The Meaning of Human Equality, Part II: Susan B. Anthony’s Understanding of Equality

susan-b-anthony
Susan B. Anthony

Introduction: Unequal Treatment of Women under the Law

In the 18th and 19th centuries in America, women were excluded, for all practical purposes, from the meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal.” For instance, only men could vote. Only men owned property. Men, not women, had control of the money they earned. Men, not women, could be educated in college. Women were treated as the property of men. For such reasons, the Women’s Suffrage Movement began in the 1850’s, with Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906) as one of its most prominent leaders. She argued that women are not inferior to men and should be included in the meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal.”

On November 5, 1872, Anthony’s belief in equality was tested in Rochester, New York, when she voted in the presidential election. A couple of weeks later, on November 18, she was arrested for voting illegally. At her trial on June 19, 1873 (the third day of her trial), she was found guilty of breaking the law. Before her trial, she would travel, speaking to audiences in Monroe and Ontario counties, arguing for women’s rights, particularly, their right to vote, quoting the Declaration of Independence,

“‘All men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’”

Anthony’s Explanation of the Meaning of “All Men are Created Equal”

Anthony explains the meaning of “all men are created equal,” saying,

“Here is no shadow of government authority over rights, nor exclusion of any from their full and equal enjoyment. Here is pronounced the right of all men, and ‘consequently,’ as the Quaker preacher said, ‘of all women,’ to a voice in the government. And here, in this very first paragraph of the declaration, is the assertion of the natural right of all to the ballot; for, how can ‘the consent of the governed’ be given, if the right to vote be denied.”

By the words of the Declaration of Independence, says Anthony, “kings, priests, popes, aristocrats, were all alike dethroned, and placed on a common level politically, with the lowliest born subject or serf.” Thus, the Declaration affirms the equal rights of all human beings. Women, argues Anthony, are human beings and should be placed with men on “the proud platform of equality.”

Arguing from the equality of all human beings in the Declaration, she confirms its truth by quoting the Preamble to the Constitution of the United State, which, in part, says,

“’We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and established this constitution for the United States.’”

In other words, Anthony maintains that the same theme of human equality in the Declaration is affirmed in the Constitution. However, instead of phrase “all men are created equal,” the wording of the Constitution is “We the people of the United States.” As Anthony writes,

“It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed this Union.”

According to Anthony, for the United States of America, a democratic-republic, to deny women the right to vote is to change the very nature of the government itself, making it “an oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters of every household.” Such a government, Anthony asserts, makes “all men sovereigns, [and] all women subjects.”

Anthony’s Reply to the Male Pronouns Argument

Next, Anthony replies to the argument that because of the wording of the Constitution and State constitutions in America, only male citizens can vote. She introduces and answers the argument as follows:

“But [if it] is urged, the use of the masculine pronouns he, his and him, in all the constitutions and laws, is proof that only men were meant to be included in their provisions. If you insist on this version of the letter of the law, we shall insist that you be consistent, and accept the other horn of the dilemma, which would compel you to exempt women from taxation for the support of the government, and from penalties for the violation of laws.”

Her reply is a reductio ad absurdum argument, making it evident that the government would certainly not allow women to be exempt from paying taxes and breaking its laws. For Anthony, “he” includes “she” and “his” includes “hers.” Her point, then, is that constitutional documents apply to men and women. Thus, women are persons, citizens of the United States, equal to men under the law and, therefore, have a right to vote.

Justice Hunt’s Verdict at Anthony’s Trial

At Anthony’s trial, Justice Hunt, without a word from the all-male jury, pronounced her guilty of breaking the law. He then gave her an opportunity to speak before the court. She replied, in defiance of the verdict,

“Yes, your honor, … you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex, are, by your honor’s verdict, doomed to political subjection under this, so-called, form of government.

….

“Your denial of my citizen’s right to vote, is the denial of my right of consent as one of the governed, the denial of my right of representation as one of the taxed, the denial of my right to a trial by a jury of my peers as an offender against law, therefore, the denial of my sacred rights….”

After repeatedly attempting to silence Anthony, Justice hunt imposed on her a fine of $100.00, plus “the costs of the prosecution.” But she refused to pay it, calling it “unjust.” She condemned the government’s “man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison, and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the government.” Then, in defiance of Hunt’s ruling, she said,

“I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”

The “Fight” for Women’s Rights to Equal Treatment under the Law

For Anthony, it is one thing for a government to make splendidly abstract statements, such as “We the people of the United States” and “all men are created equal,” but it is quite another for that same government to recognize and apply the inclusive and universal meanings of such statements to all its citizens, including black and white men and women. Women’s rights, of course, are human rights. However, the advancement of human rights often involves much struggle. By her own experience, Anthony recognized that and, therefore, concluded her speech to the citizens of Monroe and Ontario counties, saying,

“[W]e propose to fight our battle for the ballot — all peaceably, but nevertheless persistently through to complete triumph, when all United States citizens shall be recognized as equals before the law.”

Roughly 47 years later, and several years after her death in 1906, Susan Anthony and Women’s Suffrage Movement finally prevailed on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, in part,

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

In honor of Anthony’s long, arduous efforts to advance the right of women to vote, the United States Senate calls the Nineteenth Amendment “the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Unfortunately, the ratification of the Nineteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did not, once-for-all, settle the issue of all American citizens being able to vote, because in some States, many African-American women and men were still denied the right to vote. That leads me to stress still another point, which is that the advancement of human rights is an ever-evolving struggle to be recognized and treated as human beings. Hence, on August 4, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act and on August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed it into law, so that citizens of any color, in any State, have the right to vote.

Indeed, all men and women are “created equal,” but they certainly are not treated equally. That is why the struggle for human rights, which is the struggle to be treated as human beings, will continue as long as humankind inhabits the earth.