As digitization of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set is underway, various bills related to suffrage throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries emerge. These give us deeper insight into the perspectives and procedures surrounding the history of a celebrated civil liberty. Today, we’ll look closely into the women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century.
In 1872, the question of women’s suffrage came before Congress. Counterarguments drew upon Article IV of the Constitution, or the Constitutional right of states to “a republican form of government.” Thus, “Congress could make no affirmative provision concerning the same,” or, it was not the responsibility of Congress to impose voting requirements, but that of the individual state legislatures.
The argument further claimed that “[e]ach State might admit all citizens, male and female, over a prescribed age, or only some classes of them,” implying that disenfranchisement practices could continue despite any federal legislature, namely the 14th and 15th Amendments. While these amendments granted the rights of citizenship (including enfranchisement) to Black Americans and prohibited discrimination on account of race, “[e]ach State might discriminate in this particular between its citizens on account of race, color, servitude, or upon any other ground,” demonstrating the persisting barriers to enfranchisement. (43d Cong., 1st Sess., S. Rpt. No. 472 at 2 (1874) reprinted in Serial Set volume no. 1587.)
Within the pages of the Serial Set is the memorial of Susan B. Anthony, printed in the Senate reports of the 43rd Congress, 1st Session. In 1872, Anthony was arrested in New York and convicted of voting illegally in the presidential election. Referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, the charges against her are documented:
“For [voting in the presidential election] [Susan B. Anthony], in common with hundreds of other American citizens…whose names had also been registered as voters, offered to the inspectors of election her ballots…which were received and deposited in the ballot box…an indictment was found against her by the grand jury…at Albany, charging [her]…with having “knowingly voted without having a lawful right to vote.” (43d Cong., 1st Sess., S. Rpt. No. 472 at 1 (1874) reprinted in Serial Set volume no. 1587) To this, Anthony pled “Not Guilty.”
While Anthony’s vote was recorded and received by the voting inspectors, she was still fined. “Upon that trial the facts of voting by your petitioner, and that she was a woman, were not denied; nor was it claimed on the part of the Government that your petitioner lacked any of the qualifications of a voter, unless disqualified by reason of her sex.” (43d Cong., 1st Sess., S. Rpt. No. 472 at 2 (1874) reprinted in Serial Set volume no. 1587)
In 1880, the Senate Select Committee on Women’s Suffrage convened. Susan B. Anthony, along with the other delegates to the twelfth Washington convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, presented their individual statements. Zerelda G. Wallace stated, “It is not the woman question that brings us before you to-day; it is the human question that underlies this movement among the women of this nation.” (47th Cong., Spec. Senate Sess. 2, S. Mis. Doc. No. 74 at 1 (1880) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993)
Anthony’s statement addresses the original principles of suffrage: “[W]e began first by saying that all men of property were the people of the nation upon whom the Constitution conferred equality of rights. The next step was that all white men were the people to whom should be practically applied the fundamental theories.”
In making her case, Anthony asserts that “we women have been standing yet one step farther and extend the practical application of the theory of quality of rights to all the people to the other half of the people, the women.” (47th Cong., Spec. Senate Sess. 2, S. Mis. Doc. No. 29 at 11 (1880) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993.)
The presentations were well-received. After Anthony recounted a story where a woman brought a petition to revoke the license of “obscene shows” to the Indiana legislature, the all-male legislature “read it, laughed at it, and laid it on the table…by unanimous vote, they retired…to witness the obscene show themselves.” Furthermore, “they have licensed [the show] every year from that day to this, against all the protests of the petitioners.” (47th Cong., 1st Sess., S. Mis. Doc. No. 74 at 24-25 (1882) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993.)
Following this story, there was laughter from the committee. Senator George Edmunds clarified, “Do not think we are wanting in respect to you and the ladies here because you say something that makes us laugh.” (47th Cong., 1st Sess., S. Mis. Doc. No. 74 at 25 (1882) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993.)
Anthony responded: “You are not laughing at me; you are treating me respectfully, because you are hearing my argument; you are not asleep, not one of you, and I am delighted.” (47th Cong., 1st Sess., S. Mis. Doc. No. 74 at 24-25 (1882) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993.)
The National Woman Suffrage Association was inspired by the enfranchisement of Black Americans, and sought to extend that protection to women. Anthony ends her speech by quoting an 1870 issue of the Anti-Slavery Standard:
“A man with the ballot in his hand is the master of the situation. He defines all his other rights; what is not already given him, he takes.” (47th Cong., 1st Sess., S. Mis. Doc. No. 74 at 25 (1882) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1993.)
Stay tuned for the next installment on suffrage history!