NEW YORK – One of the longest lines on America’s Election Day wasn’t to cast a ballot. It was to place an “I Voted” sticker, and get a celebratory photo taken, at Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Rochester, New York. But one of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the election, failing to realize the suffragettes’ ultimate dream, is that she was too much like Anthony, and not enough like Anthony’s more daring mentor and partner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Anthony is the patron saint of women’s suffrage. Young students learn of her 1872 arrest for casting a ballot (the straight Republican ticket) decades before it became legal for women to do so. She first appeared on a dollar coin in 1979. When President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, he cited Anthony.
She deserves all the accolades she has received. But Stanton, Anthony’s friend and mentor, deserves no less. And if Clinton had more of Stanton’s fearlessness, she may well have won the race.
Stanton founded the suffrage movement when she and five others organized a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. She turned to Thomas Jefferson for inspiration, rewriting the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”
It was an audacious act, made all the more so by Stanton’s insistence on bringing to the floor a resolution demanding women’s suffrage. There was not a country in the world that permitted women to vote — and many of the women in attendance were aghast.
America’s most famous women’s rights leader, Lucretia Mott, chastised Stanton, saying: “Why Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.” Yet the resolution passed.
Stanton found a protege in Anthony, who complemented her perfectly: Stanton was the philosopher, writer and revolutionary thinker who rarely bit her tongue. Anthony was the organizer and field general, a practical tactician who tried to build the widest possible coalition.
Stanton and Anthony needed each other. But history has had less use for Stanton. Why? Partly because Anthony was less controversial — an easier, and safer, figure for adulation.
It was Stanton who first called, in 1860, for women to be able to divorce husbands who were drunk, insane, cruel or deserters — an idea that split the women’s movement for decades. She became the first woman to seek a seat in Congress, in 1866, to demonstrate that even those barred from voting had the right to run for office. She supported Virginia Woodhull’s quixotic 1872 run for president, despite Woodhull’s controversial reputation. (Anthony opposed her.) She criticized clerics who used Christianity to justify the legal subjugation of women. “You ought to stop hitting poor old St. Paul,” Anthony chided her.
Clinton needed more of that audacity. She couldn’t shake the perception that her single-minded pursuit of the presidency made her coldly calculating, willing to sacrifice principle for power.
After appealing to same-sex marriage opponents, gun rights advocates and clean coal proponents when it suited her in 2008, she shifted left for 2016. She tried to be both friend and foe to Wall Street, global trade deals, fracking and charter schools. Her calibrations left voters confused and mistrustful. Trying too hard not to lose votes is a sure way to lose votes.
Trump’s positions on issues have been even more opportunistic than Clinton’s, but his provocations overshadowed his pandering. Voters wanted someone who spoke his or her mind (or seemed to), regardless of the political consequences. They wanted more Stanton and less Anthony.
On Election Day, I visited Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where Stanton is buried, and left sunflowers at her grave — “Sunflower” was the pseudonym she once wrote under. On a bright and colorful fall day, as thousands visited Anthony’s grave, attracting international media attention, I found only one other person by Stanton’s monument — a local tour guide, taking photos to post on social media. She said she hoped to drum up more interest in Stanton. I hope she succeeds, among voters and candidates alike.
Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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