Feb. 15 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony, America’s most celebrated champion of women’s suffrage. But is the woke “cancel culture” about to come for her?
The question occurred to me recently when I visited Anthony’s Rochester home—now a museum—at 17 Madison St. and found myself, up on the second floor, staring at one item enshrined on a pedestal under glass: an alligator purse.
The purse—it’s large, like a doctor’s satchel—served as a sturdy briefcase in which Anthony kept drafts of books, articles, and legal papers as she traveled the country campaigning for women’s rights.
“This bag went everywhere she went,” explains Gail Riggs, designer of a faux replica of the purse offered for sale for $250 by the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House.
The purse was so much a symbol of Anthony that it became the refrain in a popular children’s rhyme:
Call for the doctor!
Call for the nurse!
Call for the lady with the alligator purse!
“Mumps!” said the doctor. “Measles!” said the nurse.
“Vote!!” said the lady with the alligator purse!!
If Anthony were alive today, however, I wouldn’t advise her to take her purse on a campaign trip to California. As of Jan. 1, the state banned the import and sale of all alligator products—purses included.
In backing the ban—originally a ballot measure—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights groups testified to gruesome facts about the raising and killing of alligators. PETA says the animals are “packed in dank pools … for months or even years before being slaughtered,” and then “hacked in the necks” and sometimes left “flailing and kicking” before they die.
The California ban, first enacted decades ago but stalled when lawmakers passed repeated exemptions, finally took effect when no further exemption was passed. Louisiana—home of the nation’s largest alligator industry—has sued to block the ban and a federal judge has temporarily put the law on hold.
But that doesn’t change the problem as it relates to Susan B., because if raising and killing alligators today is considered cruel, we can only imagine what the practice was when Anthony bought her purse 150 years ago when there were few if any protections for animals.
It’s a fair guess that a lot of alligator pain went into her purse.
And it’s no help to say she wouldn’t have known about this. Though most people of Anthony’s time probably didn’t even think of alligators as sentient creatures, nevertheless there were enlightened thinkers who advocated for an end to all animal abuse.
To name just two: Irish playwright and vegetarian George Bernard Shaw and English social reformer Henry Salt. In his 1894 book, “Animals’ Rights,” Salt denounced abuse of animals for clothing and fashion. He argued that the “true offender”—the person who bears most responsibility for these wrongs—is not the one who kills the animal but the one who buys the products.
That would be Ms. Anthony.
And if she’d wanted a cruelty-free substitute for her alligator purse, she could simply have purchased a carpetbag, at the time a popular, cloth-based alternative to leather luggage and bags.
Yet, instead, she bought the alligator bag and displayed it at every campaign stop—to women’s groups and school groups, all across the country.
In today’s culture, previously admired historical figures are frequently vilified for behaviors that were consistent with prevailing attitudes of their time but that today we find objectionable.
European explorers of 500 years ago, including Columbus, are condemned for forcing out native populations. Americans born 300 years ago, including some Founders, are condemned for owning slaves. Celebrated artists born 200 years ago, such as Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, are condemned for stereotyped portraits of Asians. And honored entertainers born 100 years ago, such as singer Kate Smith, are condemned for once recording songs now deemed offensive.
So, what are we to do with Susan B.? Should our opinion of her be altered by the knowledge that she was seemingly indifferent to animal suffering and flaunted as her personal symbol an item we know to have been steeped in cruelty?
If anyone should be offended by all this, it’s me. Vegetarian for more than 40 years, I’ve worked at one time or another with most of the national groups to promote animal rights, including PETA. When I see that purse under glass at the Anthony House, I really do think of the suffering of the alligator from which it was made.
And yet, Anthony’s purse troubles me not at all.
What troubles me is this relish for what’s sometimes called “presentism”—applying today’s moral standards to historical figures so that no reputation is immune from attack.
But moral standards, like science, evolve over time and it makes no sense to me to write history backwards and condemn those who lived in earlier times for not having conformed to the moral standards of our time.
Moreover, I’ve noticed that most people who achieve great things tend to be single-minded: They stay focused on the one issue about which they are passionate and don’t allow themselves to be distracted. As for other issues, they accept the prevailing attitudes of their day. And that’s no reason for being vilified 100, 200, or 500 years later.
How many of us are able to step beyond our own time and see every issue as it may be seen in the future? About which issues may our own children and grandchildren look back and say we were wrong? Humility is in order.
So, no, I don’t think any less of Susan B. Anthony for owning an alligator purse. While ahead of her time in terms of understanding the rights of women, she was of her time with this other issue—and that’s fine with me. As far as keeping her in the pantheon of great Americans—she still has my vote.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected]. A version of this article first appeared in American Greatness on Feb. 8, 2020.