It’s sobering to realize that it’s only been 95 years since the first woman legally cast her ballot in an American presidential election. March is Women’s History Month and before it’s over for 2015, I’d like to propose that we launch an effort to memorialize the immense contributions of the American women’s suffrage leaders by adding their likeness to at least one of our pieces of currency.
The Susan B. Anthony silver dollar had a short but awkward run from 1979-1981 and again in 1999 before production halted. In recent months, there have been discussions about replacing President Jackson on the $20 bill with someone else. Why not the three leading women who devoted their lives to the rights of women voters and changed the course of American history without ever casting a legal ballot of their own?
In the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol stands a striking, white sculpture of three incredible women. It is the first sculpture in the Capitol sculpted by a woman (Adelaide Johnson), of women (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott) and for women. The sculpture gives the appearance of being unfinished or incomplete as a way of illustrating that the contributions of women to American government are still taking place and will never be finished. Today, women have a voice in our government because of the sacrifices and courageous efforts of those first “Women’s Suffrage” crusaders. They challenged convention, changed history and lived by the conviction of Susan B. Anthony’s words, “Failure is impossible.” The likeness of that white sculpture, picturing the pioneers of women’s rights on our currency would be a fitting tribute.
Anthony, the most visible of the three was born in Adams, Massachusetts, in 1820 to a Quaker family. In the Quaker tradition, women and men were given equality to speak and take part in the church and the rest of their community. Men and women were given equal education and opportunity which naturally led to their unwavering support of the abolitionist movement as well.
After her family moved to Rochester, New York, in 1845 they began hosting weekly community dinners and current-events discussions at their home. Her father was close with the great Frederick Douglass, who was publishing his anti-slaver newspaper, The North Star, out of Rochester. It was during those early years that Susan developed her lifelong friendship with Douglass. In fact, the day that Frederick Douglass died, he had attended one of Susan’s suffrage meetings, and she gave an eloquent eulogy at his funeral.
As Susan grew into adulthood, she saw firsthand the lack of equal opportunity for women. Her first cause was the temperance movement; an effort aimed at liberating women from abuse and traditional restrictions. It was her work in the temperance movement that lead to her acquaintance with Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others who became her colleagues in fighting for women’s right to vote.
In 1848, the famous Seneca Falls Convention was held, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton taking a leading role. She was a co-author of the “Declaration of Sentiments” written at the convention which laid out the reasons that women should be give their right to vote in all elections: local, state and national.
Although she never married, Susan B. Anthony helped to lobby the New York legislature for property rights for married women. In the dead of the New York winter, she traveled to 54 of the 60 counties, gathering signatures on the petition to pass a law allowing married women to own property. The law passed, but was rescinded a few years later by the same men who had passed it. Clearly, the women involved learned that without the vote, women would not have a true voice in their government.
Their ultimate quest began and the women’s suffrage movement was born. Anthony and Stanton collaborated to produce a weekly paper called the Revolution and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Stanton served as president of the organization until 1890.
Although Stanton traveled to lecture and speak on various issues across the country, Anthony had the greater gift of oratory and emerged as the face of the movement. She met with every U.S. president after Lincoln, spoke to every Congress after 1869, corresponded with multiple first lady’s and members of Congress, and eventually corresponded with heads of state all over the world.
She was a worldwide celebrity in her own time, traveling the globe with her famous red shawl and simple travel bag. An interview with the great Susan B. Anthony in her day could make a journalist’s career. Once, she walked into a suffrage meeting without her red shawl and the journalists in attendance sent her a note saying they would not take notes on the meeting until she donned her famous red shawl. With a twinkle in her eye, she excused herself from the meeting, walked to her hotel and returned wearing the shawl. She wryly told the journalists they could “resume their note taking.”
Such steadfast resolve to change the way things were, to the way things could be, is incomparable. Their tireless work and commitment to the cause is a key component to the full-spectrum perspective we enjoy today on issues facing our nation and our world. Through their efforts, they added the key component and viewpoint of women to public policy debates and governance.
We would be wise to implement a regular reminder to ourselves of their sacrifices by putting their likeness on our $20 bill or other currency. May we never forget the women who fought boldly for the right to vote yet who never enjoyed the freedom to do so themselves. I’m “Just Sayin’,” it’s time to break out the red shawls and scarves, ladies. We owe them more than we know. Let’s start the petition drive!