"Susan B. Anthony is not on trial; the United States is on trial."--Matilda Joslyn Gage More than any other woman of her generation, Susan B. Anthony saw that all of the legal disabilities faced by American women owed their existence to the simple fact that women lacked the vote. When Anthony, at age 32, attended her first woman's rights convention in Syracuse in 1852, she declared "that the right which woman needed above every other, the one indeed which would secure to her all the others, was the right of suffrage." Anthony spent the next fifty-plus years of her life fighting for the right to vote. She would work tirelessly: giving speeches, petitioning Congress and state legislatures, publishing a feminist newspaper--all for a cause that would not succeed until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment fourteen years after her death in 1906.
She would, however, once have the satisfaction of seeing her completed ballot drop through the opening of a ballot box. It happened in Rochester, New York on November 5, 1872, and the event--and the trial for illegal voting that followed--would create an opportunity for Anthony to spread her arguments for women suffrage to a wider audience than ever before.
Anthony had been planning to vote long before 1872. She would later state that "I have been resolved for three years to vote at the first election when I had been home for thirty days before." (New York law required legal voters to reside for the thirty days prior to the election in the district where they offered their vote.) Anthony had taken the position--and argued it wherever she could--that the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment gave women the constitutional right to vote in federal elections. The Amendment said that "all persons born and naturalized in the United States...are citizens of the United States," and as citizens were entitled to the "privileges" of citizens of the United States. To Anthony's way of thinking, those privileges certainly included the right to vote.
On November 1, 1872, Anthony and her three sisters entered a voter registration office set up in a barbershop. The four Anthony women were part of a group of fifty women Anthony had organized to register in her home town of Rochester. As they entered the barbershop, the women saw stationed in the office three young men serving as registrars. Anthony walked directly to the election inspectors and, as one of the inspectors would later testify, "demanded that we register them as voters."
The election inspectors refused Anthony's request, but she persisted, quoting the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship provision and the article from the New York Constitution pertaining to voting, which contained no sex qualification. The registers remained unmoved. Finally, according to one published account, Anthony gave the men an argument that she thought might catch their attention: "If you refuse us our rights as citizens, I will bring charges against you in Criminal Court and I will sue each of you personally for large, exemplary damages!" She added, "I know I can win. I have Judge Selden as a lawyer. There is any amount of money to back me, and if I have to, I will push to the 'last ditch' in both courts."
The stunned inspectors discussed the situation. They sought the advice of the Supervisor of elections, Daniel Warner, who, according to thirty-three-year-old election inspector E. T. Marsh, suggested that they allow the women to take the oath of registry. "Young men," Marsh quoted Warner as saying, "do you know the penalty of law if you refuse to register these names?" Registering the women, the registrars were advised, "would put the entire onus of the affair on them." Following Warner's advice, the three inspectors voted to allow Anthony and her three sisters were registered to vote in Rochester's eighth ward. Testifying later about the registration process, Anthony remembered "it was a full hour" of debate "between the supervisors, the inspectors, and myself." In all, fourteen Rochester women successfully registered that day, leading to calls in one city paper for the arrest of the voting inspectors who complied with the women's demand. The Rochester Union and Advertiser editorialized in its November 4 edition: "Citizenship no more carries the right to vote that it carries the power to fly to the moon...If these women in the Eighth Ward offer to vote, they should be challenged, and if they take the oaths and the Inspectors receive and deposit their ballots, they should all be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Soon after the polls opened at the West End News Depot on Election Day, November 5, Anthony and seven or eight other women cast their ballots. Inspectors voted two to one to accept Anthony's vote, and her folded ballot was deposited in a ballot box by one of the inspectors. Inspector E. T. Marsh testified later as to feeling caught between a rock and a hard place: "Decide which way we might, we were liable to prosecution. We were expected...to make an infallible decision, inside of two days, of a question in which some of the best minds of the country are divided." Seven or eight more women of Rochester successfully voted in the afternoon. Anthony's vote went to U. S. Grant and other Republicans, based on that party's promise to give the demands of women a respectful hearing. Later that day, Anthony would write of her accomplishment to her close friend and fellow suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: