Susan B. Anthony and the crime of voting

It was 144 years ago today – June 18, 1873 – that Susan B. Anthony was convicted of breaking the law.

Her crime: voting in the 1872 presidential election.

This was before national voting rights were recognized for female citizens. However, from Anthony’s perspective women’s suffrage was already enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Section 1 of which states:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Anthony quoted that passage when she arrived at a barbershop in Rochester, New York, serving as a voter registration center on Nov. 1, 1872. A young man by the name of Beverly Jones who was processing registrants at that location later testified in court on his interaction with Anthony.

“I made the remark that I didn’t think we could register her name. She asked me upon what grounds. I told her that the Constitution of the State of New York only gave the right of franchise to male citizens,” Jones related. “She asked me if I was acquainted with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Jones continued, “She wanted to know if under that she was a citizen and had a right to vote. At this time, Mr. Warner [the Supervisor of Elections] said, ‘young man, how are you going to get around that. I think you will have to register their names’—or something to that effect.”

And so, having made a logical argument based on the Constitution, Anthony’s voter registration was accepted and she went on to cast a ballot four days later.

Seven months after that, she was in a courtroom for a two-day trial, forbidden from testifying on her own behalf, found guilty of voting and ordered to pay a $100 fine. Anthony swore she would never pay the fine, and indeed she did not, calling the case “the greatest judicial outrage history has ever recorded.”

That outrage brought the issue of women’s suffrage to nationwide attention and helped pave the way for the 19th Amendment, originally drafted by Anthony herself and adopted 14 years after her death.

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