Final Thoughts: Susan B. Anthony

I recently finished the fourth book in “The Making of America” series by Teri Kanefield – Susan B. Anthony. The series is designed to tell the history of the country through a series of biographies of significant figures. I find the premise of the series interesting and was interested to read part of it, even if I was dipping into the middle instead of starting at the beginning.

I probably shouldn’t have picked up this book. In general, the Women’s Suffrage movement as seen through the lens of Susan B. Anthony as the primary figure tend to just annoy me and this book was no exception. The thing is, as interesting as Anthony was, she was far from the core figure of the movement nor the most significant and for whatever reason biographies of her always seem to forget that and deify her as the sole leader of a struggling movement. In reality, though, the movement was far from centralized and even to the extent that it was, Anthony didn’t occupy that central place remotely alone. She was part of a triumvirate (to use the word used for them at the time) made up of her, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Around them, barely a step away from the center, there were an array of amazing and powerful women and men who were leaders of the movement in their own right. Anthony was a great advocate for women’s rights, but she was nowhere near as “revolutionary” or unusual as history books and biographies of her would like us to believe.

Susan B. Anthony was an interesting woman, but when you look at her upbringing and her life, none of what she did seems that unexpected. She came from a culture that fostered the ideals behind abolition and women’s rights, so the fact that she became involved in those movements is no big surprise. She was a gifted speaker, but not a great writer or a planner. But that speaking skill put her front and center and overshadowed the organizers and fundraisers and evocative writers whose work backed up what she talked about. Their work may not have gotten as far as it did without her oratory skills, but she wouldn’t have been able to make a career of giving speeches or been remembered as the mother of such a movement without all of them making it happen for her either.

The biography did a good job of looking at Anthony’s life and the steps she took, but it didn’t do a great job of putting it into a wider perspective or of avoiding the tendency to deify Anthony and her influence. It also positioned Anthony as a very modern type of feminist, when she wasn’t entirely. And when, in fact, she disagreed strongly with some people at the time who were much closer to the modern ideas of feminism than she was. In particular, Anthony strongly disagreed with colleagues who wanted to separate the movement from religious effects on the theory that the Christian conception of gender roles would hold women back from things like participation in government.

And Anthony controlled the story that minimized that later because she lived the longest and careful crafted the story she wanted told after her death. Rather than bringing in those other stories that were significant and mattered, this one stuck basically completely to Anthony’s decidedly biased version from the end of her life.

Anyway, I clearly am not unbiased here. That said, I like Anthony and I think she was interesting and important. But I felt like this book was sort of drinking her kool-aid and happily perpetuating the idea that Anthony was the one driving force behind women fighting for the right to vote. She wasn’t. And the movement didn’t just follow her lead. There were philosophical disagreements, process disagreements, and more that all mattered and shaped the movement as well, far beyond the few women vs. black men issues the book covered. The fight for women’s suffrage was never a unified, homogenous movement, even just within the circles Anthony frequented. I was hoping this book would look more at the movement and the time and culture it grew out of and influenced and built, but it didn’t. It was far more focused on Anthony herself and glossed over things even there (like her relationship and work with Gage, among others).

So, I guess what I’m saying is that while I still love the idea of telling history through biographies, I didn’t feel like this one did it very well. And I wanted it to. So I found it disappointing and that probably makes the rest of what I thought and have said about it decidedly biased. Sorry about that. As with any book, your mileage may vary!

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