Rochester has long claimed Susan B. Anthony as one of its most cherished citizens, but in reality, the famed suffragist spent only a small fraction of her life in the Flower City.
Though Anthony was a resident of Rochester from 1845 until her death in 1906, given her prolonged bouts of traveling as a tireless campaigner for woman’s rights and other social causes, her sojourns here were sporadic and often brief. It wasn’t uncommon for her to reach home from one out-of-town obligation and then hit the road for another engagement less than 24 hours later.
The limited time that Susan B. Anthony did spend in the city was nevertheless significant. The places and spaces she occupied and frequented in Rochester not only informed her development as an activist, but also gave her a platform to help shape the course of local and national social reform movements in the 19th century.
A progressive homestead
Born in Adams, Mass., in 1820, Anthony moved to Rochester in 1845, after her father’s milling business went bankrupt and the family sought different environs in which to start their lives anew. The Anthonys settled on a 32-acre farm in what was then part of Gates. (The lot was adjacent to the current route of Brooks Avenue in between Genesee Park Boulevard and Thurston Road.)
The homestead was equipped with a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a carriage house, and the surrounding property was overflowing with peach and apple orchards as well as cherry and quince trees. Overseeing the farm became Anthony’s responsibility once she returned from a teaching stint in Canajoharie, in 1849. And while supervising the planting and selling of the family’s crops taught her much about self-sufficiency, the rural home marked Anthony in more profound ways as well.
In the early 1850s, the family farm became a meeting place for those espousing progressive social and political views. On Sundays, the homestead drew local activists such as Frederick Douglass and Amy and Isaac Post, as well as noted out-of-town guests, like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. As Anthony’s biographer Ida Husted Harper later noted, “every one of these Sunday meetings was equal to a convention.” These domestic forums not only exposed Anthony to varied viewpoints on matters such as abolition, temperance, and property rights, but they also helped her find and hone her own political voice.
Anthony would later build on the progressive views she developed privately at home, in public. No local venue proved more significant in this respect than Corinthian Hall. Opened in 1849 by William Reynolds (of Reynolds Arcade fame), Corinthian Hall stood just east of State Street on what is now Corinthian Street—the Holiday Inn parking lot now marks the site. The edifice served as a library, lecture hall, and entertainment venue, and, as Anthony herself recollected in 1898, “at the time of its erection was the most magnificent auditorium west of the Hudson.”
At Corinthian Hall, Anthony took in countless talks by esteemed speakers. “These lectures were the popular entertainments of the city, and they were great occasions to which the theater was nothing in comparison,” she recalled. “On this platform the burning questions of the hour, anti-slavery, woman’s rights, temperance, and labor reforms, all found utterance.”
As these lectures fueled Anthony’s intellectual evolution, so too did her own engagements at the venue. It was there that Anthony hosted the 1852 convention that led to the creation of the Woman’s State Temperance Society, which her friend and colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton went on to helm.
The following year, Corinthian Hall was the site of an even more historic event. On Aug. 3, 1853, the venue hosted the New York State Teachers Convention, which Anthony attended. Though women comprised the majority of the organization’s members, they were not permitted to speak at meetings or vote on any questions that affected them. When the group’s president raised the question as to why teaching was not as respected as other professions, Anthony broke with convention by standing up and requesting to speak, marking the first time a woman’s voice was ever heard at such an event. After a lengthy deliberation, she received permission from the astonished all-male board, and in the course of her response presented the radical notion that women teachers should not only receive equal pay for equal work, but that they also should be allowed to vote on the very measures that governed their employment.
Many of the female attendees did not support this act of defiance, but the experience emboldened Anthony and furthered her growing interest in, and dedication to, woman’s rights. She would go on to organize and speak at scores of woman’s rights and suffrage events at Corinthian Hall in the latter half of the 19th century.
These causes removed Anthony from Rochester for long stretches at a time, but she immensely appreciated the stints she spent at home. By 1865, Anthony, her mother and sister Mary had relocated to the house at 17 Madison St. that now bears her name.
Within the walls of the Victorian brick residence, Anthony was afforded time to relax and recharge from her demanding road schedule, but also took pleasure in domestic duties and being a hospitable host. “How I love to receive in my own home and at my own table!,” she noted in her diary in 1891.
The suffragist’s adoration of the domestic realm was so great, in fact, that her close friend Jean Brooks Greenleaf deemed Anthony’s devotion to social causes to be an immeasurable sacrifice. As Greenleaf remarked to the Democrat and Chronicle in 1911: “Here was this grand woman giving up, year after year, the home life she so much loved … because she so firmly believed in the underlying principle upon which the government of this country rests that she was willing to give up anything to see it carried out.”
Anthony’s home life was never truly divorced from her activist endeavors, to be sure. The Madison Street residence was at once a domestic space and a workplace. Anthony’s main pastime while in Rochester was writing letters in her upstairs study—she was known to pen missives and resolutions uninterrupted from morning until almost 10 at night.
And like her rural homestead, her urban abode served as a veritable nexus for the progressive minds of the day. In the front parlor, Anthony welcomed local activists and national figures such as Carrie Chapman Catt and anti-lynching activist, Ida B. Wells. The same room also was the site of Anthony’s arrest in November 1872, following her bold attempt to put her beliefs into action by voting illegally at the polling place minutes from her house (now the site of 1872 Café).
Two decades later, 17 Madison St. quite literally became the home of the suffrage movement. In 1894, in an effort to save money, Susan and Mary Anthony offered up their residence as the headquarters of the National Woman Suffrage Association. The house’s parlors were transformed into offices and the guest quarters became a mailroom. Therein, Mary, a cadre of clerks, and Susan (when in town) worked at a dizzying pace, composing and mailing letters, leaflets, petitions, and papers.
“It is not possible to describe in detail the vast amount of labor performed at these headquarters,” noted Ida Harper Husted, who spent the better part of seven years collaborating with the suffragist on her biography, “The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony,” in the home’s attic.
Mentions of Rochester in Husted’s three-volume tome are somewhat intermittent, but the relative paucity of these references is hardly reflective of the important role the city played in Anthony’s life. It was here that Anthony planted her roots as a reformer and here where she established her skills as an organizer and agitator. And not insignificantly for someone who so valued domestic life, Rochester was, above all, her home.
Emily Morry is a Rochester-area freelance writer.