Susan Brownell Anthony was a major figure in what’s known as “First Wave Feminism,” the movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries that gave women the right to vote in the United States. February 15, Anthony’s birthday, is Susan B. Anthony Day—a commemoration of her birth and of women’s suffrage.
Anthony was born in 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts to a Quaker family. Her father, Daniel, was a reformer and a respected mill and factory owner who made sure that all his children received quality educations, regardless of gender. Anthony was also shaped by the Quaker culture in which she was raised, one that permitted women to express themselves in a way mainstream society did not. (Her mother, Lucy, technically never became a Quaker, but purportedly loved the religion.) Anthony taught for 10 years before joining the temperance movement. It wasn’t until the early 1850s that she became involved in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements; she met activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in March of 1851, and the two women became collaborators in a revolution that would span 70 years, until the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment afforded women the right to vote.
U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, along with Representatives Lois Capps and Yvette Clarke, proposed in a 2007 bill to Congress that Anthony be recognized with a federal holiday. “There are many woman who helped shape this country, and Susan B. Anthony is at the top of that list,” said Maloney. “It’s a shame that in the 21st century we still have not honored any women with national holidays. For empowering half the population, Susan B. Anthony is deserving and should be recognized for her leadership.” (Even a couple decades earlier, some were agitating for additions to the U.S. federal holiday lineup. In a 1990 letter to the editor of The New York Times, Francis J. DiScala of Norwalk, Connecticut wrote, “It is amazing that, with all the belated recognition to the outstanding achievements of women in the United States, we do not have a single holiday in honor of a woman.”) But the 2007 bill didn’t pass. (DiScala’s proposal of a national holiday in honor of all women hasn’t come through yet, either.) The bill, called the “Susan B. Anthony Birthday Act,” was reintroduced to Congress in 2009 and 2011, but died both times.
Perhaps you heard about Susan B. Anthony in more recent news. On November 8, 2016, the day the first woman appeared on the ballot as a major party nominee in an American presidential election, Anthony’s gravestone was covered in “I Voted” stickers. For hours, hundreds of women lined up to pay their respect to the woman who helped make their vote possible. (I imagine these women weren’t anticipating a president-elect whose attitudes about gender sometimes evoke this pamphlet published in 1910 containing arguments against women’s suffrage. “There is…no method known by which mud-stained reputation may be cleaned after bitter political campaigns,” it warns.)
It’s true that we still don’t have a national holiday that honors a woman. But Susan B. Anthony Day is among the country’s commemorative holidays—and that’s something! It’s imperative that we remember her and the times that produced her. Remembering Anthony is an acknowledgement of a past that sounds preposterous to many of us today: women did not have the right to vote, engage in business, or own property. Perhaps more than ever, it’s important to understand how widely accepted the arguments against women’s full personhood were—even among women themselves. The U.S. has come a long way since then, but we’re still a country with vast swaths of women who elected an openly and unapologetically sexist leader. We’re still a country in need of Susan B. Anthony Day.