Labor, temperance, and the vote

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Historical marker at Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite, election day 2016. (Photo by Michael J. Brown.)

As Susan B. Anthony’s bicentennial coincides with the centennial of the 19th Amendment this year, it’s fitting to highlight the goal she saw as key to women’s rights: the vote. The movement for women’s suffrage in the 19th century merged with a host of other issues, however. Voting rights are about more than casting a ballot. Anthony saw them as a means to address economic and social, as well as political, inequality.

Anthony’s reform work encompassed various causes. She began in the temperance movement—which addressed excessive drinking and its repercussions—while teaching in Canajoharie, and she continued after moving back to Rochester in 1849. 

Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton through temperance circles, and they formed the Woman’s New York State Temperance Society in 1852. When male members ousted Stanton as president a year later, Anthony left too. She would later work with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in trying to achieve the vote.

Against double standards

In the 1850s, Anthony became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. These movements drew upon ideas from moral reform—which focused on sexual conduct and criticized the double standard for men and women—and temperance. 

Referring to the prevalence of drunkenness and sexual aggression, reformers made the precarious situation of enslaved people and dependent wives (lacking rights to property, divorce, and custody of children) more tangible to their audiences. These threats undermined the belief that men would provide for the well-being of those under their control. People needed rights of their own, not protection from masters.

And along with political rights, they needed economic rights. Anthony’s labor activism in the post-Civil War period has been overshadowed by other points in her timeline, particularly her split with antislavery allies after the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to black men but excluded all women, and her casting of a ballot in the 1872 election.

An advocate of economic independence for women, Anthony wanted to level the playing field for wage-earning women, who had access to fewer opportunities and received lower wages than men. 

While publishing their newspaper The Revolution, Anthony and Stanton connected with the National Labor Union, a political organization that showed signs of including women and African-American men at a time when trade unions typically excluded them. Anthony was a delegate to the NLU convention in 1868, having organized a Working Women’s Association in New York City. 

The association’s membership consisted largely of female typesetters who proceeded to achieve gains in wages and access to jobs. Despite successful efforts, the group did not last long. Differences between working-class women—who tended not to prioritize suffrage—and middle-class professional women—who came to predominate and could be condescending—were among the reasons for its demise.

Anthony also alienated labor allies during a typesetters’ strike in 1869. Having made in-roads with the men’s union, female typesetters backed the men when they went on strike. Meanwhile, Anthony appealed to their employers to fund training for new women to enter the trade—an action that was viewed as strikebreaking. 

In Anthony’s words

Two of Anthony’s speeches from the post-Civil War era highlight connections among temperance, moral reform, labor, and suffrage.

Social Purity” considers “drunkenness and licentiousness,” stating that decades of efforts by men have failed to address these problems. In addition to intemperance, Anthony cites the murder of tens of thousands of prostitutes, infanticide, and syphilis among the signs of this failure. 

Countering the belief that women become prostitutes because they are immoral, Anthony pointed to economic necessity. 

“Women, like men, must have equal chances to earn a living,” she argued. They should have the same access to economic independence. And they should not have to get married to get by. 

Women can be economically independent only if they have “equal power in the making, shaping and controlling of the circumstances of life”—power that comes with the ballot. 

In “Social Purity,” Anthony predicted that equality between men and women would also have a positive effect on morality. 

“Whoever controls work and wages,” she wrote, “controls morals.” And while setting a high standard for women, men have set a low bar for themselves. The sexual double standard has not benefited society.

Like many of her contemporaries, Anthony believed women were more inclined to be virtuous than men. She anticipated that as equal participants in civic life, women would have a positive influence. 

Of women who think they can cure society’s ills without the vote, Anthony said: “It is idle for them to hope to battle successfully against the monster evils of society until they shall be armed with weapons equal to those of the enemy—votes and money.”

In “Women Want Bread, Not the Ballot!”  Anthony again focused on the need to earn money, making the case that the vote would help wage-earning women achieve economic gains. 

In the speech, she challenged the idea that suffrage should be secondary to labor reforms. 

“Wherever . . . you show me a disenfranchised class,” Anthony observed, “I will show you a degraded class of labor.” 

To the argument that some women don’t actually want the vote, she responded that “weighed down with wrongs” and lacking educational opportunities, people tend to “accept, unquestioned, whatever comes.” 

While this remark made broad assumptions about workers’ motivations, it also showed attention to the harsh realities of their experience. 

To move politicians to act, you must have the vote, Anthony argued. She pointed to male workers in England and the U.S. whose concerns were taken up by the government once they gained the franchise and political parties had to appeal to them. 

Men’s sway as voters also enables them to organize strikes that “neither (the) press nor politicians dare to condemn.” Anthony said women’s strikes had failed because they lacked this political power; partisan newspapers and politicians could afford to denigrate them.

She opposed the argument that a better deal for female workers would be harmful to male workers. Rather, higher wages for women would benefit men because “so long as there is a degraded class of labor in the market, it always will be used by the capitalists to checkmate and undermine” those in a stronger position. She urged solidarity over exclusionary tactics.

The speech presents suffrage as a cause worth taking on for those struggling to make a living by arguing that those struggles are connected.

In spite of obstacles, wage-earning women kept organizing. And labor and suffrage activism continued to fuel one another in the decades ahead. 

Today, when labor and feminism are often viewed as separate camps with conflicting claims, Anthony’s example suggests their goals may be joined in a broader politics of equal rights.

Esther Arnold is a Rochester Beacon contributing editor. Her doctoral dissertation at the University of Rochester examined depictions of social reformers in American literature and silent film from the period 1840 to 1915.

For further reading:

  • Kathleen Barry, “Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist”
  • Ellen Carol DuBois, “Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869” 
  • “The Elizabeth Cady Stanton–Susan B. Anthony Reader: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches,” edited by Ellen Carol DuBois
  • Nancy A. Hewitt, “Women’s Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822-1872”

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