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NSG Visit January 1998

The Home of Susan B. Anthony


Donovan A. Shilling

Not long ago twenty members of the New Society of the Genesee braved the snows of January 1998 to visit 17 Madison Street in Rochester, New York, once home to our nation's leading promoter of American civil rights, Susan B. Anthony. Located just off West Main Street a few blocks west of the city's inner loop, (I-490) is a fine, three-story house built of red brick, today a National Historic Landmark.

The house, built in 1859, was home for forty years to both Susan and her sister, Mary, a Rochester school teacher and principal. They shared the home from 1866 until Miss Anthony passed away there on March 13th, 1906.

The Anthony home was part of a well-planned neighborhood in the city's eighth ward. Located about halfway down a tree-lined street, the home and its neighbors enjoyed its own public square once called Mechanic's Park. A rear alley served vendors delivering goods to the middle-class families who lived there: doctors, lawyers and many who managed the great Cunningham Carriage Works, just a few blocks away. Today the park has been rededicated to honor Miss Anthony.

Visitors to the Anthony House will learn that about half of the furnishings are original, the remainder complement the Victorian Era in which so much of Miss Anthony's work was undertaken. Of the original items returned to the home, many were provided by Mary Winchell, Miss Anthony's niece. In 1892 Anthony became head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and made her home its National Headquarters. That's when the house was renovated, a third story added, and gas-log fireplaces and other amenities installed. The third floor became "Campaign Headquarters" where much of the movement's work was organized. It was where Anthony helped write the History of Woman Suffrage. She gathered much of the material and verified the facts. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the first two volumes, Anthony much of the third, and Ida Husted Harper edited volumes 4, 5, and 6 which brought the work through 1920. Harper also wrote here the Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony that was published in 1898. Books with a profile of Anthony's head in a gold medallion on green covers are on display in the downstairs parlor.

Among the home's mementoes is the ancient Smith Premier typewriter on which Susan B. Anthony wrote notes for her lectures and many of the letters and articles in which she pleaded for social justice, equality in women's rights, labor reform and the abolition of slavery. The Museum Room on the second floor, holds a wonderful collection of her personal artifacts plus a gallery featuring 152 framed photographs of scores of women and other supporters who shared her zeal in not only amending the Constitution to gain women the right to vote, but also to change the obtuse thinking prevailing at the time that made women second class citizens. The photographs were contributed by Carrie Chapman Catt who had succeeded Anthony as president of the Woman Suffrage Association. Many of the pictures in the collection had been given to Mrs. Catt by Miss Anthony.

A narrow hallway leads to the rear of the second floor and the bedroom of Susan B. Anthony. There she passed away in 1906. She had lived 86 years. To honor her life-long dedication toward gaining freedom for slaves and women, the flags over the city's buildings were lowered to half staff at the time of her death. It represented the first time in the Nation's history that the Stars and Stripes had been lowered to honor a woman.

Susan Brownell Anthony was born February 15, 1820, in Adams, Massachusetts. Later her Quaker family lived on a Hudson Valley farm and in 1845 moved to a small farm in Rochester on Genesee Street. At the time the Second Women's Rights Convention was held in Rochester, two weeks following the first one in Seneca Falls, Susan was the headmistress for girls at the Canajoharie Academy. When she learned that her father, mother, and sister had attended and supported resolutions for women's rights, she thought that they had moved ahead of the times. Her first concerns were temperance and abolition. She had been refused participation, because she was a woman, in an Albany Sons of Temperance Convention. This rejection led her to the women's rights cause. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at an abolitionist meeting in Seneca Falls. They became friends and worked together for more than half a century. Stanton excelled as a policy maker and Anthony as an organizer. Their first successful collaboration came when Stanton addressed the New York State Assembly on the unequal treatment of women's property rights with those of men. She used the legal research and background information that Anthony and a lawyer friend had gathered. The speech was well received, but it took 6 more years for the state to change the discriminatory laws against women holding property and keeping their own earnings.

After ratification of the 15th amendment which gave citizens the right to vote without consideration of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, Anthony tested whether women were even considered citizens by voting in the 1872 general election. She was tried in Canandaigua and the judge directed the jury to find her guilty. Her lawyer Henry Selden argued that Judge Hunt exceeded his authority. The judge dismissed the jury and fined Anthony $100. She refused to pay and never did. The case brought much newspaper publicity to the women's voting cause.

Although Wyoming, where women had had the vote since 1869, was admitted in 1890 as a suffrage state and New Zealand adopted women's suffrage in 1893, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution securing for women in the United States the right to vote in all elections was not adopted until August 26, 1920, more than 72 years after the first Woman's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls.

There's been a significant revival of interest in Susan B. Anthony and those who shared her determination to win voting and property rights for women. Author Emerson Klees, has just completed his latest book, The Women's Rights Movement and The Finger Lakes Region (It has 360 pp, photography by C. S. Kenyon, pb, and is available at The Susan B. Anthony House, 716-235-6124, or from the Friends of Finger Lakes Publishing, P. O. Box 18131, Rochester, NY, 14618, $20. ) Ken Burns, the documentary-film maker, has recently completed a film biography of Susan B. Anthony and her co-suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Additionally Lynn Sher, an ABC news correspondent has written a book using as her title Miss Anthony's famous motto, Failure Is Impossible.

The Susan B. Anthony Historic Site now includes not only the Misses Anthony residence at number 17 Madison street, but also number 19, next door, where their sister Hannah Anthony Mosher lived, and number 21, a now vacant lot for use as off-street parking. All will be restored to a turn-of-the-century Victorian appearance. Number 17 will be preserved as it was when the two Anthony sisters, Susan and Mary, lived there and it was the headquarters of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association. The house at number 19 will provide space for interpretive exhibits, lecture facilities, archive and collection storage, and research and curatorial work space.

It was the fortunate intervention of Mrs. Howard, president of the Rochester Women's Club who generated interest in raising funds to buy the Victorian house in 1945.

Our hosts were Colleen Hurst and Richard Anderson, both long-time volunteers at the home. We each contributed five dollars toward the support of the Susan B. Anthony Memorial, a non-profit group "dedicated to preserving the home, and promoting awareness of Susan B. Anthony," and were presented in turn with a bright aluminum, dollar-size souvenir medal minted for the February 15th, 1995, celebration of Susan Brownell Anthony's 175 birthday. The sprightly and entertaining descriptions given by our guides telling us of the home's past and the part Susan B. Anthony played in campaigning for women's, and everyone's rights, were truly exceptional.

© 1998, Donovan A. Shilling
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