When I wrote The Renegade Queen, I expected hate mail for portraying Susan B. Anthony as a lesbian (she was), but I did not expect the visceral reaction I received from portraying her as human. The woman with her own U.S. silver dollar, the fearless women’s right advocate, was human. No, I did not out Susan B. Anthony as a lesbian—that discovery was made years before—but I did out her as fully realized human complete with flaws and mixed motives, and not the Madonna she has been revered to be in our culture that tends to review women as one-dimensional saints or sinners.
Susan B. Anthony had many alliances followed by acrimonious splits, but none was as emotional as was her relationship with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. Susan B. Anthony even broke the law to vote against a woman. Instead of voting for Victoria Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony voted for the Republican incumbent Ulysses S. Grant, a man who waffled on rights for women.
Why did Susan break the law to vote for an incumbent who made no promises with respect to women’s equality?
To answer this, let’s review the history of the moment. Susan B. Anthony sacrificed her health, her money, her career, and her reputation to end slavery. A brave abolitionist, she helped the underground railroad, made anti-slavery speeches despite threats to her safety, and travelled the nation working to free the slaves. Working alongside men such as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, she felt that she proved her worth as a woman and that the men who were impressed with her would help women gain their rights once the war was over.
The men did not.
Once the war was over, and despite exemplary service by women, men suddenly felt that women were too “genteel” for politics. Worse yet, in Susan’s mind, was that the newly freed slaves would win the right to vote before women. The slaves, who were considered property a few months ago by many were deemed worthy of the vote before she was. Enraged, Susan made a number of anti-American statements such as “brains before the wooly hair and muscle.” In making such comments, and by aligning herself with anti-war Democrat George Francis Train, Susan lost the support of the African-American community and many of her friends including freed slave Frederick Douglass.
In addition to losing support from the male abolitionists, and the African-Americans, the woman’s movement began to split along the lines of those who thought women should be able to vote and those who did not. Interestingly, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the firebrand who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, signed a petition stating that Christian women were too refined for the nasty business of politics.
Susan B. Anthony’s grand coalition is breaking apart. In comes Victoria Woodhull.
Younger, prettier, and unafraid to break social mores, Victoria Woodhull becomes the first female stockbroker, a rival newspaper publisher, the first woman to testify in front of Congress, and the first female Presidential candidate all within two years. And Victoria was able to win the support of men, African-Americans, as well as those women who supported Susan B. Anthony.
Victoria Woodhull was stealing Susan B. Anthony’s place in history.
Susan, despite her resentment, tried to make an alliance with Victoria. When Victoria testified in front of Congress that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote, Susan was there. Despite owning competing newspapers, the women supported each other in articles. Susan introduced Victoria to audiences, and made her part of the women’s movement. But when Victoria’s prestige and popularity quickly eclipsed her own, then Susan pushed her out of the meeting, tried to silence her, and kicked her out of meetings.
When Victoria made the strategic mistake of advocating free love—the then controversial notion that women should be able to marry and divorce as they choose, Susan pounced. Not wanting to be associated with the lascivious thoughts of a fallen woman, for Victoria was divorced, Susan actively campaigned against her.
While Susan presented herself to the public as the moderate face of the woman’s movement, Victoria was the radical and yet they both ended up in jail on election night. Victoria was in jail on false charges of sending obscene literature through the mail for she printed a scandalous article on the reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Luther Challis. And Susan was in jail for voting against Victoria Woodhull and for Ulysses S. Grant. Eventually after months of legal wrangling, Victoria was acquitted and Susan was found guilty.
But Susan had the last laugh. In writing the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, which became the accepted account of the movement, Susan does not mention Victoria Woodhull, effectively writing her out of history. While Susan denied Victoria her place in history, Victoria did live long enough to see the “Anthony Amendment” pass and give women the right to vote while Susan died years earlier.
Growing up, I was taught that Susan B. Anthony was the perfect, ideal woman who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, a woman who could do no wrong. But she did make mistakes, and we should accept those while still honoring the incredible sacrifices she made. It serves no purpose, either as a country or as women, to hold up an impossible standard for our role models. People make mistakes, people have great flaws and prejudices, people can be short-sighted in the pursuit of their goals. And even those who are close ideologically can be separated by ego, even in the most cataclysmic political environments where unity truly is a necessity.