A hallmark year in voting history

This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment as well as the bicentennial of Susan B. Anthony’s birth. Penn experts reflect on Anthony’s legacy and voting rights today.

vintage suffrage banner reading VOTES FOR WOMEN.
A vintage suffrage banner from the early 20th century. (Image: Birmingham Museums Trust)

On Thanksgiving Day in 1872, the 52-year-old activist Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting and fined $100, a fine she never paid. The incident was used to highlight the issue of women’s suffrage and helped lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote. 

This year is a hallmark year in voting history, falling on the centennial of the 19th Amendment as well as the bicentennial of Anthony’s birth.

Born on Feb. 15, 1820, to a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts, Anthony’s first cause célèbre was the abolition of slavery. She served in the American Anti-Slavery Society and participated in aiding the escape of enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. In 1863, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Women’s Loyal National League to campaign for the abolition of slavery. At the time, women were seen to have a degree of moral authority, though not political power, on social-reform issues such as abolition, temperance, and labor unions, all which Anthony championed during her lifetime.

Through her work, Anthony met and befriended Frederick Douglass, although the two developed a rift after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1865, which granted African American men the right to vote. Douglass was a strong proponent of the amendment, while Anthony opposed it because this newly granted suffrage did not extend to women.

In 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and Anthony continued advocacy work until her death in 1906. At her 86th birthday celebration, Anthony said, “Failure is impossible,” and 14 years later the 19th Amendment became law. The National Women Suffrage Association then became the League of Women Voters, still a political presence today. 

Looking at voter engagement across college campuses in 2018, the national student voting rate was 40% for women, with black women at the highest rate, and 35% for men. Overall student engagement at Penn has grown from 25% in 2014 to 54% in 2018, according to a report from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement

Penn Leads the Vote is looking to increase this gain on Feb. 22 with the first Eastern Pennsylvania Voting Summit, co-sponsored by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships along with the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development. Students from colleges and universities across the state will gather to learn and connect on issues surrounding nonpartisan democratic engagement, with a focus on student voting. 

Maria Murphy of the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women and Sherisse Laud-Hammond, Director of the Penn Women’s Center (PWC), discuss Anthony, her legacy, and voting rights today. 

11 women from the women's suffrage women pose on a front porch, susan b. anthony seated in the center.
Taken on the front porch of the family homestead in Adams, Massachusetts. Susan B. Anthony is seated at the center surrounded by other women’s rights leaders.

What is important to remember about Susan B. Anthony?

Sherisse Laud-Hammond: We have to discuss the fact that she was also an abolitionist and worked for the Anti-Slavery Society. We have to talk about the whole person. Anthony was working on a range of issues with people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. If she were active today, I think she’d be working with allies on other social justice issues, like Angela Davis on prison abolition. 

Anthony started the Suffrage Association so long before the 19th Amendment was signed and probably didn’t think she made a significant impact. She made progress in her lifetime but wasn’t around to see all of the fruits of her labor. I think that’s important for students to remember. You’re not necessarily going to have instant success, but the work you start can impact others after you’re gone. 

In the 2020 election cycle, what can we take away from Susan B. Anthony’s legacy?

Maria Murphy: One of the most important factors to consider in the 2020 election cycle from Anthony’s legacy is how voter disenfranchisement persists in this country. In recent years, perhaps especially in this past year as part of the democratic party process, we have seen the question of voting from prison become one of the most important voting issues in our contemporary political moment. Throughout the country, with some exceptions, incarcerated people are unable to vote, and yet, in some cases, those same people get counted toward population numbers that are often arrogated to gerrymandering projects and redrawing maps of districts, for example. So incarcerated folks are being leveraged for some political projects without the right to vote. Many of these voting restrictions for incarcerated people emerged during the Jim Crow era to make voting from prison harder. If we are to honor the legacy of the 19th Amendment, we need to prioritize voting accessibility and voting rights for all incarcerated people.

How did the passage of the 19th Amendment change American politics?

Murphy: Something to remember about the 19th Amendment and Susan B. Anthony’s involvement is that Anthony died before it was passed. I think the sheer inertia of social change can make folks feel like real political change—the kind of necessary stuff to make life on Earth livable—is impossible. But political organizing comes with many defeats and, as our Alice Paul Center Professor of Practice Roz Lee has said several times since I’ve met her, ‘You have to prepare for the long haul of social change, celebrate victories, and persist despite setbacks.’ 

What do women’s rights initiatives look like on campus?

Laud-Hammond: Students are working on many initiatives, including getting menstrual products in every bathroom on campus and putting together supplies for women’s shelters. At PWC, we’re also making sure that parents on campus know about the lactation initiative. Working closely with the Family Resource Center, PWC is able to provide programs and initiatives that support the needs of parents. We give out Medela pump kits to any parent affiliated with Penn. These are compatible with the hospital grade breast pumps in lactation spaces all around campus

Penn Women’s Center, the LGBT Center, and Penn Violence Prevention are three of the nine spaces on campus that offer confidential crisis options related to interpersonal violence, which includes physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological threats or actions. It’s important for students, staff, and faculty to know where they can go to find help and safe space. 

Another initiative is fighting for gender equity in terms of the wage gap. Penn belongs to the American Association of University Women, which offers free salary-negotiation practice online. I always refer women there because they give you scenarios and walk you through how to navigate salary negotiations. Someone once told me that salary negotiation is not in their personality, which is the attitude that creeps in when imposter syndrome is present. It is time that we practice breaking free of imposter syndrome.

This year, we also partnered with the LGTB Center on the 2019 Trans Day of Remembrance and are working to bring awareness to other social justice initiatives. 

What do women need to be thinking about regarding the upcoming presidential election?

Murphy: There’s so, so much! In particular, I would highlight workers’ rights. Right now, Philadelphia is one of several cities prioritizing labor protections for domestic work, with the city’s recent passage of the domestic worker bill of rights. Domestic labor like child care and housekeeping, which have historically been left out of all major labor-protection legislation, is overwhelmingly performed by women, specifically women of color. Labor protections, which includes strengthening unions instead of gutting workers’ rights, like efforts by the current administration with the National Labor Relations Board, need to be a priority for the Democratic nominee. Before we even get to the national election, we have to think about choosing a nominee that is absolutely dedicated to workers’ rights.