The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Susan B. Anthony

A black and white portrait of Susan B. Anthony
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

I f Americans know the names of any suffragists, they know Susan B. Anthony’s and many assume that she attended the Seneca Falls Convention. She did not. However, Anthony is responsible for making us think of that meeting as the start of the suffrage movement.

In 1848, the 28-year-old Anthony was a reformer and teacher. She likely read about the meeting in newspapers. Three years later, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became her close friend and fellow suffrage leader. Stanton was the thinker, and Anthony was the organizer.

After the Civil War, suffragists split over the 15th Amendment, which effectively granted Black men the vote. Anthony and Stanton lobbied against it. They argued that women, especially elite white women like them, should be able to vote before Black men could. They founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. In contrast, prominent suffragist Lucy Stone supported the 15th Amendment, so she founded the American Woman Suffrage Association.

In 1876, as Americans reflected on the nation’s first 100 years, suffragists decided that they needed a history of their own movement. Five years later, Anthony, Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage published the first volume of the History of Woman Suffrage. Eventually, the series grew to a total of 6 volumes with over 1,000 pages each.

The History of Woman Suffrage still shapes our understanding of the movement. Anthony, Stanton, and Gage pointed to the Seneca Falls Convention and Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments as the starting point. They could have chosen to start with petitions for women’s suffrage, women’s anti-slavery work, or the first national women’s rights convention, but they wanted to emphasize their own leadership.

Anthony worked to feature portraits in the series. The editors decided which suffragists should be featured and therefore viewed as important to the movement. They featured portraits of the editors and other white women. Black leaders like Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Maria Stewart barely received a mention, much less a portrait. The editors also wrote little about Lucy Stone and her rival suffrage group, the largest one until the two groups combined in 1890.

Anthony was a leading women’s rights organizer and wrote the history of suffrage that most of us know today. She emphasized her own leadership and excluded leading suffragists of color. Anthony developed a public image for the movement that she thought would appeal to the greatest number of voters, and the legacy of her work still endures today.