Love, like or loathe her, last night’s vote for Hillary Clinton as the first major party female nominee for president of the United States had all the ghosts of women’s rights throughout history cheering loudly, another milestone finally achieved and behind us all now. Whether that results in yet another milestone come November is now in the hands of voters.
The event had me thinking of my own daughter and daughters everywhere, catapulted yet again upon the shoulders of towering historical figures, lionesses who saw so clearly what needed to be done, and who stood proudly, fiercely and defiantly for the righteousness of their cause. Probably chief among them: Susan B. Anthony.
I am indebted here to a fascinating account of Anthony’s arrest and trial (for the “crime” of voting) by Professor Doug Lindner of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, the complete text of which you can find here.
Lindner’s is a completely riveting read of just 6,000 words which I urge you to take in fully, but I will quote verbatim here only his 1,100-word “Sentencing” and brief “Epilogue” portion, which stands as such an eloquent and inspirational testament to all that is best in the ceaseless struggle for human rights in this country and around the world.
The next day (Anthony’s attorney) Selden argued for a new trial on the ground that Anthony’s constitutional right to a trial by jury had been violated. Judge Hunt promptly denied the motion. Then, before sentencing, Hunt asked, “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?” The exchange that followed stunned the crowd in the Canandaigua courthouse:
“Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex, are, by your honor’s verdict, doomed to political subjection under this, so-called, form of government.”
Judge Hunt interrupted, “The Court cannot listen to a rehearsal of arguments the prisoner’s counsel has already consumed three hours in presenting.”
But Anthony would not be deterred. She continued, “May it please your honor, I am not arguing the question, but simply stating the reasons why sentence cannot, in justice, be pronounced against me. Your denial of my citizen’s right to vote, is the denial of my right of consent as one of the governed, the denial of my right of representation as one of the taxed, the denial of my right to a trial by a jury of my peers as an offender against law, therefore, the denial of my sacred rights to life, liberty, property and—”
“The Court cannot allow the prisoner to go on.”
“But your honor will not deny me this one and only poor privilege of protest against this high-handed outrage upon my citizen’s rights. May it please the Court to remember that since the day of my arrest last November, this is the first time that either myself or any person of my disfranchised class has been allowed a word of defense before judge or jury—”
“The prisoner must sit down—the Court cannot allow it.”
“All of my prosecutors, from the eighth ward corner grocery politician, who entered the compliant, to the United States Marshal, Commissioner, District Attorney, District Judge, your honor on the bench, not one is my peer, but each and all are my political sovereigns; and had your honor submitted my case to the jury, as was clearly your duty, even then I should have had just cause of protest, for not one of those men was my peer; but, native or foreign born, white or black, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, awake or asleep, sober or drunk, each and every man of them was my political superior; hence, in no sense, my peer. Even, under such circumstances, a commoner of England, tried before a jury of Lords, would have far less cause to complain than should I, a woman, tried before a jury of men. Even my counsel, the Hon. Henry R. Selden, who has argued my cause so ably, so earnestly, so unanswerably before your honor, is my political sovereign. Precisely as no disfranchised person is entitled to sit upon a jury, and no woman is entitled to the franchise, so, none but a regularly admitted lawyer is allowed to practice in the courts, and no woman can gain admission to the bar—hence, jury, judge, counsel, must all be of the superior class.”
“The Court must insist—the prisoner has been tried according to the established forms of law.”
“Yes, your honor, but by forms of law all made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women; and hence, your honor’s ordered verdict of guilty; against a United States citizen for the exercise of ‘that citizen’s right to vote,’ simply because that citizen was a woman and not a man. But, yesterday, the same man made forms of law, declared it a crime punishable with $1,000 fine and six months imprisonment, for you, or me, or you of us, to give a cup of cold water, a crust of bread, or a night’s shelter to a panting fugitive as he was tracking his way to Canada. And every man or woman in whose veins coursed a drop of human sympathy violated that wicked law, reckless of consequences, and was justified in so doing. As then, the slaves who got their freedom must take it over, or under, or through the unjust forms of law, precisely so, now, must women, to get their right to a voice in this government, take it; and I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity.”
“The Court orders the prisoner to sit down. It will not allow another word.”
“When I was brought before your honor for trial, I hoped for a broad and liberal interpretation of the Constitution and its recent amendments, that should declare…equality of rights the national guarantee to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. But failing to get this justice-failing, even, to get a trial by a jury not of my peers—I ask not leniency at your hands—but rather the full rigors of the law—”
“The Court must insist—”
Finally, Anthony sat down, only to be immediately ordered by Judge Hunt to rise again. Hunt pronounced sentence: “The sentence of the Court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the prosecution.”
Anthony protested. “May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. All the stock in trade I possess is a $10,000 debt, incurred by publishing my paper—The Revolution —four years ago, the sole object of which was to educate all women to do precisely as I have done, rebel against your manmade, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the government; and I shall work on with might and main to pay every dollar of that honest debt, but not a penny shall go to this unjust claim. And I shall earnestly and persistently continue to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim, that ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”
Judge Hunt, in a move calculated to preclude any appeal to a higher court, ended the trial by announcing, “Madam, the Court will not order you committed until the fine is paid.”
True to her word, Anthony never paid a penny of her fine. Her petition to Congress to remit the fine was never acted upon, but no serious effort was ever made by the government to collect.
Many years later—and now many years ago—we hear all about it in another context, with another voice, from Aretha Franklin…
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