In 1872, Susan B. Anthony Was Arrested for Voting ‘Unlawfully’

President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned the pioneering activist on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage

A black and white photograph of a woman with a tight bun, wearing a ruffled black dress with a white neckpiece, sitting a desk and in the middle of writing a letter, not smiling
Susan B. Anthony (seen here in 1898) was fined $100 for casting her vote in the 1872 presidential election. Bettmann / Getty Images

Four days before the election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony marched into a makeshift voter registration office in Rochester, New York, and demanded to be added to the list of eligible voters.

“I made the remark that I didn’t think we could register her name,” recalled election official Beverly W. Jones in court testimony preserved by the National Archives. “She asked me upon what grounds. I told her that the constitution of the State of New York only gave the right of franchise to male citizens. She asked me if I was acquainted with the 14th [A]mendment to the Constitution of the U.S. I told her I was.”

Anthony eventually persuaded Jones and his two young colleagues to accept her registration. On November 5, she and 14 other women cast their ballots in the presidential race between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, fully aware that their actions were technically illegal. The pioneering suffragist was later singled out, arrested and charged with voting unlawfully. Her trial took place the following June.

Now, almost 150 years after Anthony’s arrest, President Donald Trump has announced plans to posthumously pardon the activist. Fittingly, the news arrived on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which enfranchised many—but not all—American women upon its August 18, 1920, ratification.

Anthony is widely considered one of the founders of the early women’s rights movement. But in recent years, she has faced increased scrutiny due to her racist remarks and exclusion of black suffragists from the mainstream movement, note Maggie Haberman and Katie Rogers for the New York Times.

What Crime Did Susan B. Anthony Commit?

As historian Ann D. Gordon wrote in a 2005 report for the Federal Judicial History Office, the deputy federal marshal who arrested Anthony on November 18 asked her to “accompany him downtown.” In response, she posed a question of her own: “Is that the way you arrest men?” After the officer replied no, Anthony requested to be “arrested properly.”

The incident made national headlines, generating publicity that Anthony used to draw attention to her cause. Before her trial began, reports CNN’s Scottie Andrew, she traveled to 29 towns, promoting women’s suffrage in impassioned speeches that questioned whether it was a crime for U.S. citizens to vote.

Anthony’s actions blatantly transgressed societal expectations at the time. Overt concern with the gender-role implications of her crime is evident in the National Archives testimony, which finds the prosecutor asking, “What was her appearance, as a man or woman?”

Jones replies, “She was dressed as a woman.”

During the two-day trial, Anthony insisted on speaking despite the judge repeatedly telling her to sit down, according to a Library of Congress transcript. Upon receiving the sentence of a $100 fine (roughly $2,150 USD today), she told the judge, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

In 1906—just nine years before New York State granted women the right to vote and 14 years before the 19th Amendment was finally ratified—Anthony died at age 86. She’d led the American women’s suffrage movement for much of her adult life.

As CNN reports, some contemporary scholars and politicians argue that Anthony wore her arrest as a badge of honor and wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to be pardoned.

Later in life, note Janet Adamy and Gordon Lubold for the Wall Street Journal, she described the arrest as the “greatest judicial outrage history has ever recorded.”

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