Dead on D Street: Must Women Be Perfect?

Several years ago I read this sympathetic and very public passage about a woman’s experience with drink. It appears in a speech by the Rev. Olympia Brown at a national meeting of woman suffragists in Washington in January 1885.

I stood to-day by the grave of Julia A. Roberts. . . . She had been divinely loving to humanity–careful and tender. She had provided lunches for poor men who could obtain no work. She had been a philanthropist and a patriot. She was a woman who had served her country well. But she had one serious failing–a failing common to our aristocracy of men–she was a victim to the wine cup. So sorrowful, lonely, and deserted–she died (Woman’s Tribune, March 1885).

I made myself a copy and stuck it in a folder, after realizing that research about a 19th-century woman named “Julia Roberts” would not go quickly.

I came back to it because it is a startling eulogy. In the annals of alcohol, respectable 19th-century women don’t get drunk, at least not enough to get their problem bruited about in polite company. The speaker said it: drink is a failing of men.

“The Drunkard’s Progress. From the First Glass to the Grave” Nathaniel Currier placed wife and child patiently waiting under the arch of the husband’s self-destruction in this chromolithograph from 1846. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Women were usually portrayed as the victims of men’s intoxication–left alone with children, challenged by drink’s drain on household finances, tested as to the depth of her love and loyalty by his misbehavior, and/or subjected to domestic violence at the hands of this drunk man. She was “The Drunkard’s Wife,” praised in poetry, song, and illustration for her willingness to forgive.

“The Drunkard’s Wife.” The fourth stanza of this 1850 song celebrated the all-forgiving wife: “And though it costs me many a pang to know the life he leads,/I’ll try to greet him with a smile though oft my poor heart bleeds.” (Music Copyright Deposits, Music Division, Library of Congress)

What was going on here that women were talking about Julia Roberts in death? Why was it okay to expose her as an alcoholic? And who was she? Newspapers and public records allow us to put a bit of flesh on Brown’s skeleton of Roberts, but the enduring story may be an unusual view that the death of Julia Roberts provides into sisterhood and equality as imagined and lived by a group of middle-class white women in the 1880s.

When Clara Colby, editor of the Woman’s Tribune, published Brown’s speech after the meeting, she added an editor’s note to let her out-of-town readers in on the story. Roberts “had been well known and highly respected in Washington,” she wrote of a woman she probably knew.

But on account of yielding to the temptation of the wine cup, society deserted her, and she died under very painful circumstances. The remains were cared for tenderly by the Woman’s Press Ass’n of Washington.

Perhaps that last explains who invited Olympia Brown, visiting from Wisconsin, to speak at the grave on January 21.

Brown and Colby both deployed conventions of the drunkard’s tale: Roberts died deserted, alone, and beyond the pale. The circumstances do seem to be quite dreadful and no doubt painful. According to the Evening Star, her “body was found yesterday lying in the floor of her room, 204 D Street, dead” (20 January 1885). According to her death certificate, she died the day before she was found. This single mother had sent her 14 year-old son away a week earlier to visit his aunt in Indiana.

The friends of Julia Roberts seem to be outing her as an alcoholic even while they rally round her, and they may exaggerate her situation. Press notices of her death were respectful and said nothing about drink. Just six months before her death, the addition of Roberts, that “brilliant and popular writer,” to the editorial team of the weekly Washington Times was heralded in a rival paper (Evening Critic, 18 June 1884).

Frontispiece in The Olivia Letters; Being Some History of Washington City for Forty Years (1906).

Moreover, women’s embrace of Roberts in death seems to belie her purported isolation. It took Emily Edson Briggs, distinguished journalist and president of the Woman’s Press Association, less than a day to find the undertaker and inform him that “the funeral should take place from a private home.” Hers, the Maples on Capitol Hill (Evening Star, 19 January 1885).

Most sources agree that Julia was born in Alabama about 1845. According to her obituary, she married Finley Johnson of Baltimore at an early age. Johnson is a hard person to track, though he left a trail as a poet and lyricist. Most famously, he wrote one of the pro-Union versions of “Maryland, My Maryland” in 1862:

We hear the bugle and the drum,
We’re chasing off the dirty scum,
Thank God the Union forces come,
Maryland, My Maryland!

The marriage did not last long, reportedly because Johnson died.

Announcement of remarriage, Evening Star, 21 December 1867.

On 7 December 1867, Mrs. Julia A. Johnson married John William Roberts, an English immigrant and clerk in the General Land Office. John also did not live long. Her obituary says he died in 1869 but that’s an error; he was alive at the time of the federal census in 1870, living with his wife in a boarding house, and in 1871, his son, John William, was born. Julia appears as a widow in city directories in 1875.

Julia had moved to Washington and, during the Civil War–again relying on an obituary–served as a nurse at a military hospital; that was the patriotic service to which Olympia Brown alluded. The work also marked the start of her public life out and about in worlds of Washington where women were conspicuous. Possibly she went from nursing to clerking in a department of the federal government–one of the city’s largest employers of women.

Advertisement for Penny-Lunch fundraiser, Evening Star, 7 June 1878.

The peak of Julia’s fame in the city came in the late 1870s. During the long depression of that decade, she opened a Penny-Lunch House where the unemployed–sometimes more than 1,000 per day–could get healthy meals for a penny. To supplement what she raised through charitable events for the project, Congress appropriated money for her use in 1878 and 1879.

Along the way, at least by the mid-1870s, Julia joined the considerable number of women supporting themselves by writing for Washington’s newspapers. “Correspondent” was the word often given to her employment, likely meaning that she was not the employee of a particular paper but a writer who sold stories to papers. A sisterhood of the city’s journalists assumed the form of a club in 1881, later the Woman’s Press Association, of which Roberts was a member.

In the evening of 21 January 1885, back from Glenwood Cemetery to join the suffrage meeting, Olympia Brown wove a tale of Julia Roberts into her scheduled lecture, “All Are Created Equal.” Brown, a married woman raising a 10 year-old son, delivered a sharp, and occasionally funny, denunciation of the aristocracy of sex. “Ours is an aristocracy of bifurcated garments” that “maintains its superiority because it eats more.” Disproportionate power in the hands and rules of men affected nearly everything, she argued; this aristocracy “threatens to undermine all our institutions.” The life of Julia Roberts illustrated her points in several ways. Honors and economic rewards were not distributed equally: “A man who had done for his country what she had done would have been pensioned, and books would have been written about him.”

The word “pensioned” acts here as both a metaphor about recognition and a pointed political reference to inequality that her audience would recognize. An issue engaging women in national politics in the 1880s was the fight for federal pensions for nurses like Roberts. Pensions were paid to soldiers, their widows and children, but nothing was done for the women enlisted to nurse the wounded. In the last six months of Julia’s life, there were signs of change and promises to petition Congress for legislation. It would take four more years to win passage of the Army Nurses Pension Act, but just the new plan itself, announced in 1884, awakened and activated hundreds of nurses and their friends.

“The gentler sex – charity for the drunken brother, contempt for the unfortunate sister” by J. A. Wales, Puck 10 (21 September 1881) (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Brown gave equality another meaning too, one less easily measured. She blamed the illegitimate reign of an aristocracy of sex for the creation of “two standards of morality.” Sin is equal, she preached. How society reacts to sin is not equal. If a man of equal accomplishment “had been a smoker” or “had been drunk once or twice in his life,” the matter would have been forgotten. “Why, I ask in Heaven’s name, this difference?”

This was a persistent question in the 19th century, paired with pleas for good jobs, equal pay, and political rights. Jennie Collins, factory worker and labor agitator, had taken up the subject in her book, Nature’s Aristocracy (1871); women who stepped or slipped out of line, she observed, were not allowed the second chances extended to men. Taking a cue from a popular hymn to cap her argument, Collins quoted the line, “There is a light in the window for thee, brother,” and observed, “but no one ever heard of one there for his sister” (p. 57). Olympia Brown, like Jennie Collins, knew that this inequality of reputation and forgiveness had real life consequences for women in work, society, and family.

In the life of Julia Roberts, Brown saw an accomplished woman, brought down by burdens known and unknown, who deserved forgiveness and help.

It is just as wicked for a man to get drunk as for Mrs. Roberts. If it is deserving of eulogy for a man to serve his country and do nobly for humanity, then it is as noble in a woman. Sin is the same thing in a man as in a woman. If it is not agreeable to you that a woman should sin, let it be odious for a man to do the same. O! it is shameful that we should have different standards for God’s creatures.

Unlike the male cartoonist who ridiculed women for acting to redeem troubled men while turning their backs on troubled women, Brown spotlighted equality in action. She performed that equality in her own role at Roberts’s burial as well as in her telling of Roberts’s story at a large gathering of suffragists. Perhaps Brown also suspected that among the women in the room were some who had no tolerance for the weaknesses of their sisters; perhaps she preached to discover converts. The friends and acquaintances of Roberts had proclaimed, our place is not threatened by acknowledging this sister. We can set the terms of moral behavior.


The research for this post could only be done because libraries have digitized newspapers. I could follow all sorts of public actions by Julia Roberts.

For research on the revival of the campaign for army nurses’ pensions, I am indebted to  the thesis of an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary.  Metheny, Hannah, “‘For A Woman’: The Fight for Pensions for Civil War Army Nurses” (2013). Undergraduate Honors Theses.







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Tender Hands: Rediscovering the Sculptor

For years, gathering dust and love in equal measure, the hands lay upon whatever flat surface could be found in overcrowded offices of people editing the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No one we talked to knew who had made this cast of the hands of Stanton and Anthony or how many existed.

Someone did scratch a date into wet plaster–November 12, 1895. This was helpful: with that at least we knew the models’ ages. The well-padded hand on top that seemed to lack bones is that of an 80-year-old Elizabeth.

Flip the cast and there is the lean wrist and long fingers of a 75-year-old Susan.

Or, in a description by a journalist who saw the hands in 1899:

No greater contrast could exist than the hands of these two women, both interested in the same cause, one being short and plump, while the other is long and thin and full of nervous energy.

The date also proved to be a nearly magical clue to much more. On that date, we knew, the old friends were both in New York City to celebrate Stanton’s 80th birthday at a huge gala at the old Metropolitan Opera House. Susan B. kept a diary, and it revealed that the correct date for the cast was November 13. After a morning chatting with friends at her hotel, Susan recorded,

went to Mrs Stanton’s & had cast taken of my single hand & then with it clasped with Mrs Stantons–& the Italians pronounced it good cast–

Still no name of an artist. When the editorial staff searched for new details about Stanton’s birthday celebration, they turned up a letter written after the event by one guest to a friend of hers unable to attend. The writer, Elizabeth Pike, mentioned a new acquaintance she had made there:

A young lady Miss M. E. B. Culbertson from Ind[iana] . . . has taken the hands of Mrs Stanton & Miss Anthony clasped, in plaster— They are very good & are to be sold thro the various clubs & leagues.

Intrepid staff set out to follow that path to Indiana.

With state, surname, and “ young lady,” they narrowed the search down to the city of Richmond–one of the most consistently active and organized sites of suffragism in the state. The next leap necessitated a visit to the Local History and Genealogy Division of the New York Public Library. At last, in a book of Wayne County tombstone transcriptions, they spotted an entry for the Earlham Cemetery, listing M. E. B. Culbertson, born in 1864, died in 1929. An additional notation read “Mary E. B., known as ‘Meb’, artist & sculptor, single.”

Earlham Cemetery, Richmond, Ind. Photo courtesy of Find A Grave

Knowing that she went by “Meb” opened up all kinds of sources. In 1896, she had a studio in New York City on East 23rd Street, though she still lived in Indiana, according to the city directory. Her career interested Indiana’s journalists, and their stories sometimes were picked up in other parts of the country. Staff first spotted news of Meb in the Oswego (N.Y.) Daily Times, 17 December 1897. It was a feature story that we later learned had been picked up from a paper in Terre Haute, about “A daughter of Indiana,” “the Young and Handsome Sculptor,” Meb Culbertson. It included this crucial bit of history:

In 1896 Miss Culbertson introduced in New York the fad of modeling hands and arms. Many celebrities were her willing subject . . . One of the most interesting of her models is a cast of the clasped hands of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Curiosity pushed on, and more glimpses of Meb’s life were found. The longer Terre Haute version of that story in 1897 included her picture.

Uncredited, Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, 11 Dec 1897

Meb started out as a painter, studied in Paris, earned some recognition. But back in the U.S. she changed direction, according to journalists who wrote about her. She had a talent for the modeling that preceded portrait sculpture. Other sculptors sometimes relied on her casts. She was a finalist–though unsuccessful–in the competition to erect a statue in Indianapolis honoring the state’s wartime governor, Oliver P. Morton. It was said that when she finished casting the hand of Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic,” she then made a bust of him. But the trail of Meb Culbertson’s artistic career is thin and often depends on the fame of the people she modeled.

She also wrote poetry–at least enough poetry to get her included in a collection of Indiana writers published in 1902. A photograph that precedes two poems shows her in an artist’s smock admiring a bust that might be one of her own creations. What is to be made, however, of the poem she titled “Sculptor”?

Edward Joseph Hamilton, comp., Indiana Writers of Poems and Prose (Chicago, 1902)

Hamilton, Indiana Writers of Poems and Prose










There is a lot still not known. Who were “the Italians” who assured Susan Anthony that the cast was good? The craft, referred to as “modeling,” was Culbertson’s specialty, but this implies that she worked in a team.

The Woman’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls displays a bronze version of the hands.

Photo courtesy of Michael Rodriguez, Lead Park Ranger, Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, N.Y.

Catalogue of Title Entries of Books and Other Articles Entered in the Office of the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, at Washington, Volume 27 (1901) p. 480.

Did Culbertson oversee the production of both plaster and bronze hands? Possibly so. When she copyrighted her cast of Col. Robert G. Ingersoll’s hand in 1900, after his death, she sought protection for versions in plaster, bronze, and marble.

If Elizabeth Pike’s information was correct, there could be, or could have been, many copies of the clasped hands sold by local suffrage clubs. Where are they?

Anthony tells us that a cast was made of just her own hand as well as of the clasped hands. A short article about Culbertson’s visit home in February 1896, dateline Richmond, also refers to separate casts of Stanton and Anthony, though errors in that article suggest that its author did not listen very carefully. Assuming these were made, where are they now?

Meb Culbertson died in Richmond, Indiana, in the house that had belonged to her parents.  If enthusiastic journalists are to be believed, there should be a great many examples of her work out there somewhere–plaster, bronze, or marble. Robert Ingersoll, anyone? There should be a lot of famous hands, but it was also said that young women cast their hands as gifts to their betrothed. Maybe in an attic or two?



The intrepid researchers who first worked on this story and opened a path for me to explore further were Shannen Dee Williams, Kathleen Manning, and Patricia Hampson when they were graduate students at Rutgers. Photographs of the plaster hands were the work of another graduate student, Laurie Marhoefer.

If Meb Culbertson’s craft interests you, see this article that she mentioned to a reporter in her hometown.  Cleveland Moffett, “Grant and Lincoln in Bronze: The New Equestrian Statues by O’Donovan and Eakins–How Horse and Rider Were Fashioned in Clay from Living Models–How the Casts in Plaster and Bronze Were Made,” McClure’s Magazine 5 (Oct 1895) 419-432.

The letter that first gave us Culbertson’s name: Elizabeth E. Pike to Caroline Putnam, 21 Nov 1895, in Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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“To younger hands resign the reins”: Mrs. Stanton’s Birthday

To mark the birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on this her 202d, it is good practice to follow the advice of friends and family a year after her death: honor her by heeding her ideas. No one today can endorse every thought Stanton uttered; for all her convictions about equal rights, consent of the governed, holding leaders to account, and economic justice, she often failed to transcend the privileges of her race and social class. At the same time, if she is brushed aside for her flaws, women lose a dogged reformer, an insightful observer of national history, a sharp critic of male supremacy, and a comical voice about being a woman. Here’s a Stanton sampler.

The Apotheosis of Liberty, pen & ink drawing by G. Y. Coffin, published in February 1896, while suffragists gathered in Washington, D.C. (Division of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress.)

Who Writes the History?

In the spring of 1875, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the states’ right to exclude women from voting, as that exclusion dated back to the founding of the republic. ’Twas always so. Addressing a meeting of suffragists in New York City shortly after the ruling, Stanton offers an alternative history of American government. [“Self-Government,” 11 May 1875]

Men who would not submit to King George, . . . who threw off the British yoke, and declared their right to govern themselves;–their liberties achieved, they at once fastened their broken chains on all they considered inferior to themselves, and incapable of resistance. And thus, after having declared a republic to the world, we have spent nearly a century of our national life in the anomalous position of trying to convince ourselves, that self-government is possible, that a republic is better than a despotism, a monarchy or an empire. Commencing with an aristocracy of education, property, color, sex, we have advanced step by step, recognizing the right of the ignorant man, the poor man, the black men to govern himself. One more step remains to be taken and we reach the goal of equal humanity:–the right of self-government, must now be secured to the mothers of the race.

But here, the grand army of the republic come to a dead stand. Republicans, Liberals, and Democrats alike halt. It is one thing say they to enfranchise different classes of men and quite another to grant the right of self-government to women!!

Of Money, Clowns, & Men in Politics

Six years later, speaking to a suffrage meeting in Providence, R.I., Stanton calls out how money corrupts the political system in ways that worsen inequality. [Speech, 31 May 1881]

But whither is a nation drifting when the highest offices in the gift of the nation are bought and sold in Wall Street, when brains are of less account than bullion, and when clowns make laws for queens. . . .

. . . We have a great fight to wage, and this is against Mammon. If things go on as they do, the purse will control the law. Mammon will be mightier than Senators or Representatives. Is it for citizens to sit calmly by, without a cry or protest, and see one thing after another swept away by this yellow stream that beats against Congress, the Legislature, and the judiciary, and threatens to undermine them?

Aging While Female

A few days after her 70th birthday party, Stanton wrote to the older of her two daughters, about menopause. [To Margaret S. Lawrence, 15 Nov. 1885]

Women have been educated into the idea that at fifty they must undergo some remarkable change, pass through great perils, something like the sun in the equinoctial storm, which is all pure nonsense. I hope you & Hattie will never get that absurd idea into your little heads & as you approach that period begin to shiver on the brink of Jordan imagining that your time has come to pass over. I never saw the slightest variation in my health either beginning nor ending the monthly period, & yet you will hear women with bated breath on all sides speak of these dangerous crises in a womans existence, pure stuff & nonsense.

Reading with Progressive Purpose

While spending the summer with a son on Long Island, Stanton read one of the most popular novels of the late 19th century. She shares her enthusiasm with the editor of the Woman’s Tribune who, in turn, shares it with the weekly’s readers. [Letter, Woman’s Tribune, 10 Aug. 1889]

Have you read “Looking Backward?” If not, do so at once. Bellamy’s beautiful idea of the future is to me full of hope and inspiration. I fully believe the time is near when all God’s children will be educated, fed, clothed, and sheltered. When the good things of life will be equally distributed among the whole human family. When poverty, ignorance and vice will be known no more. If all this is not to be realized, to what purpose has the race endured its fierce struggle for the centuries.

Read the book. It is the new gospel of equality which we must carry to the nations of the earth.

“The Throat is Not Beautiful in Age”

Undated photograph, taken sometime in the 1880s. (Division of Prints & Photographs, Library of Congress)

Writing again to her daughter Margaret, Stanton reports on her experiments at hiding her neck, inspired by a photograph of her niece Hattie Brown. ]To Margaret S. Lawrence, 27 Oct. 1890]

I have been making a study of her tie & how nicely it stays up under her chin. I have laid aside all reading, philosophizing, speculations about the eternal past & future & devoted myself to the discovery of what kept this tie in place. At last my thoughts took this logical turn. “It must be fastened to something,” it cannot be her skin, it cannot be sufficiently tight, to make the throat protrude & hold it underneath, it cannot be fastened with mucilage, as that would soil the lace & perchance irritate the skin, it cannot stay there of its own free will, for I have tied mine there so tight I could hardly swallow, & in a few minutes it worked down. . . . Yes, yes, after all this rodomontade of difficulties I returned to the original assertion. “It must be fastened to something.” What can that be. Perhaps a ribbon tied round her throat. I pinned one as tight as I could bear it, fastened the collar with two bewitching bows of soft lace to the right & left, & ends hanging down, then I looked at Hattie’s, “perfect,” said I, & sat down full of satisfaction to read the morning paper. In the course of an hour I looked at myself in the mirror & lo! ribbon & all had stretched & settled down to the old place! With melancholy misgivings I returned to the tie train of thought, & suddenly my guardian angel, seeing the severe mental struggles through which I was passing said in dulcet tones “put a stiff collar on your dress.”

Church, State, & the Working Class

While Americans prepared to celebrate the quincentennial of America’s “discovery” by Christopher Columbus at a World’s Fair in Chicago, evangelical Christians lobbied to close the expo on Sundays in observance of their own Sabbath. Stanton joined the fray, both because she upheld the separation of church and state and because such a rule would effectively exclude working people from visiting the fair. [“Sunday at the World’s Fair,” North American Review 154 (Feb 1892)]

What is the duty of the State in this matter? Clearly, to do whatever conserves the welfare of the majority of the people. The minority have the right to stay away from the exposition on Sunday, but they have no right to throw obstacles in the way of a majority by influencing popular sentiment or securing legislative enactments to prevent them from enjoying that day in whatever way they may see fit, provided that they do not infringe on the rights of the minority.

Program for Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 80th Birthday Bash at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York


Stanton congratulates women in Geneva, N.Y., who formed a Political Equality Club to prepare themselves for the duties of citizenship. Society awaits “better laws and more generous public action” when women have a voice in government, she avows. [To Miss Root, 26 Nov. 1897]

Women are equally responsible with men for all the wrongs of society; that they are awaking to this fact is one of the most promising signs of the times.

The study of the State and municipal laws in their political equality clubs, is the first step in the coming revolution for equal rights to all.


Unable to attend the 50th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention in 1898, Stanton sent a speech about memory, progress, and passing the torch. [“Our Defeats & Our Triumphs,” 14 Feb 1898]

In moments of depression, that at times we all suffer, this long struggle seems to me like an agonizing dream in which one strives to flee from some impending danger, and yet stands still. Verily, hope deferred does indeed make the heart sick and the mind weary with memories of all the efforts put forth; the petitions and appeals circulated, of all the arguments laid before eyes that would not see; rehearsed in ears that would not hear; which in their selfish indifference to the wrongs of others they could neither feel nor understand.

The tyrant custom reconciles even the best men to the cruelties of their own day and generation. Thus youth passed with no adequate response to our protests; the meridian of our lives reached, and no fitting answer to our arguments; and in the twilight of age sphinx-like the powers in state and church with sealed lips looked mockingly at us, while most of our coadjutors . . . passed from the scene of action without one glimpse of the triumph for which they had so long and so faithfully labored.

Many happy returns, Mrs. Stanton.


Title quotation is a line from a birthday poem Stanton wrote for Susan B. Anthony in 1900.

For full texts from which the quotations are drawn, see Ann D. Gordon, editor, Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, 6 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993-2013.)

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“Being Then & There a Person of the Female Sex”: A Citizen’s Right to Vote

On January 23, 1873, one hundred and forty-four years ago, a federal grand jury of men, in Albany, New York, indicted Susan B. Anthony for being a female. It was one moment in a chain of events that led not only to her federal trial and criminal conviction five months later but also to disenfranchisement of African American men nearly two decades later. The prosecution of Miss Anthony by the federal government helped to solidify a reading of the 14th Amendment that excluded voting rights from federal protection.

Henry R. Selden (1805-1885), attorney to Susan B. Anthony throughout federal criminal proceedings against her

Henry R. Selden (1805-1885), attorney to Susan B. Anthony throughout federal criminal proceedings against her

During that same week in January 1873, Anthony’s lawyer, Henry R. Selden, made a powerful plea for the lack of criminality in her act of casting a ballot for members of Congress at the November election of 1872. On this occasion, on January 21, Selden sought a writ of habeas corpus from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York to release Anthony from the supervision of a federal marshal. (She was not jailed.) The issues were the same as those confronting the grand jurors. Selden had been polishing his argument for two months, and Anthony declared it to be “vastly improved.” In fact, she rushed the text back to Rochester to be reported in local newspapers and soon published 3,000 copies of his text as a pamphlet.

Selden began with a simple statement of facts. He conceded that his client had cast a ballot.

Many men deposited their ballots with the same officers, as well as Miss Anthony and some other women. This act on the part of all the men who thus expressed their choice of rulers, is regarded by law, and by the public voice, not only with approbation, but as the discharge of an important duty. For the same act, performed by the prisoner at the same time, and under exactly similar circumstances, if this proceeding against her shall be sustained, she is to be treated as a criminal, because she is a woman, and on no other ground, and punished by fine and imprisonment.

He proceeded then to demonstrate that “she has done nothing which she had not a legal and constitutional right to do.”’

The twenty white men of the grand jury, residents of Albany County, disagreed with Henry Selden. They were persuaded that, in casting ballots for members of Congress, Susan B. Anthony acted “against the peace of the United States of America and their dignity.” She had voted “without having the legal right to vote in said election district, as she . . . well knew.” The standard form for federal indictments did not provide for the crime. Beneath the printed text, someone penned in the critical fact of the case:

“(Susan B. Anthony being then and there a person of the female sex.)”

Detail of form of indictment, showing "he" edited to "she" and accusation, "being then and there a person of the female sex." Signed by Richard Crowley, U.S. Attorney and prosecutor in Anthony's trial.

Detail of form of indictment, showing “he” edited to “she” and accusation, “being then and there a person of the female sex.” Signed by Richard Crowley, U.S. Attorney and prosecutor in Anthony’s trial.

What argument were these men rejecting in their decision to indict Susan B. Anthony? Selden constructed his argument not only from extensive conversations with his client but also

So impressed was Susan B. Anthony with this speech, she sent it off for publication in a Rochester newspaper and arranged for its printing as a pamphlet.

So impressed was Anthony with this speech, she sent it off for publication in Rochester papers and published it as a pamphlet.

from a considerable political and legal literature crafted by lawyers, judges, members of Congress, and intellectuals since 1865. There was a strong argument to be made that the rights referred to in the 14th and 15th Amendments were not restricted to African-American men but applied to all citizens of the United States. The 14th Amendment defines who are citizens of the United States, Selden reminded the court, and was drafted carefully to acknowledge African Americans freed from slavery as citizens. By January 1873, it was assumed for most purposes that women, no matter their race, were inside that boundary of citizenship. (The Supreme Court of the United States would soon make definitive statements on the matter.) As Henry Selden pointed out, the amendment went on to protect citizens; it prohibited states from enacting


any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Entire careers over 150 years have been devoted to parsing that phrase. Selden, like many of his contemporaries, insisted that those words included voting rights.

I claim that these terms not only include the right of voting for public officers, but that they include that right as pre-eminently the most important of all the privileges and immunities to which the section refers.

Echoing a query regularly posed by his client, he asked, how were citizens to secure their rights to life, liberty, property, and so on without a voice in writing laws or choosing who would administer them?

Selden knew the literature from which the U.S. Attorney built his prosecution of Susan B. Anthony, and he tried to cut away some of its pillars. The most important one to remove was a question of states’ rights, and like his client, Selden came down firmly against the right of states to take away a citizen’s right to vote. The 14th Amendment, he proclaimed,

does not give, and was not designed to give to the States any power to deny or to abridge the right of any citizen to exercise the elective franchise.

And he went on to say that whatever authority to deny suffrage might have existed in the states prior to the 14th Amendment, ratification of that amendment “wholly deprive[d] the States of that power.”

That was the crux of the problem. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution barred women or any racial group from voting. The bans came in state constitutions. Federal officials were insisting, at Anthony’s expense, that the 14th Amendment had no effect upon states’ prejudicial exclusions and that the Constitution did not protect a citizen’s right to vote.

Elijah J. Keeney (1819-1874), Deputy U.S. marshal, assigned thankless tasks of arresting and trailing Susan B. Anthony. "quite protested against my going," Anthony noted while riding a train out of town.

Elisha J. Keeney (1810-1874), Deputy U.S. marshal, assigned thankless tasks of arresting and trailing the criminal. “Quite protested against my going,” Anthony noted while riding a train out of town.

Despite her federal marshal, Anthony hopped the train for Washington and a national suffrage convention. There, speaking on January 16, she asked, “Is It a Crime for a U.S. Citizen to Vote?” In a lecture drawn from the same sources she had supplied to her attorney, in a prescient passage she imagined where conceding to states the power to deny voting rights might lead.

It will not always be men combining to disfranchise all women. . . . It will not always be the rich and educated who may combine to cast off the poor and ignorant. . . . Indeed, establish this precedent, admit this right to deny suffrage to the states, and there is no power to foresee the confusion, discord, and disruption that awaits us. There is, and can be, but one safe principle of government–equal rights to all.

At a pivotal moment in interpreting the intentions and ideals of Reconstruction, federal officers were leaning away from that “safe principle.” District Court Judge Nathan K. Hall denied a writ of habeas corpus and left Susan B. Anthony under the eye of her federal marshal. The grand jury issued its indictment and referred the case to the May term of the District Court. Like Susan B., we will await the trial. In the meantime, Elizabeth Cady Stanton sent some comforting words in a letter on January 30, 1873:

It is as you say terribly humiliating to be asking these supercilious boys to consider our rights.

Grand jury met in this, the Albany City Hall.

The grand jury met in Albany’s City Hall of the time.



To read all of Henry Selden’s speech:

For an overview of Anthony’s trial:

To set the details in context, check out Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866 to 1873, vol. 2 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon, et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000).

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“Handmaid of Our Destiny Enthroned”: Queen Victoria and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, A Birthday Salute

November 12, 2016, is the 201st birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. When her cousin, her co-worker, and her daughter teamed up in 1903 to encourage celebrations of the day, they appealed to women to eschew personal life or personality for the study of Stanton’s ideas. So in that spirit, let’s take up the question, did Stanton ever imagine a future when a woman could be a serious candidate for president of the United States? To live at a time, at the start of agitation for women’s rights, when most jobs outside the home were closed to women and in a place, New York, where a wife’s earnings belonged to her husband–“absolutely in his own right, and not in hers,” in the words of a state court–might, quite reasonably, make such a dream impossible.

Stanton with a child, 1856, copied from a daguerreotype and labeled by Harriot Stanton Blatch. (Library of Congress)

Stanton with a child, 1856, copied from a daguerreotype and labeled by Harriot Stanton Blatch. (Library of Congress)

And yet. Stanton and other American pioneers of woman’s rights were, in age, the peers of Queen Victoria. Stanton was born in 1815, Lucy Stone in 1818, Victoria in 1819, Susan B. Anthony in 1820. In a transatlantic culture, they were all young women together when Victoria ascended the throne as a teenager. In Stanton’s case, she and the queen married in the same year–1840–and were bearing and raising their numerous children over the same decades. When Henry Stanton, in 1842, wanted to cheer up a sister-in-law fearful about her first childbirth, he wrote to Elizabeth, “You must remind her of the royal courage of Victoria.” While taking a dim view of monarchy and routinely evoking the Revolution fought by their grandfathers, these Americans found in Great Britain a society with an opening for women that was proscribed in American political culture and an honor accorded for behavior deemed unfeminine at home. Queen Victoria helped their generation imagine change.

Queen Victoria, 1857, by Leonida Caldesi. (Royal Collection Trust.)

Queen Victoria, 1857, by Leonida Caldesi. (Royal Collection Trust.)

Dragging a queen into a conversation about American political rights can be jarring. Take the summer of 1848. On one day in July, while convening to talk about woman’s rights, Elizabeth Stanton and friends reimagined the Declaration of Independence as a vehicle for staking their claim to liberation. Their Declaration of Sentiments opened with the familiar phrase, “When, in the course of human events,” and went on to proclaim, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” In the very next week, they directed their critics to learn from the example of the British throne.

Critics got to work right quick after the woman’s rights convention adjourned and circulated its Declaration on July 20. On Sunday, July 23, a minister in Seneca Falls preached a defense of the social and political hierarchies established by God against the threat posed by women’s rights. Stanton and her friend Elizabeth M’Clintock countered his sermon in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. Separating the divine from the secular, they wrote:

It is very clear, to every thinking mind, that there is no government on the face of the earth, established by God.

The preacher’s views about the obeisance women owed to men were not integral to Christianity, they insisted, as the case of Great Britain proved.

The greatest nation in the world is at this moment under the government of a woman, and we may travel through the length and breadth of her dominions and no priest will tell you that it is a sin for a woman to reign and rule over a mighty people, prorogue parliament, review her armies in person, and hold her own husband as a subject.

Victoria’s ascension to the throne had been accepted and no one called it a sin against male precedence. That offered a hopeful vision of social change.

Boyd's Opera House, Omaha, Nebraska, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke in December 1888. Built in 1881, the building burned in 1893.

Boyd’s Opera House, Omaha, Nebraska, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke in December 1888. Built in 1881, the building burned in 1893.

As time went on, there was more to learn from the queen: she was a committed political actor. In 1888, Stanton deployed Victoria, still on the throne and now, like Stanton, a widow, to encourage American women to be similarly engaged in politics. While living with a daughter in Omaha, she delivered a lecture, “Woman’s Duty to Vote,” to the annual meeting of the Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association at Boyd’s Opera House. In it, she urged activists, the curious, and even anti-suffragists to step up to “their responsibility in the success of the grand experiment of republican government.” Once again the queen was to help Americans perfect an anti-monarchical government.

Would that I could awake in the minds of my countrywomen the dignity of this demand for the right of suffrage: what it is to be queens in their own right: intrusted with the power of self-government. . . . Are not the educated women of America as capable of wielding this power as Victoria of England, and is not individual sovereignty in a republic as exalted as in a monarchy?

The vote matters, she instructed, and endows you with honor and power.

Stanton then turned her attention to opponents of voting rights for women, in particular to the increasingly conspicuous women who declared they did not wish to vote. In a passage that surely filled the opera house with laughter when delivered by this accomplished public speaker, Stanton used the queen’s prominence in American culture to mock the anti-suffrage women.

Suppose, when the day dawned for Victoria to be crowned queen of England, she had gone before the House of Commons and begged that such terrible responsibilities might not be laid on her, declaring that she had not the moral stamina nor intellectual ability for the position; . . . Suppose with a tremulous voice and a few stray tears in her blue eyes, her head drooping on one side, she had said she knew nothing of the science of government; that a crown did not befit a woman’s brow; that she had not the physical strength to even move her nation’s flag, and much less to hold the sceptre of power over so vast an empire . . . What would her Parliament have thought? What would other nations have thought? All alike would be astounded and said: ‘The girl is demented; the blood in the House of Hanover has run out.’

It should go without saying that American women were better than that!

Elizabeth Cady Stanton,

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, mid-1880s

Queen Victoria, 1887

Queen Victoria, 1887










In 1898, Stanton sent a speech to Washington to be read at a celebration of fifty years since that convention at Seneca Falls. Under the title “Our Defeats and Our Triumphs,” she recounted her personal history and reviewed the gains made since her youth, while she passed the torch to a younger generation:

the pioneers have brought you through the wilderness in sight of the promised land; now, with active, aggressive warfare, take possession.

By then, women in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had full voting rights in local, state, and federal elections. In some twenty more states, women had won partial suffrage–bits and pieces, like the right to vote for school budgets or, in Kansas, the right to vote in city elections. Stanton alluded to such indicators of progress, and then she launched Queen Victoria on an important journey:

With a Queen on the English throne, why not a daughter of Jefferson or Adams in the Executive Mansion as President of the United States. There is no law or constitution to prevent women from holding the highest offices in the gift of the people.

White House, c. 1893. Half of stereoscope card. (Library of Congress)

White House, c. 1893. Half of stereoscope card. (Library of Congress)

Through the prism of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Cady Stanton could see past the obstacles in women’s way and imagine a mountaintop. That was 1898. “Take possession,” indeed. Happy birthday, Mrs. Stanton!


# Thanks to the Tenafly (N.J.) Historic Preservation Commission, whose invitation to speak about E. C. Stanton and the presidential campaign of 2016 got me thinking.

# Title quotation from Rudyard Kipling, “The Bells and Queen Victoria” (1911)

# For the texts, see vols. 1, 5, & 6 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997-2013)

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Universal Suffrage–Now That Would be Something to Celebrate! Thoughts on the 19th Amendment and “Women’s Equality Day”

It happened again in this summer of woman suffrage: someone emailed me to ask, “Did either Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton write the 19th Amendment?” There are two possible answers to this query: first, “What’s to write?” and second, “Oh, they imagined something grander than the change American men made to the Constitution in 1920.” This birthday of the woman suffrage amendment presents an opportunity to examine its limitations and plan how to revive the early suffragists’ dream of universal suffrage, based on citizenship and protected by the federal government. No American citizen should be at the mercy of the states in the exercise of their political rights.

“What’s to write?” is a reasonable answer because the 19th Amendment simply mimics the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. Pick up your pocket Constitutions and compare the two texts. Where the one barred states from disfranchising citizens “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the other dropped those terms and substituted “on account of sex.”

When Senator Aaron A. Sargent (R-California) introduced what was then to be numbered the 16th Amendment to the Senate on January 10, 1878, he chose the 15th as his model. In the absence of explanations from Sargent, one can only speculate that the amendment’s form appealed to him and his allies because it was familiar; it provided precedent for trying to balance the rights of states against a federal interest in the rights of citizens and it acknowledged the right of states to exclude citizens from the franchise. Though unusual in his consistent advocacy of woman suffrage in Congress–he was, after all, married to an officer of the National Woman Suffrage Association–Sargent was in other respects a Republican realist who stayed close to party practice.

SargentIt’s true that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a guest at the home of Aaron and Ellen Sargent in Washington when the senator made his move, but we can be pretty sure that Sargent’s text was not cooked up over a brandy before bedtime or the first cup of morning coffee. Stanton made one of her most important speeches that week, one entitled “National Protection for National Citizens,” and in it, she offered a very different text for a 16th Amendment. Speaking on January 11 to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections (the committee to which most woman suffrage business was then routinely referred), she drew from a different tradition about voting rights in the United States.

Article 16. The right of suffrage in the United States shall be based on citizenship, and shall be regulated by Congress, and all citizens of the United States, whether native or naturalized, shall enjoy this right equally, without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on sex.

Congressman George Washington Julian (1817-1899). (Brady-Handy Collection, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress.)

Congressman George W. Julian (1817-1899). (Brady-Handy Collection, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress.)

This was language proposed by Congressman George W. Julian (R-Indiana) ten years earlier, when Congress debated how to protect black voting rights and struggled with language for the 15th Amendment. On December 8, 1868, Julian introduced a possible 15th Amendment with that wording except for the final phrase: “without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on race, color, or sex.”

Needless to say, universal suffrage, guaranteed by the Constitution for all citizens, did not prevail in 1868 and 1869. Congress adopted the wording of the 15th Amendment as we know it on February 28, and two weeks later George Julian tweaked his text and submitted it as a possible 16th Amendment: “without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on sex.” Writing with what was, even for her, over-the-top enthusiasm, Elizabeth Cady Stanton proclaimed:

March the 15th, 1869, will be held memorable in all coming time as the day when the Hon. George W. Julian submitted a “Joint Resolution” to Congress to enfranchise the women of the republic . . . .

She went on to call for the start of suffrage societies across the country and waves of petitions urging Congress to adopt Julian’s proposal. Although the memorable date was forgotten, Julian resubmitted his proposal in 1870, and Stanton, speaking on January 11, revived it in 1878.

Julian and Stanton started from a conviction that voting rights were inseparable from U.S. citizenship and that states lacked authority to pick and choose which citizens to enfranchise. It was language that might resolve a number of contemporary puzzles about suffrage. In the states of the Confederacy, it promised federal protection for black male voters because they were citizens. In the North and West, it could nullify the language in state constitutions that limited suffrage to males. In Rhode Island, it promised to treat naturalized citizens, mostly immigrants from Ireland, as the equals of native-born citizens when qualifying to vote. And everywhere, it suggested that under federal protection, women, as citizens, would have the right to vote.

This tradition did not flow simply from Julian to Stanton. It crops up in the legal arguments of Francis Minor, for example, an attorney in St. Louis who represented his wife in a test case, Minor v. Happersett, decided by the Supreme Court in 1875. By 1869, he was educating woman suffragists in constitutional interpretation, and he stressed again and again that the Constitution nowhere gives a right to states to deprive any citizen of the right to vote.

The tradition informed Susan B. Anthony’s legal defense when she was indicted after the federal election of 1872 for the crime of voting while being “a person of the female sex.” Addressing the public and her future jurors, she argued for putting the rights of citizens ahead of the rights of states.

If we once establish the false principle that United States citizenship does not carry with it the right to vote in every state in this Union, there is no end to the petty freaks and cunning devices that will be resorted to to exclude one and another class of citizens from suffrage.

And it informed the argument of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech in 1878.

Inasmuch as we are, first, citizens of the United States, and second, of the State wherein we reside, the primal rights of all citizens should be regulated by the national government, and complete equality in civil and political rights everywhere secured.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressing Senate Committee, Jan 11, 1878. New York Daily Graphic, Jan 16, 1878.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressing Senate Committee, Jan 11, 1878. New York Daily Graphic, Jan 16, 1878.

In seeking national protection against unjust state laws, her movement for woman suffrage occupied familiar ground, she explained, where Americans tested “the limit of State rights and Federal power.”

In 1879 and 1880, the National Woman Suffrage Association modified the text for a 16th Amendment circulated to its members and submitted to Congress, but its new language still rejected the model of the 15th Amendment and it retained the basic idea that voting rights flowed from national citizenship.

Sec. 1. The right of suffrage in the United States shall be based on citizenship, and shall be regulated by Congress, and all citizens of the United States, native and naturalized, shall enjoy this right equally, without any distinction founded on sex.

Later in 1880, they drafted a plank for the Republican party platform and delivered it to delegates at the national convention in Chicago.

Resolved, That the right of suffrage inheres in the citizen of the United States and we pledge ourselves to secure protection in the exercise of this right to all citizens, irrespective of sex, by an amendment to the National Constitution.

Pushing through an amendment that asserted “suffrage inheres in the citizen” would have been politically impossible in the final decades of the 19th and earliest decades of the 20th centuries. By 1880, Reconstruction was over, and the Republican party had, in the words of Susan B. Anthony dressing down the Republican presidential candidate,

show[n] a retrograde movement–(not only for woman, but for men of color) limiting the power of the National Government in the protection of United States Citizens against the injustice of the States, until what we gained by the sword is lost by political surrenders.

A decade later, Congress stood by while southern states, one after another, flaunted the 15th Amendment and robbed black men of their right of suffrage. In the 20th century, some southern suffragists found even the toothless 19th Amendment a little too much federal interference in the rights of states. The 15th and 19th Amendments left in place the anomaly of national citizens at the mercy of states for their political rights. It took no time at all, after ratification in 1920, for southern states to flex their muscles to exclude black women from the vote.

The continued need for protection for a citizen’s right to vote is in full view in 2016. States show remarkable inventiveness at crafting “petty freaks and cunning devices” that will reduce the number of men and women eligible to vote. Perhaps we could mark that looming centennial of the 19th Amendment by wielding our electoral and persuasive powers to achieve “national protection for national citizens” and constitutional protection for a citizen’s right to vote.


Early plea for universal suffrage while Congress debated black suffrage. Petition signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, & more, submitted to House of Representatives, 29 January 1866. (RG 233, National Archives.)

Early plea for universal suffrage while Congress debated black suffrage. Petition signed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, & more, submitted to House of Representatives, 29 January 1866. (RG 233, National Archives.)


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“You Got a Right, I Got a Right”: What If We Team Up, 1903

Susan B. Anthony, age eighty-three and traveling with her sister and her doctor, reached New Orleans by train on the night of March 17, 1903. No longer an elected leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she could arrive late for the business committee meetings that always preceded an annual convention.

Mary S. Anthony & Susan B. Anthony, 1897. Detail from portrait by John H. Kent.

Mary S. Anthony (1827-1907) & Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in 1897. Detail from portrait by John H. Kent.

Earlier that same day, the New Orleans Times-Democrat published an interview with the association’s current president, Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt offered two reasons for a lack of progress toward woman suffrage in the South: women in the region were taught that voting “would detract from their feminine dignity” and would undermine white supremacy.

[T]hey have been made to believe that if equal suffrage were granted, negro domination would follow inevitably because the negroes predominate in the Southern States. It seems to me that the South has safeguards sufficient to prevent any such thing.

By “safeguards,” Catt meant the many devices that southern states were adopting to disenfranchise African-American men without obviously violating the federal constitution. To take the local example, in just two years under its constitution of 1898, Louisiana slashed the number of registered black voters from about 130,000 to just over 5,000, and the count kept falling.

When Anthony awoke to her first day in the city on March 18, the Times-Democrat carried an editorial by Page M. Baker, a Confederate veteran and a voice for white rule, in which he warned that advocates of racial equality would be found among the suffragists arriving in town; “women of Caucasian blood in the South” should not get involved. He pooh-poohed Catt’s faith in “safeguards” and called out Susan B. Anthony. It was not her historic connections to the end of slavery that caught his attention; Baker complained about something she had done just a month ago.

Did not Mrs. Susan B. Anthony, the most prominent living advocate of woman’s suffrage, recently assail the South for its attitude toward the negro, and did she not support the President in his effort to force negro Federal officers upon unwilling Southern communities, and, was not the letter in which she declared these views read at a meeting of negroes at New York, called for the specific purpose of denouncing the Southern people?

Baker had read about a mass meeting in New York City on February 19. Anthony did not attend it; at home in Rochester, she suffered from what sounds like shingles for most of the month. Baker conflated what she wrote to the meeting and what attendees approved as resolutions; she said nothing about conflicts over presidential appointments of African Americans in southern states.

Southern coverage of meeting in New York City. Headline, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 Feb 1903

Southern coverage of meeting in New York City. Headlines Richmond Times-Dispatch, 20 Feb 1903

What Anthony did do when asked was to lend her name to this event at Cooper Union, called to protest disfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Hers was a name to conjure with: one of the last surviving agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a veteran of postwar debates about how to protect the political rights of former slaves, and someone who had studied voting rights in the U.S. for better than fifty years. In her letter, she expressed a wish to “join with those who are like sufferers with my sex” in their lack of voting rights. She also brought history to the protest.

The trouble . . . is farther back and deeper than the disfranchisement of the negro. When men deliberately refused to include women in the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the national Constitution, they left the way open for all forms of injustice to other and weaker men and peoples. (New York Sun, 20 Feb 1903)

She had argued for decades that those amendments were written and interpreted as permission to states to deny suffrage at will. As if to prove her point, in her own federal criminal trial for voting in 1873, Associate Justice Ward Hunt opined:

If the State of New York should provide . . . that no person having grey hair . . . should be entitled to vote, I do not see how it could be held to be a violation of any right derived or held under the Constitution of the United States.

Southern states had seized an opportunity.

At the Cooper Union meeting, the focus was on Virginia, the latest state to launch schemes of disfranchisement. A new constitution, proclaimed in spring 1902, wiped the voting rolls clean and put in place rules and practices to block most black men from registering anew. The damage was done in advance of congressional elections in November 1902, and activists sued to stop certification of election results. In short order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding, dismissed the case on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction in what was a political matter. The congressmen took their seats, and in January 1903, the court’s decision was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Daniel R. Anthony's Leavenworth Daily Times, 8 Apr 1902, observed, "Other states have made some attempt to hide their intentions to disfranchise the negroes, but Virginia does not make any such pretences". As governor, A. J. Montague was a defendant in the suit to challenge elections under the new constitution. (Broadside 1901.N68, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia.)

Daniel R. Anthony’s Leavenworth Daily Times, 8 Apr 1902, observed, “Other states have made some attempt to hide their intentions to disfranchise the negroes, but Virginia does not make any such pretences.” (Broadside 1901.N68, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia.)

The chief actor in the suit was James H. Hayes, an African-American lawyer in practice in Richmond, who traveled north to raise money for legal fees. While keeping a busy schedule of speaking, he also wanted to change the political conversation about African Americans by highlighting the importance of black suffrage and openly condemning disfranchisement. His speeches around New York City warned his black audiences of the dangers to their own voting rights, if states could so easily take them away.

Someone invited Susan B. Anthony to send that letter to the meeting of February 19, but there is no longer a record of who that was. Alongside of James Hayes, representatives of two generations of white activists in the cause of racial justice were on the stage at Cooper Union. Seventy-year-old Moncure D. Conway, author, leading freethinker, and outspoken woman suffragist was a son of slaveowners, who joined the antislavery cause in the 1850s and had lived abroad since the war. Also on stage was the much younger John E. Milholland, forty-three, son of Irish immigrants, who was coming into his own as an advocate for racial equality. Bishops of two black denominations, Alexander Walters and William B. Derrick, also took  the stage. Walters stood not only for his church but also for his secular activism as a founder and former president of the civil rights group, the National Afro-American Council. Hayes too worked with the council, and its leaders may have been the link to Anthony: its treasurer and one vice president were friends of hers in Rochester, New York.

Back in New Orleans on March 18, the business committee approved a public letter to answer Page Baker’s editorial. The official record attributes the disingenuous letter to Alice Stone Blackwell, but its central assertion cropped up like a well-rehearsed refrain at the annual meeting in speeches and formal resolutions. To make woman suffrage palatable to southerners like Baker, the association’s leaders embraced the white supremacists in its ranks and conceded the right of states to disenfranchise citizens.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association is seeking to do away with the requirement of a sex qualification for suffrage. What other qualifications shall be asked for it leaves to each State. (Times-Democrat, 19 Mar 1903)

Susan B. Anthony’s name as the association’s honorary president was affixed to this letter along with the names of elected officers.

During her interview on March 16, Catt was asked, “Are there negro women belonging to the suffragists?” Putting political rights aside, the interviewer broached the social rules of racism, by asking, were the northern visitors practicing racial equality? Catt’s answer was, at best, peculiar.

. . . I am told we have them. I do not know them personally. I have had no communication with them as negroes.

The topic was timely in New Orleans: the city was hosting not only the annual meeting of suffragists but also meetings of the National Council of Women, and local bigotry blocked a delegate named to represent one large affiliate of the Council, the National Association of Colored Women.

St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, ca. 1900. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, ca. 1900. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Anthony spent most of her time in New Orleans at rest in her hotel room, emerging for a few events. There is no evidence that she audibly protested the accommodations made to white domination by her successors. But in what reads like direct defiance of Carrie Catt, she accepted an invitation to speak at the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the city’s leading club of black women. Best known for providing social services and training for skilled jobs, the club’s members also included advocates of suffrage. Moreover, the club’s president, Sylvanie F. Williams, was the very delegate blocked from the National Council of Women. Williams acknowledged what Susan B. Anthony had done. While presenting flowers to her guest, she spoke about the rough treatment accorded to black women and ended,

Sylvanie Francoz Williams (1847-1921), President of Phyllis Wheatley Club, New Orleans

Sylvanie Francoz Williams (1847-1921), President of Phyllis Wheatley Club, New Orleans

When women like you, Miss Anthony, come to see us and speak to us, it helps us to believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, and, at least for the time being, in the sympathy of woman. (Woman’s Journal, 4 Apr 1903)

On her way north from New Orleans, Anthony stopped in Alabama to visit Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Margaret Washington hosted the traveling suffragists, assembled the girls to hear a short talk by Miss Anthony, and paraded them all past her to shake hands. Where was Mr. Washington? He had gone to New York to put pressure on Mr. Hayes and Bishop Walters to tone things down, to be less critical of the south and less insistent on full citizenship. In a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt on March 27, Washington wrote,

I feel rather sure now that I have got them down to a sensible and helpful basis their work will be along right lines.

If Hayes changed direction or became more “sensible,” it is not evident now. In April, he reached Rochester, and at a meeting there on April 28, he and Susan B. Anthony addressed a large crowd in Central Church. Among his hosts were John W. Thompson, treasurer, and Hester M. Jeffrey, a vice president, of the Afro-American Council. Thompson was well acquainted with Anthony through his leadership of the national campaign to erect a monument to Frederick Douglass in the city where he lived before the war and where he is buried. Though a relative newcomer to the city, Hester Jeffrey had grown close to the much older Anthony. She was a leader both in the African American community and in the city’s integrated societies of women, including its Political Equality Club.

Hester M. Jeffrey (c. 1843-1934). Rochester activist for civil and political rights.

Hester M. Jeffrey (c. 1843-1934). Rochester activist for civil and political rights.

Republican Mayor Adolph Rodenbeck presided, while notable, local advocates of racial equality sat on the platform. The church’s own Rev. James P. Sankey (white) was joined by the Revs. J. J. Abrams and A. Sellers Mays (both black). Susan Anthony, Hester Jeffrey, and John Thompson took their seats. Then came Nathan Patchen Pond, a white businessman and proud officer in the United States Colored Cavalry during the war.

Rodenbeck opened with a detailed and blunt historical lecture about the ups and downs of black voting rights since emancipation. Anthony spoke next. Freedom without voting rights was a mockery, she proclaimed, whether the individuals were black men, black women, or white women. She joined the issues of race, gender, and voting rights to revive her claim to a citizen’s right to vote.

The trouble is that the men of the north cannot take determined action very well because of the inconsistency of that action. They cannot reasonably advocate the enfranchisement of the negro while they withhold the same advantage from the women of their own part of the country. They are really in such a muddle that they don’t know how to get out of it. (Rochester Union and Advertiser, 29 Apr 1903)

James Hayes spoke last. The press reported that part of his speech designed to demolish the potent myth of imminent “negro domination.”

And right here . . . I desire to refute a statement that is often made which is not true. It is often said that there are more black men in the south than white men. In the south there are 8,000,000 negroes and 17,000,000 white men. The domination of the black race is not feared. The negro never did dominate. He would never dare to dominate.

Auditorium, Central Church, Rochester, N.Y. Detail from postcard, c. 1908. (Courtesy of Monroe County GenWeb.)

Auditorium, Central Church, Rochester, N.Y. Detail from postcard, c. 1908. (Courtesy of Monroe County GenWeb.)

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the cases from Virginia in April 1904 and issued a unanimous opinion at month’s end. No surprise, the court ruled it was too late to do anything about an election held in November 1902. The court treated this as a moot case–one for which there was no remedy: Congress had recognized the winning candidates and seated them. In a unanimous opinion written by Associate Justice David J. Brewer, the court dodged all questions about racial discrimination and about the constitutional rights of African Americans.

The fleeting cooperation of James H. Hayes and Susan B. Anthony, at a dark moment in American history, has proved easy to overlook. Great transformations did not ensue. The rules and laws of racial discrimination grew harsher; interracial collaboration did not gain popularity; neither white women nor African Americans solved their shared problem–that states retained their rights to disenfranchise. They still do. But in this encounter between Anthony and Hayes, the souls of reformers are exposed. They both were made of the stuff that fuels social movements. They shared convictions about human rights and believed in acting on their political and moral choices, always hopeful that their obstacles were not truly insurmountable. The spiritual says, “You got a right, I got a right,” and synthesis follows, “We all got a right to the tree of life.” If only.


Shannen Dee Williams researched these stories when editors at the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony found them recurring in documents of 1903, and her careful work has been my foundation and starting point. Where I’ve gone from that point is entirely on me.

James H. Hayes is not pictured here because I cannot find a picture. If you know of one, please let me know.

Make this an occasion to read a classic, originally published right in the middle of these events, in April 1903.  W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk. The Library of America published a paperback in 1990.

For context in Anthony’s life, see: An Awful Hush, 1895 to 1906, vol 6 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013)

Historians form strong opinions of Hayes and don’t agree with each other. For a range, see
**  Vol. 7 of The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Louis R. Harlan et al. (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1977.)
**  R. Volney Riser, Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).
**  Benjamin R. Justesen, Broken Brotherhood: The Rise and Fall of the National Afro-American Council (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008)

Opinions from the Supreme Court on Virginia’s constitution:
Jones v. Montague 194 United States Reports 147 (1904)
Selden v. Montague 194 United States Reports 153 (1904)


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Ladies, Ladders, & Languages: Meet Maud Stalnaker

At age 26, in October 1896, Maud Stalnaker decided to take the civil service exam for a clerkship in the War Department in Washington, D.C. She chose a challenging job with a test to match. As the position announcement explained, applicants for this job in the Office of the Adjutant General

should be able to translate into English technical military works in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, to do typewriting in all of these languages; to do proofreading and prepare manuscripts for the press; and he should be familiar with modern library methods . . . He will also be tested in the use of the English language and literary composition.

Maud Stalnaker, Washington Times, 9 March 1902.

Maud Stalnaker, Washington Times, 9 March 1902

Despite the use of “he” in the text, the exam was open to women and men and, in the absence of a statement to the contrary, the job was open to women.

Two months later, Maud Stalnaker made headlines across the U.S.  In pursuit of work and quite by accident, she threw into sharp relief a serpent lurking in the ideal of a civil service system: could the system, designed to replace political patronage with demonstrated merit, trump such powerful, traditional standards as the sex of the applicant?

Maud’s name was also on the tongues of clubwomen and suffragists for whom she represented the quintessential self-supporting woman navigating an unequal job market. In the long, historic search for equal rights in work, Maud’s brush with fame offers a glimpse of a social movement in action.

Federal civil service was a relatively new way to do business. The Pendleton Act of 1883 created the Civil Service Commission and a process to classify jobs in federal employment. If it worked, hiring by merit had the potential to open well-paying jobs to women.

For that to happen, women needed to compete with men. This didn’t always go well. The New York Mail and Express described a civil service exam in Albany that twenty women failed “because of sheer nervousness, which incapacitated them for doing their best.”  (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 14 Aug 1897)

Further, men needed to agree to work with women. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, the Civil Service Commission created the job title “male stenographer” because that was what departments wanted, “owing to the restraints the presence of a woman in an office places on the men.” Most important, the writer added, there would be no more smoking. (Reprint in Woman’s Journal, 30 Oct 1897)

Young Maud Stalnaker seemed immune to nerves. Nothing about her own experience of test-taking and its aftermath has turned up. We’re obliged to stand and view her from a considerable distance. After her mother died in the year of Maud’s birth, she and an older sister were raised by grandparents in Virginia, while their father, John William Stalnaker, moved to Texas. He had a college education, a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and service as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. Evidence on his daughter’s education is slim and unverified: by one account, Maud learned her languages in Germany and France as a young woman; according to her application for a passport in 1918, she spent 1892 and 1893 in Paris.

Man looking at State, War, and Navy Departments Building, 1891. Right half of stereoscope card. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Man looking at War, State, and Navy Departments Building, 1891. Right half of stereoscope card. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Maud Stalnaker not only passed the exam, she was the only person to pass it. After the Civil Service Commission reported results to the War Department, the proceedings got a little unorthodox. Job seekers customarily learned their test scores by letter. In this case, the adjutant general’s staff sent a messenger to the house where Maud lived with relatives, requesting that she report to the War Department. When she arrived at the appointed place, she was informed that no woman could have that job under any circumstances. As a reporter at the Washington Post opined,

It is certainly not good form . . . to summon a man or woman to appear in person for no other purpose than to be told that he is not wanted. (22 Jan 1897)


The news breaks. Washington Post, 22 January 1897

It did not take long for writers to speculate that the adjutant general meant to leave no paper trail, or in the words of the Milwaukee Journal, she was summoned “so that no record will be made of the matter.” (25 Jan 1897)

Maud’s rejection occurred at a time when the public could and did react, when the notion of equal treatment resounded in popular concepts of justice and righteousness. Surely her case drew attention in part because of the scale of her achievement, the marvel that anyone passed that test. What hope could there be for the average woman seeking a salary in Washington if this accomplished young woman could be denied work?

But that doesn’t explain how her story came to the fore. One gap in our understanding of events comes of not knowing what happened on the ground between Maud’s exam in late October and the news on January 22. Someone brought this story to the attention of the press, and someone decided to publish it on a day that the Civil Service Commission was to meet. Reporters tossed around phrases like “the friends of Miss Stalnaker” as if, by January, she had identifiable allies. Were these family members? Other women employed in executive departments? Washington’s many women’s clubs? Or did Maud serve as emblem for a protest that she did not actively join?

No official explanation for Maud’s rejection reached the press, though no one doubted that the adjutant general acted only on account of sex. But refusing to hire a woman could be colored in all kinds of ways. At the Civil Service Commission meeting on January 22, the excuse went like this, according to the Washington Post:

in actual duties of the position it would be found that military knowledge of a certain character would be necessary.

“Hence,” the reporter added, a successful candidate must pass the test and be a man. (23 Jan 1897)

The winning excuse involved ladders: could a woman climb a ladder many times a day? The earliest reference comes not from Maud’s case but from a letter in response to it, sent to the Post by another victim of War Department bias. F. Wilson (possibly Frederica, a clerk at Treasury) described her search for work as a translator. Forewarned about bias, Wilson tried a personal approach, called at the Office of the Adjutant General, and was referred to Lieutenant John R. Williams of the Military Information Division.

I was informed that a male translator was preferred because a great amount of ‘manual labor’ was involved. To emphasize this point he showed me a very tall series of filing cases, on the top of which were a number of books. These books were reached by means of a step ladder, and he said that it was one of the most important duties of the translator to climb this immense ladder a great many times daily. No attention was given to the suggestion that a messenger might do the climbing. (28 Jan 1897)

Editors seized upon this detail to deride the War Department and spotlight the fact that Maud’s exam omitted this critical skill.

How does Lieut. Williams know that young ladies cannot run up a step-ladder just as well as men can. How does he know they cannot do it better? . . . There ought to be some true relation of the test to the duties the applicant is expected to perform. (28 Jan 1897)

If anyone at the War Department ever linked ladders to Stalnaker’s ineligibility, the fact is lost in reporters’ enthusiasm to make the connection. It was a perfect symbol for the

Was he or was he not a "fossilized chestnut"? That was the question. Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles, Adjutant General 1893-1897.

Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles, Adjutant General 1893-1897. One woman asked, was he a “fossilized chestnut” or just opposed to civil service?

Lt. John R. Williams, creator of "the ladder objection" to employing women

Lt. John R. Williams, creator of “the ladder objection” to employing women











flawed system that ensnared Maud. And by the fall of 1897, the ladder carried an improbable meaning: the Post could refer to “the ladder objection” when remarking on discrimination against women in federal employment. (3 Oct 1897)

Once the press took Maud’s situation seriously, other women expressed their ideas about sexual bias in federal employment. One of the first to speak up was Frances Forshay Cougle, a widow and clerk in the Pension Office. After praising the Washington Post for its coverage of the “unprecedented injustice” dealt Stalnaker, Cougle was careful to add,

We are not of the woman’s rights association, but we believe in equal justice to man and woman in a case like the present.” (26 Jan. 1897)

In other words, one need not be at the extremes to stand with Maud Stalnaker.

Writer and outspoken activist Alice Lee Moqué, writing to the Post, took exception to Cougle’s term “unprecedented” and narrated her experience back when she had two children to support and sought government work as a topographer. In the final act of a complicated story, she could not take the civil service test because “You’re a woman.” In her opinion, the Civil Service Commission had a consistent record of discouraging women from competing for good jobs.

The ‘merit system’ seems to be, like citizenship, merely a masculine prerogative. (31 Jan. 1897)

The ranks of organized womanhood also protested, and local activists took the issue to national networks. Ellen Powell Thompson, president of the District of Columbia Woman Suffrage Association, asked the annual convention of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association to support Maud’s right to work in the War Department. Meeting in Des Moines the first week of February, delegates passed resolutions ranging from global to local: advocacy of a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage, endorsement of a treaty of arbitration with Britain, and support for Maud Stalnaker.

Whereas, it is stated that Miss Stahlnaker (sic) alone has passed the civil service examination for translator of modern languages in the office of the United States adjutant-general, . . .  and whereas, the adjutant-general refuses to appoint her because she is a woman; therefore,
Resolved, That we respectfully petition the national executive to enforce the principle of civil service reform in application to her appointment.

Word traveled quickly among women’s clubs too. According to the Chicago Times-Herald, members of the Chicago Woman’s Club met on January 23 and unanimously endorsed a letter to the adjutant general, resolving that as

the most perfect civil service can only be secured by placing the best qualified persons into public positions, we hereby protest against any unjust discrimination on account of sex of applicants, and request that Miss Maud Stahlnaker, by virtue of having passed the best examination for translator of modern languages, be appointed to the position. (24 Jan 1897)

Neither journalists nor activist women could overturn what happened to Maud, but the speed with which people rallied around her and spoke up for a vision of a just job market signaled progress in making women’s rights sound commonsensical. And maybe the protests did not accomplish nothing.

Maybe two key departures from the Office of the Adjutant General owed something to the protests. Lt. Williams of the ladders left on 29 July. Brig. Gen. George D. Ruggles retired from the Army in September.

Maybe the protests helped Maud. On 27 February newspapers announced that she had secured a job as a translator in the State Department. Jokes about ladders flourished again. In the Washington Evening Star, a headline reminded readers that she “Was Rejected by the Adjutant General Because She Couldn’t Climb a Ladder.”

Frederic Emory. Washington Times, 22 January 1905

Frederic Emory. Washington Times, 22 January 1905

Maud was hired by Frederic Emory, Chief of the Bureau of Statistics. Until his retirement in 1905, Emory kept Maud on his staff. In 1902, they worked together in the Bureau of Foreign Commerce. A feature story about Maud quoted a source that she was “well-nigh indispensable in the work relating to foreign commerce and translations in general.” She had prepared the bureau’s annual Review of the World’s Commerce. (Washington Times, 9 Mar 1902)

Two years later, on 11 January 1904, in New York City, Maud Stalnaker, age 34, married Frederic Emory, age 51. The marriage was short: Emory died at his rural home in Maryland in September 1908. His widow lived fifty years longer, still a self-supporting woman with remarkable skills.

Maud Stalnaker Emory's grave, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Grave, Maud Stalnaker Emory, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C., courtesy of Find A Grave


Katharine Lee researched Maud Stalnaker’s story when editors at the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony found it mentioned in a letter by Anthony, 12 February 1897. After we dropped that letter from the volume underway, Lee’s excellent research sat idle, just begging for a second go and more digging.

For Maud’s father: “Stalnaker, John William,” Handbook of Texas Online (

For Frederic Emory as novelist and local historian,

For Emory at the State Department,
Richard Hume Werking, Master Architects: Building the United States Foreign Service, 1890-1913 (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1977), 67-87.

And if someone wants a project, the records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission at the National Archives might be checked for more pieces of Maud’s story..

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It Depends upon What the Meaning of the Word “It” Is: Tilting at the Declaration of Sentiments

So, as a Washington Post headline would have it, “White House is searching for the origins of women’s rights.” Though the silly headline cannot be blamed on the White House, surely someone in Washington must know that “the origins of women’s rights” predate the founding of the United States of America. Behind the headline, where the White House speaks through the voice of Megan Smith, its Chief Technology Officer, there are other inflated claims, but the goal is more modest. Smith writes that the Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, is “the foundational document for women’s rights” and it is lost and it should be found. Smith coaches the American people, “Let’s see if we can find this thing.” (Links to Smith’s blog, press coverage, and the text of the Declaration appear at the end of this post.)

How the White House Imagines Women's History. (Adaptation by Dan Marketti.)

How the White House Imagines Women’s History. (Adaptation by Dan Marketti.)

The Declaration, like its model of 1776, spells out offenses that justify rebellion–in this case offenses against woman by the tyrant man. In number they are fewer than those counted against King George in Jefferson’s declaration, but they were potent indictments of men’s claims to govern women. Some of them have current pertinence.

He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.

Everyone should know the text. It focuses attention on how one group of white, northern women perceived the burdens of inequality. It also allows a quick overview of what has changed in women’s situation since 1848. Few American women would recognize their experience in this complaint:

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

Laws have changed.

Rhoda J. Palmer kept her copy of Report of the Convention she attended as teen-ager. (Library of Congress)

Rhoda J. Palmer kept her copy of the report of the convention she attended as teen-ager. (Library of Congress)

Conclusion of Declaration of Sentiments and start of signatures, as published in 1848.

Conclusion of Declaration of Sentiments and start of signatures, as published in 1848. (Library of Congress)

The fact is, the Declaration of Sentiments is not really lost at all. We know exactly what it says as printed within the month after its composition. The Declaration was launched into the world as a text within a 12-page pamphlet, Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848. The names of women who signed to indicate their agreement appear in printed columns. I rather like the Declaration that we do have–our current original. I especially like the fact that this famous text in women’s history was printed on a press owned by Frederick Douglass at his North Star Office in Rochester. To me that lineage gives added respectability to these beginnings and hints at inclusive origins.

Because finding the historical records of this movement for women’s rights has been my profession for many decades, I’m curious about Megan Smith’s romantic quest for  something truer or more authentic. She imagines an object that might have once existed and assumes that it is simply hidden somewhere. But what is “this thing,” this “It” that she hopes her national treasure hunt will find? A big part of any document’s story is how it came into existence, and in this case, we need to look for evidence that the kind of holy writ chased by Smith ever existed. Let’s go to the details.

A version of “It” existed before the convention gathered on July 19 “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Seneca

Call to Seneca Falls Convention.

Call to Seneca Falls Convention.

Falls, wrote to her co-laborers in nearby Waterloo, “I intend to spend Sunday [July 16] with you that we may all together concoct a declaration.” Her solo efforts at a draft were “not as perfect” as they should be, she added. When the team of women planning this event reached agreement about what to present to the first day’s meeting of women alone, they prepared a manuscript. We infer that because they had something at hand to read aloud when their meeting began. No one has seen that first “It.”

But maybe “It” did not matter: by noon of Day One, the women changed “Its” wording. The minutes note that the Declaration was read aloud and “after much consideration, some changes were suggested and adopted.” A second “It.” Then, when the women reconvened in the afternoon,

The reading of the Declaration was called for, an addition having been inserted since the morning session. A vote taken upon the amendment was carried, and papers circulated to obtain signatures.

A third “It.” No doubt the task of writing down those changes fell to Mary Ann M’Clintock, secretary of the convention. But how did she record the emendations? Did she strike out and write new language in the margins? Substitute one page for another? Scribble the changes on a scrap to incorporate later? The “It” of late afternoon, twice altered since the day began, was likely a mess. An argument can be made that this marked up and altered text is the real treasure: what were they changing and adding? Wouldn’t you like to know?

An American ideal of what it means to "sign" a "Declaration."

An American ideal of what it means to “sign” a “Declaration.”

Nothing in the Report of the convention at Seneca Falls even hints at women stepping up like John Hancock to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. I see no evidence that a clean copy for their signatures existed at that moment when the minutes say they signed. No one seriously imagines that an emissary dashed off in the lunch break to find a calligrapher to prepare a copy worthy of the National Archives. Quite the opposite: we know that someone was busy in the lunch break amending what had just been approved. When it came time in the afternoon of Day One to gather the names of women, “papers circulated to obtain signatures.” I wager that means clean sheets of paper were circulated for signatures.

On July 20, men and women met together. The Declaration–form and format unknown–was read aloud again and adopted unanimously by the larger group without further changes. To the best of our knowledge, the text of “It” as adopted that day appears in the Report of the convention. Only on that second day could the names of men that appear in the Report be gathered, but it is not clear that they were asked to sign the Declaration. In the Report, women are actors, said to “affix our signatures to this declaration,” while men are observers, described as “the gentlemen present in favor of the movement.” There’s a distinction there, even if at this remove we cannot be sure what it is.

Before adjourning, participants appointed “a Committee to prepare the proceedings of the Convention for publication.” It consisted of the M’Clintock sisters from Waterloo (and thus the secretary of the event), Elizabeth Stanton, her friend and neighbor Eunice Foote, and Amy Post from Rochester. We don’t know whether they gathered at someone’s house to do the job or used the mails. And we don’t know what “It” looked like either at the start of the committee’s work, as one element in a record of the convention’s business, or at the conclusion, as a component of clean copy shipped to a printer. Would they have sent the actual signatures to the printer or made him a list of the names? No way to know.

Signing the Declaration of Their Independence, by S. D. Ehrhart (Puck, June 28, 1911) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

History is not the study of why can’t a woman be more like a man.  “Signing the Declaration of Their Independence,” by S. D. Ehrhart, Puck, June 28, 1911. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

If we imagine for a minute or two that there was something lovely to look at issuing from the convention at Seneca Falls on the summer day when material was sent to the printer at Rochester, where might it be? Printers did not usually return the copy from which they set type, and rarely did they keep it among their own papers. Evidence suggests that this is true not only for political tracts but even for fiction by popular authors. Of course there are exceptions. And that hope runs up against the very sad fact that on June 2, 1872, the house of Frederick Douglass burned to the ground. “I have only fragments now, of all the work accomplished during these twelve years,” from 1848 to 1860, he wrote. I doubt there ever was a lovely copy of the Declaration of Sentiments, but if you insist upon believing in its existence, that fire may mark the end of the hunt.

It’s not often that an historian ponders the question, how might the bully pulpit (or is it bully blog) of the White House be used to excite Americans about their history or women’s history in particular? How about: 1) Historians of women are a busy lot, and many of them find new evidence or “treasures” every day. Encourage them. Perhaps even read their work. 2) Two federal agencies–the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission–have awarded grants to search for the papers of women’s history since 1975. Fight to fund those agencies. Check out the editions that their grants underwrite. 3) Engaging citizens in the quest for more historical evidence is a terrific idea that numerous historians already practice, but sending them on what is very likely to be a treasureless hunt is not a winning plan.


Megan Smith’s blog:
Washington Post coverage:

USA Today coverage:

Declaration of Sentiments & resolutions:

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“Set the wild echoes flying”: Helen Potter Impersonates

The letter’s dateline reads Hazleton, Sunday, October 21, 1877. “My dear Miss Potter,” the writer begins,

As you are to imitate Mrs Stanton here I thought I would tell you how I was dressed last night that you may come as near as possible.

Before she left this coal mining town of northeastern Pennsylvania for the next lecture on her own schedule, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that writer, advised Helen Potter, the woman who would pretend to be her later that week.

Helen Potter had created a career as an impersonator. She could imitate the acting styles of the best actors and actresses touring the country and deliver excerpts from the texts of the most popular speakers on the circuit, copying their styles, gestures, and attitude on stage. She was immensely popular, starting in the mid-1870s; as the Woman’s Journal put it, “In her peculiar line she is unapproached and unapproachable.”

Helen Potter in character as John B. Gough.

Helen Potter (1837-1922) on stage in character as John B. Gough, temperance lecturer, when in her forties.

That residents of Hazleton could hear the real thing one night and the impersonator a day or two later seems extraordinary. But it makes some sense, too: earlier in 1877, Helen Potter and another object of her talents, Susan B. Anthony, toured Illinois at the same time. After all, an impersonator’s artistry can only be appreciated if her audience is familiar with the real thing; it was in Helen Potter’s interest to know where the originals of her act were already known.

Most of what people know nowadays of Helen Potter comes from a how-to book about her career and technique, Helen Potter’s Impersonations, published in 1891. More details

Helen Potter as something close to herself, the frontispiece in Helen Potter's Impersonations

Helen Potter as something close to herself, the frontispiece in Helen Potter’s Impersonations

about her performances came to light with the advent of digital newspapers in which it is possible to search by word and name across many locations; queries about her uncover scattered advertisements and theatrical reviews from New York to St. Louis, though no one has yet reconstructed her travels. Another perspective is added through evidence, like the letter above, that Potter knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and no doubt others of her originals.

In her book, Helen Potter teaches how to observe an actress or lecturer and make useful notes about the performance. Instructions for her imitators, for anyone wanting to impersonate, say, John Gough as she did, include the kind of stage directions that result from observation of Gough at work.

Enter with an overcoat on your arm, place it over a chair, sit down and look about. Then rise, take a sip of water, wipe your mouth with a white handkerchief, replace it in the coat pocket (rear), straighten up, and begin your lecture.

With additional perspectives, the transaction between impersonator and her object becomes more complicated. For example, the New York Times noticed John B. Gough in the audience on November 12, 1877, while Potter impersonated him; once the observed performer, Gough was seen observing the observer’s performance. Another paper reported that Gough “has given her useful suggestions” about delivering his speeches. In practice, Potter’s art had curious elements of collaboration.

Susan B. Anthony’s diary reveals that on August 31, 1876, Helen Potter called on her at the home of Elizabeth Stanton in New Jersey.

At Tenafly– Miss Helen L. Potter came over & spent the day– She personates me in her entertainments this Season–my answer to Judge Hunt, Why Sentence should not be pronounced–

Associate Justice Ward Hunt of the U.S. Supreme Court had presided over Anthony’s federal criminal trial in 1873 and famously if misguidedly asked the routine question, “has the prisoner anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?” She answered with a forceful statement of equal rights. Anthony sometimes repeated it at the close of her own lectures, and now Potter would amplify her words.CpPotterasSBAAlthough the diary entry is silent about Potter’s plans for Stanton, it is likely the women settled that too. Potter selected the Declaration of Rights of Women of the United States, written that summer for the Centennial of 1876 and presented in Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. It was an odd choice: it was not one of Stanton’s lectures and lacked the cadence of oral performance. Stanton was not even the Declaration’s sole author. But it did condense the rights of women into a powerful message.

Attention to appearance, to hair, glasses, and clothing, was part of Potter’s art. She described how she and those who learned from her could look like John Gough and Susan Anthony. For Stanton, she prescribed

A rich, dark robe, plainly made, open at the throat, revealing a soft white kerchief or lace crossed underneath, and a tabbed head-piece of black thread-lace, complete the toilet.

She included a photograph of Stanton from which she had derived that costume but not of herself dressed to match. Stanton’s directions to Potter in Hazleton suggest that she had seen the impersonation somewhere; Potter’s description was not published until 1891, yet Stanton knew what needed to change. “Well, I did not wear a black lace on my head, simply my hair nothing more,” she began. With costume-designer’s detail, Stanton went on to describe what  fabrics she’d worn in what layers, ending with,

 a piece of soft blond lace round the neck & running to the waist with a large cameo pin, the lace puffed a little round the pin.

Potter’s real strength lay in elocution, habits of speech, and voice control. To preserve her art and allow imitators to learn her craft, Potter created a system of notation to record the sounds, pitch, and timing of her subject’s public speech. She later described it as a quest “to perpetuate, by diacritical marks and descriptions, what is now (in 1914) so marvelously and perfectly done by the phonograph.” In this opening paragraph of Anthony’s reply to the judge, some of Potter’s codes are put to use.

Helen Potter's codes remind her and instruct students how to sound like Susan B. Anthony speaking in federal court in 1873, from Helen Potter's Impersonations, p. 12.

Helen Potter’s codes remind her and instruct students how to sound like Susan B. Anthony speaking in federal court in 1873, from Helen Potter’s Impersonations, p. 12.

The judge’s voice is marked as a nasal monotone. The backward slashes that pepper the paragraph indicate “downward pitch, to the next bar or change,” and they capture a distinctive pattern in Anthony’s voice that is not so abundant in Potter’s marks for other speakers. The symbol (s<) indicates her voice should increase in force through the entire sentence that starts “My natural rights” or “Your denial.” The degree signs indicate that a word or syllable is uttered at a high pitch, so in the words “Re°publican form of government” the pitch rises on the second syllable. And so on.

Potter’s impersonation of Susan Anthony appears to have been second only to her John Gough character in popularity. In Philadelphia in April 1877, a theater critic was not at all impressed by Potter’s program until she performed Anthony.

Then followed the crowning triumph of the evening’s entertainment. We imagined it was the redoubtable Susan herself that was before us. For this personation she received a deserved call before the curtain.

At New York City’s Chickering Hall, in November 1877, Potter performed Anthony so well that a critic for the New York Times celebrated ideas that his newspaper disliked when the real Anthony spoke them.

Then Susan B. Anthony stood up for the rights of female citizens, proclaimed her title to the franchise, resented the tyranny of her lord and master, man, and proclaimed her unalterable determination of combatting it forevermore. The vraisemblance was undeniable, and the applause was hearty.

Did Susan B. Anthony ever see the performance of herself? In a lull in her demanding lecture schedule in March 1877, she traveled all day across Illinois, as she wrote in her diary,

to hear & see Miss Helen Potter–in her personalities–she gave Ristori, Charlotte Cushman–A. E. Dickinson & John B. Gough–she has marvelous powers of imitation–

A week later in St. Louis that program included Susan B. Anthony. Did Helen Potter decide not to perform Anthony in her presence? Did Anthony record everyone but herself in her diary? Summing up their encounter, Anthony wrote,

Had a good visit– Miss P. seems a very earnest soul for equality for women–

This visit of Potter and Anthony reveals one more kind of collaboration. According to her agent, Helen Potter earned the extraordinary sum of $20,000 from her performances in her second season on tour. At Peoria, she paid some of that money to Anthony. For immediate comfort, Potter insisted on paying for a room at the Peoria Hotel for her guest after the performance; for future ease, she made a gift to Anthony of $100,

said it was for S B A. personally–no society no committee–no cause but S. B. A.

Potter retired from touring sometime in the 1880s and prepared her book, convinced that she could teach what she had done. She was back on stage for the huge celebration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s eightieth birthday on November 12, 1895 in the old Metropolitan Opera House. Stanton wrote a speech for the occasion but could not stay on her feet long enough to deliver it. She invited Helen Potter to stand in. Stanton introduced her and then sat on the stage to listen. No one recorded how Potter dressed for the occasion or whether she imitated Stanton’s voice and delivery. But one reporter, describing her role in the celebration, seemed to recall Potter’s heyday and the interplay between the real and the imitation on public platforms:

A Miss Helen Potter then read a most brilliant paper, which had been written by Mrs. Stanton, and contained all the statements that Mrs. Stanton would like to have said, but her health forbade the exertion.


Some useful books:
# Helen Potter, Helen Potter’s Impersonations (New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1891).
# Albert Milton Tennant, Genealogy of the Tennant Family, Their Ancestors and Descendants Through Many Generations (Dunkirk, N.Y.: Dunkirk Printing Co., 1915), 145, 229-231.
# James B. Pond, Eccentricities of Genius: Memories of Famous Men and Women of the Platform and Stage (New York: G. W. Dillingham Co., 1900), 170-171.
# National Protection for National Citizens, 1873 to 1880, vol 3 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003)

Text of Susan B. Anthony’s answer to the judge:

Exhibit on Helen Potter:

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