FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE: SUSAN B. ANTHONY IN HER OWN WORDS. Lynn Sherr. Times Books. 382 pages. $23. WE WOMEN have to fight continually for our rights and after we get them we have to watch constantly for fear they will be taken away while our backs are turned, or just as we begin to feel safe and comfortable." Gloria Steinem, 1972? No, Susan B. Anthony, 1902.
Many of us may have some vague recollection of Anthony because during the height of the women's movement her likeness was imprinted on the $1 coin. This biography, recently released to coincide with the 175th anniversary of Anthony's birth (Feb. 15) and the 75th year since passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, fills in the details of this groundbreaking champion of human rights.
Author Lynn Sherr, an ABC News correspondent, is intent on educating people about Anthony's legacy and showing how ahead of her time she was. Ms. Sherr makes liberal use of Anthony's own words to underscore that she was a visionary leader.
Susan B. Anthony, who was probably more responsible for women getting the vote than anyone else, was born into a loving, supportive Quaker family at a time when in the then-23 states husbands virtually owned wives. Women's talents were often ignored, they had no financial security other than that bestowed by their husbands; they could not vote; they could even lose their children if that was the man's will.
Seeing the plight of wives, Susan B. Anthony chose to get an education and not to marry -- unconventional choices for the time.
She devoted herself to causes, first in the abolitionist and temperance movements; they proved to be training grounds for an even greater commitment. "Susan B. Anthony attended her first women's rights convention in 1852 and immediately made the connection that would drive her life's work," Ms. Sherr writes. "Women needed the ballot to get power. The vote would be her goal."
She felt that women were the keepers of the nation's morals, giving them the vote would "lift the world into a nobler and purer atmosphere."
It was during her work in the temperance movement that Susan B. Anthony began her crusade for women's equality in earnest. In the winter of 1854 she took to the road mostly by herself "for a trip that remains astonishing a century and a half later," Ms. Sherr writes. She traveled throughout New York state to gather signatures on a petition calling for legal rights for married women, including "to have custody of their own children, to own property in their own name, to work and even to divorce." Susan B. Anthony realized that women's rights "might come more easily if women themselves had a voice in making the laws."
In 1873, in a daring move, she registered to vote. She was arrested and tried. The judge had written his decision before hearing the case and directed the jury to find her guilty. Susan B. Anthony was forbidden to defend herself and was denied an appeal. She called the event "the greatest outrage history ever witnessed." A lesser person would have been defeated but her dogma "failure is impossible" made her go on. Despite repeated setbacks, Susan B. Anthony maintained a sense of humor. For example, she delighted in shocking those around her by wearing pantaloons, extending the liberation movement to fashion.
Not long before her death at age 86, she said: "I am letting go a little now, because younger women are taking up the work for women. Such a great work, such a magnificent one. Oh, yes, I helped to give it a little impetus."
She died 14 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.
Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.