Woman Arrested for Voting

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In 1872, but still.

Here are two things I did not know until recently:

  • Susan B. Anthony was actually arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime of voting while female.
  • The "B" stood for "badass."

According to "The Trial of Susan B. Anthony," part of Professor Douglas Linder's cool Famous Trials website, Anthony was arrested in 1872 after she persuaded some officials in Rochester, New York, to let her vote. Actually, "persuaded" is not really the word:

On November 1, 1872, Anthony and her three sisters entered a voter registration office set up in a barbershop…. 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!"

BOOM! Susan B. drops the E-bomb!

For some reason I can't say "large, exemplary damages" without doing it in a high-pitched Monty-Python-in-drag lady voice, which is not meant to take away from its awesomeness.



Flustered by the onslaught of the Anthony sisters, the men eventually gave in. At least one local paper promptly called for the arrest of all those involved. "Citizenship no more carries the right to vote that it carries the power to fly to the moon," said an editorial in the Rochester Union and Advertiser dictated by some jowly patrician. "If [these women] take the oaths and the Inspectors receive and deposit their ballots, they should all be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

On Election Day, Anthony and several other troublemakers did in fact managed to vote. (According to Linder, "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.") This was followed by a great foofaraw and hullabaloo.

Also the real badassery. Anthony was charged with unlawful voting, and the local functionary sent word to her to "call at his office." She said no thank you. A deputy marshal was then sent:

He sat down [Anthony later said].  He said it was pleasant weather.  He hemmed and hawed and finally said Mr. Storrs wanted to see me…."What for?" I asked.  "To arrest you." said he.  "Is that the way you arrest men?" "No."  Then I demanded that I should be arrested properly. [She then insisted on being handcuffed.]

She also refused bail because she wanted to file a habeas petition as a quicker way to get Supreme Court review, but her attorney decided to pay it out of his own pocket, saying that he "could not see a lady [he] respected put in jail." This probably pissed her off to no end, but she probably cheered up in January 1873 when she was indicted for wrongful voting, "the said Susan B. Anthony being then and there a person of the female sex." Gadzooks!

These dummies had thereby given Anthony the perfect platform to lobby for the right to vote, which she did for the next four months. Among other things, this resulted in a change of venue on the theory that her speeches and calls for jury nullification might have prejudiced potential jurors. The trial was moved to another county, where she immediately launched another lecture tour and spoke for the next 21 days in a row.

The main factual defense at trial was that Anthony did not "knowingly" cast an illegal vote because she reasonably believed that she was in fact entitled to vote. Her lawyer actually called himself to testify that he had advised her it was legal (this is really unusual but not technically improper). But maybe he had to do that, because the judge ruled his client was "not competent as a witness on her own behalf." The main legal argument, which her lawyer set forth in a three-hour closing, was that the then-recently passed Fourteenth Amendment applied to women, too. None of it seemed to matter, because when closing arguments were done the judge pulled out a previously written opinion and read it, finding Anthony guilty. (He did not let the case go to the jury.)

Linder's description of the sentencing hearing is great, and worth reading in full, but too long to set out here. One lesson that could be learned from it is not to start by saying, "Has the prisoner anything to say?" when the prisoner is Susan B. Anthony. Because she certainly did.

When he was able to get a word in, the judge fined her $100, to which she responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty." And she never did.

(Source: Prof. Douglas Linder (UMKC Law School), Famous Trials.)