Susan B. Anthony was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and it was this work for women’s rights that brought her the honor of being pictured on U.S. currency and postage stamps.
But Anthony wasn’t a single-issue activist. Less famous, but no less important to her, was her work promoting stronger liquor laws through the temperance movement. As she worked on this issue, it helped shape and inform her later involvement in other social reform movements like women’s suffrage. In honor of the 105th anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s death, we spotlight her fight for temperance.
Anthony’s distaste for drinking grew out of her Quaker upbringing. While the Quaker faith doesn’t outlaw alcohol, heavy drinking is frowned upon – and Anthony’s father was a strict man, as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t allow toys or games; perhaps he applied his strictness to liquor as well. (Incidentally, Quakers also believe in the equality of men and women: another religious tenet Anthony would turn into activism.)
As a young teacher in her 20s, Anthony began to show an interest in social reform. Having tried – and failed – to secure equal wages for female teachers at her school, she turned to temperance. She joined the Daughters of Temperance, who focused not on outlawing alcohol but on strengthening liquor laws and drawing attention to the ill effects of heavy drinking and drunkenness. In fact, Anthony’s first public speech was at a Daughters of Temperance meeting – it was in 1848, the same year as the famous Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights, but that was a movement Anthony wasn’t yet involved with.
Susan B. Anthony at age 28, 1848
The following year, Anthony’s influence in the temperance movement grew as she was elected president of the Rochester branch of the Daughters of Temperance. In 1853, at the state convention of related organization the Sons of Temperance, Anthony received a rude awakening. When she stood to speak, she was denied the floor, on the grounds that women had been invited to “listen and learn,” not to contribute.
Angered, Anthony left the meeting and called a meeting of her own. This marked the birth of the Women’s State Temperance Society, which Anthony founded along with friend and fellow activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The group’s specific goal was to petition the New York State legislature to pass a law regulating and limiting the sale of liquor. A petition was formed, and 28,000 signatures were collected. Yet the state dismissed the request because the majority of signatures were from women and children.
These two rebuffs galvanized Anthony’s fight for women’s rights. She knew that without a voice in government, women who desired tougher alcohol laws – or any other sort of social reform – faced an impossible task. So she began a decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage.
Though Anthony turned her energies towards the woman’s movement, she didn’t forget her commitment to temperance. As publisher of the women’s rights journal The Revolution, she refused any ads for patent medicines, which often got their kick from alcohol or opiates. Though this policy worked to the detriment of the journal’s profits, Anthony didn’t bend. And throughout her life, she continued to support organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union – though she always counseled organizers that in order to make a difference, women would need the vote.
Susan B. Anthony circa 1900
During her lifetime, Susan B. Anthony saw neither women’s suffrage nor Prohibition – she died on March 13, 1906, 14 years before both became law. But she never stopped fighting, knowing that once women gained the right to vote, they could take on the no-less-weighty task of changing the world. Upon her retirement in 1900, she left her supporters with the final words, “Failure is impossible.”