The 15 lines, scrawled inside an aged biography on the Library’s shelves, casually record a singular moment in suffrage history: the chance meeting of two larger-than-life women at the dawn of a new century, as they looked back on past struggles and ahead to the possibilities of the next generation.
In 1903, Susan B. Anthony, pioneer of the American woman’s suffrage movement, donated her personal library to the Library of Congress. Anthony, helped by her sister Mary and suffragist Ida Husted Harper, prepared the books for their journey from Anthony’s home in Rochester, New York, to the nation’s capital.
During this process, Anthony annotated many of the volumes, often including personal remembrances and commentary. One noteworthy annotation recalls the day Anthony unexpectedly met another figure that looms large in U.S. history: abolitionist and suffragist Harriet Tubman.
Tubman led more than 300 slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, she settled in Auburn, New York, and turned her attention to women’s rights.
In 1869, she had been the subject of a biography, “Scenes in the life of Harriet Tubman,” based on author Sarah Bradford’s interviews with her the year before. Anthony owned a copy of the second edition, retitled “Harriet, the Moses of her People,” and before sending the book to the Library inscribed it with a personal memory of meeting Tubman at a gathering in 1903:
“This most wonderful woman — Harriet Tubman — is still alive. I saw her but the other day at the beautiful home of Eliza Wright Osborne, the daughter of Martha C. Wright, in company with Elizabeth Smith Miller, the only daughter of Gerrit Smith, Miss Emily Howland, Rev. Anna H. Shaw and Mrs. Ella Wright Garrison, the daughter of Martha C. Wright and the wife of Wm. Lloyd Garrison Jr. All of us were visiting at Mrs. Osbornes, a real love feast of the few that are left, and here came Harriet Tubman!”
The recollection, short and matter of fact, nevertheless reveals the thrill Anthony felt: She underlined Tubman’s name each time and finished it off with an exclamation point.
Tubman was friendly with prominent suffragists and helped inform their understanding of the particular struggles Black women faced in the fight for suffrage and equality. Anthony came from a family of staunch abolitionists and met and befriended Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and others throughout her life.
This is not to say that the campaigns for Black suffrage and women’s suffrage were in perfect accord. From the early days of the suffrage struggle, there were heated clashes over whether white women should include Black suffrage in their campaign. This tension complicated both efforts but ultimately left Black women out of the suffrage fight for many years.
While these two women fought parallel, though separate, battles, their paths occasionally did cross. Anthony introduced Tubman at the 1904 meeting of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in New York. Perhaps it was at the chance meeting at the Osborne house that Anthony asked Tubman to participate in the association’s meeting the following year.
Though neither Tubman nor Anthony lived to see women attain the right to vote in 1920, both left legacies of progress. This book, and the happy memory it brought to Anthony, marks a moment of joy and hope between two influential women soon to pass their batons to the next generation.
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