Law and Famous Trials

Susan B. Anthony

Why was Susan B. Anthony tried?

Susan B. Anthony (1820–1896) was tried for violating federal voting laws. The suffrage movement was in full swing in 1872 when Anthony and 14 female companions went to the Rochester, New York, voter registration office and demanded to be registered. When the officials refused, Anthony argued with them, showing them the written opinion of a Judge Henry R. Selden, who agreed with her (and others) that the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) also protects women’s rights, including the right to vote. She threatened the registrars that she would sue them if they did not allow her to participate in elections. They gave in and the women signed up to vote. On election day, November 5, they did just that. Twenty-three days later, all 15 women were arrested for having done so. Bail was set, and eventually all the women were released. The following June, Anthony’s trial got under way. The U.S. district attorney presented the government’s case against her: she had “upon the 5th day of November, 1872, … voted … At which time she was a woman.” She was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $100. In another act of civil disobedience, Anthony refused to pay it, saying, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

In the coming years, the nation’s courts continued to narrowly interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to the exclusion of women. Anthony died 24 years before American women were granted suffrage (after the Nineteenth Amendment was made in 1920).


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