On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the tipping point that ratified the amendment for the entire nation, officially preventing any state or the federal government from denying the right to vote on account of sex.
Last month, Deborah L. Hughes, the President and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, had planned a press conference in Rochester to commemorate the 100th anniversary of that momentous victory for women’s rights. The press conference included Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul.
But before the press conference started Hughes received a phone call. President Donald Trump held his own press conference on the same day, in which he had announced a posthumous pardon for Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested for voting in the 1872 election.
“My immediate reaction was no,” Hughes said in an interview with the Campus Times. “Susan B. Anthony was very clear” that she did not want a pardon. Hughes added that the Museum has been approached several times by other “well-meaning political groups” in the past about a possible pardon, but every time they turned down the offer.
Anthony’s trial occurred in 1873. It wasn’t clear that it was illegal for women to vote; the 14th Amendment had recently passed, granting American citizenship to everyone born in the United States, and guaranteeing equal protection under the law to its citizens.
But Anthony was not given a fair trial. She was prohibited from testifying in her own defense, and the all-male jury wasn’t given the opportunity to deliberate, a clear violation of her constitutional right to trial by jury.
Instead, the judge immediately declared Anthony guilty and imposed a $100 fine. When Anthony refused to pay the fine, the judge strategically avoided putting her in jail, thus preventing her from appealing to a higher court to secure her rights. Anthony wrote in her diary that her trial was “The greatest outrage History ever witnessed.”
Two years later, the Supreme Court decided that even though women are citizens, being a citizen does not guarantee a person the right to vote. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ward Hunt, who presided over Anthony’s trial, was among those who joined in the unanimous decision.
Due to the injustices Anthony experienced during her trial, Hughes released a statement on her behalf declining the pardon.
“Objection!” it reads. “Mr. President, Susan B. Anthony must decline your offer of a pardon today.” To Hughes, it was clear from Anthony’s writings and actions that she would not accept a pardon.
Hughes proposed alternatives which seemed targeted towards the President. “If one wants to honor Susan B. Anthony today, a clear stance against any form of voter suppression would be welcome,” the statement said, transitioning into other policies Anthony fought for. “Anthony was also a strong proponent of sex education, fair labor practices, excellent public education, equal pay for equal work, and elimination of all forms of discrimination.”
The pardon drew similar criticism from many elected officials, historians, and patrons of the museum. But Hughes mentioned that the museum also received large amounts of social media posts and calls denouncing the decision to decline the pardon for going against Trump or being political. For a while, the museum put all their calls to voicemail.
Meanwhile, Trump’s pardon statement mentioned that Anthony cast a straight-ticket Republican ballot. His press conference included the President of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, among others. Despite Hughes’ statement rejecting the pardon, the Susan B. Anthony List provided its own statement thanking Trump for the pardon. The announcement came the morning of the second day of the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s decision and messaging certainly seemed political.
“I don’t know that Susan B. Anthony would want her history forever linked to the 45th President of the United States,” Hughes said. However, she did acknowledge that the pardon caused more people to learn about Anthony’s unfair trial.
But learning about the trial itself is not enough. “A lot of the reason that we are interpreting this history is that it is relevant to us in the present,” Hughes said. “Voting rights are still an issue. Fair and legal due process is still an issue. Representation is still an issue.” The message of Anthony, to Hughes, is important for understanding today’s challenges.
But “what [the museum is] not engaged in,” Hughes said, “is justifying Susan B. Anthony’s behavior.” Anthony had a complicated history of opposing policies such as the 15th Amendment, because they provided rights to Black Americans without specifying any assistance to women.
Put into historical context, Anthony was still radically progressive. Hughes cited a powerful memorial of the American Equal Rights Association to Congress co-written by Anthony, which affirms that “we believe that humanity is one in all those moral and spiritual attributes, out of which grow human responsibilities,” to show that Anthony advocated for equality and due process for all. Anthony also had strong friendships and collaborations with Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells.
The museum is focused on showing all sides of Anthony’s story in order to spark conversation, and shows her dispute with Douglass about the 15th Amendment. The museum also intentionally lifts up other voices from the women’s rights movement beyond Anthony, and brings in speakers who focus on intersectionality and racial justice.
Hughes pointed out that the environment around Anthony’s disagreement with Douglass was one of people creating rifts between different oppressed groups. To Hughes, these wedge issues are important in understanding how to achieve progress today, but also highlight how tied together everyone’s rights are.
Since the pardon, the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon and fierce advocate for women’s rights, has sparked a new political debate about the future of women’s rights and fair decisionmaking. Those wedge issues seem to creep back up. Media coverage and public attention seems to turn its eye from one oppressed group to another, abandoning whoever isn’t immediately relevant to the news cycle. To Hughes, it is important to have conversations about human rights, and to understand activism by looking to history.
“We have not explored history from the perspective of women,” Hughes said. “We have not explored history from the perspective of women of color […]. And when we do explore it that way, we see the real issues that prevent us from moving forward […] Susan B. Anthony can be an entry point into those discussions.”