Ruth Bass: Susan B. Anthony led the way for all of us

Monday November 5, 2012


Susan B. Anthony did not take no for an answer. When the voter registrars in Rochester, N.Y., said she couldn't sign up to vote, she argued with them, first trying persuasion and then threatening to sue.

She said the Fourteenth Amendment - not the Nineteenth, which didn't exist yet - gave her the right because it provided that no citizen should be deprived of the privileges of citizenship.

The men gave in and signed her up, along with her sister and others. And when the polls were open, the ladies voted and watched officials put their ballots in the box. And within days, Anthony was arrested in her living room. Adamant and wonderfully stubborn, she refused to put up bail and was annoyed when her lawyer bailed her out.

She went on trial, spoke eloquently (as usual), but was found guilty and fined $100. She refused to pay, and history notes that the fine was never paid, and no serious effort was made to collect it.

Rarely mentioned in the stories of this famous trial of 1872 is the fact that her vote and those of her female friends must have been counted.

They went into the ballot box where they were anonymous. No one could have tossed them out if the X's were in all the right places.

Born in Adams and a Rochester, N.Y., resident for most of her life, Anthony did not live to see her efforts achieve voting rights.

It took another 14 years for the men in charge to relent and propose the Nineteenth Amendment, which in one sentence brings new life to one of Anthony's famous phrases: "Failure is impossible."


A year after Anthony's trial, my paternal grandmother was born in Charlemont, Mass., not all that far, as crows fly, from Anthony's birthplace.

Perhaps it was something in the water, or the air, but Grandma was as passionate about voting as her famous predecessor - just quieter.

Her first chance came was she was 47 years old, a mother of two, wife of a dairy farmer in a Connecticut River Valley town.

Her early life had not been easy because her mother died when Grandma was a teenager, and everyone assumed she'd take over the cooking, cleaning, laundry and the upbringing of two younger siblings.

So she did. And she went to school, worked as a do -- whatever person in several households, taught school without ever going to college and married at the age of 28 -- late for her era.

When she went to the polls in 1920, she must have been so pleased. It would have been one of the big days in her life.

We know it was a banner day because she never missed one after that until probably the last two years of her life. Like Miss Anthony, she voted on a paper ballot at first, then graduated to machines.

Legally blind for several years before her death at 91, she was allowed to take my mother into the booth with her.

That's when we found out who she voted for: "Make sure not to vote for any Democrats, Hilda," she would say. And then my mother would guide her hand to the proper lever.

Miss Anthony fretted that she was on trial only because of her gender and that the jury was not made up of her peers because it consisted, under the laws of the time, entirely of men.

When the court argued that she had been tried "according to the established forms of law," she answered that those were laws "all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women."

Women, she said must "get their right to a voice in this government." We're still trying. And may all women vote tomorrow, in honor of the persistence of Susan B. and with the joy of my grandmother.

Ruth Bass is author of a novel based on her grandmother's early years. Her web site is _www.ruthbass.com_ (


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