Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 9. Segment 2
Are You A Citizen if You Can't Vote?

In 1876 half of all Americans are unable to vote. They are denied the rights of citizenship. In 1869, a Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It said: "The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But the amendment didn't say anything about women. Are women citizens? The politician and journalist Horace Greeley See It Now - Horace Greeley says this: "The best women I know do not want to vote."

Greeley said that to Susan B. Anthony See It Now - Susan B. Anthony, a tall, rawboned Quaker who spent much of her life trying to get the vote for women. Best women, indeed! Foolish women, thought Susan Anthony. She went to see President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant was running for reelection See It Now - Petition for Universal Rights. Might not women vote for him if they had the opportunity? Maybe, Grant said, but he didn't want to chance it.

No one knew what would happen if women could vote. Some said that women's suffrage would be the end of the family See It Now - "The Age of Brass". A husband might vote Republican and a wife Democratic. Could a marriage survive that kind of thing? It sounded ominous. But not to Susan B. Anthony. She believed, as the colonists had in 1775, that there should be "no taxation without representation." If women could be taxed, they should be able to vote. If women could be arrested, they should be able to serve on a jury.

Anthony thought about the Fifteenth Amendment. It said that all citizens could vote. Anthony visited a friend, lawyer Henry Selden. Was she a citizen? Could she vote? Selden thought the answer was yes. So, on November 1, 1872, Anthony and fifteen other women marched to a barbershop in Rochester, New York's Eighth Ward, where they found some registrars. The women said they wanted to vote. The men agreed to register them. On voting day, November 5, the sixteen women were at the polls at 7 a.m. Twenty-three days later, a deputy marshal knocked on Anthony's door with a warrant for her arrest. She was asked if she had "gone into this matter for the purpose of testing the question." She replied, "Yes, sir. I had resolved for three years to vote."

The government decided to prosecute Susan B. Anthony alone—she would represent all sixteen women See It Now - Susan B. Anthony Satire. A trial was set for June. That gave her six months to prepare. Anthony used those six months well. She spoke in all of Rochester's districts. She talked about the Constitution and natural rights. Rights were not something that governments owned and gave out to people, she explained. They belong to each of us. People are born with rights. Governments are formed to protect those rights. That was the message of the Constitution, she said. At one point she declared: Hear It Now - Susan B. Anthony " 'We, the people' does not mean 'We, the male citizens.' It is mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty."

When the day of the trial came, the courtroom was packed . Reporters sat with their pencils sharpened. But Judge Ward Hunt See It Now - Justice Ward Hunt, a foe of women's rights, wouldn't let Susan Anthony speak Check The Source - ":I Shall Not Sit Down": Remarks by Susan B. Anthony at Her Trial for Illegal Voting. He said as a woman she was "incompetent" to do so. Anthony's friend Henry Selden spoke for her: "Every citizen has a right to take part upon equal terms with every other citizen," he said.

But then Judge Hunt did something no judge has a right to do. He said to the jury: Hear It Now - Judge Hunt "Under the Fifteenth Amendment, Miss Anthony was not protected in a right to vote. Therefore I direct that you find a verdict of guilty."

Judges tell a jury about the law. But they can't tell juries how to vote. That didn't stop Judge Hunt. His clerk said to the jury, "You say you find the defendant guilty, so say you all?" No juror said a word. Then Judge Hunt said, "Gentlemen of the jury, you are dismissed." Susan B. Anthony was found to be guilty Check The Source - "My Citizen's Right to Vote": Remarks by Susan B. Anthony at Her Trial for Illegal Voting. Not a juror had spoken See It Now - "The Women Who Dared".

Most people were outraged. Now the issue was no longer the vote for women. It was an issue of a free trial in a free society. This trial had been a joke. The New York Sun wrote of a "jury of twelve wooden figures moved by a string pulled by the hand of a judge Check The Source - "Are Women Persons?": Susan B. Anthony's Speech After Being Convicted of Illegal Voting." Susan B. Anthony wasn't the only one who lost out that day. So did America's women. If Anthony had won that case in 1873, women all over the nation would have been able to vote. Judge Hunt decided otherwise Check The Source - "The Constitutional Rights of the Women of the United States": An Address by Isabella Beecher Hooker.




learn more at: www.pbs.org/historyofus
© 2002 Picture History and Educational
Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.


Thirteen/WNET PBS