rochester, New York, was known as a gathering place for community activism and nurtured Anthony as she began her lifelong mission for social change.
One of the things most admirable about Anthony is the combination of idealism and pragmatism that her work for women’s voting rights represented.
Her idealism reflects the principles of the Founding Fathers and the belief in a government deriving its powers from the “consent of the governed,” implying a confidence and trust in a political system that excluded her and all American women.
At a time when women lacked many of the rights and recognitions afforded to men under the law, Anthony worked to achieve her goals through practical means. Her campaign tactics included speaking tours to educate the public and publicize her cause, petitions to Congress, contributions to publications, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Her strong commitment to suffrage was most evident in her defiant act of voting in the 1872 election in Rochester. She was arrested and charged with voting illegally. The court case relating to these charges was heard in the Northern District Court of New York, one of the Federal courts represented in the holdings of the National Archives at New York City.
The indictment for illegal voting is noteworthy. The court official who recorded the charges had to add an “s” to the form, amending the document to read “she.” It stands to reason that a society that did not allow a woman to vote had not foreseen a need to represent women on court forms. This court edit encapsulates what Anthony was fighting: the lack of voting rights denied because—in the language of the document— “being then and there a person of the female sex.”
Anthony was found guilty for illegally voting and fined $100, which she never paid.
As with other iconic events, the fight for women’s suffrage is sometimes distilled to one day or one person in a larger movement that was bolstered by many supporters. The Susan B. Anthony case is no different. While her name is the most recognizable, she was neither alone in the movement nor that day in Rochester.
Anthony was joined in illegal voting by a group of 14 other women from the community—teachers, widows and housewives. While these women did not necessarily make a career of fighting for women’s rights as publicly as Anthony, their actions were no less important or courageous.
Anthony’s “partners in crime” included: Charlotte Bowles Anthony, Mary S. Anthony, Ellen S. Baker, Nancy M. Chapman, Hannah M. Chatfield, Jane M. Cogswell, Rhoda DeGarmo, Mary S. Hebard, Susan M. Hough, Margaret Garrigues Leyden, Guelma Anthony McLean, Hannah Anthony Mosher, Mary E. Pulver, and Sarah Cole Truesdale.
The court did not pursue these cases as they did with Anthony, which may speak to her role as leader and public face of the protest. The initial indictments, however, are also in the holdings of the National Archives at New York City as part of its court records.
Faded photographs of dainty-looking women in lace collars and prim dress belie the courage and grit these women possessed. The Library of Congress has called the suffragettes’ drive for women’s right to vote the largest reform movement in American history — lasting over seven decades. The struggle was not for the fainthearted. For years, determined women organized, lobbied, paraded, petitioned, lectured, picketed and risked imprisonment and social ostracism.
So don’t let those lace collars fool you—these women were tough!
Edited from a blog on the National Archives “History Crush: Susan B. Anthony ” by Hilary Parkinson. Published March 7, 2012.