Lesson
Duration:
1 class period

The Audacity of a Vote: Susan B. Anthony’s Arrest

Essential Questions

  • Is democracy possible without equality?
  • When faced with an unjust law, what is the responsibility of citizens in a democratic society?

Overview

In this lesson, students analyze a daring challenge to the legal and social order of the time: Susan B. Anthony’s casting of an illegal ballot in the 1872 presidential election. Anthony was ultimately put on trial, convicted, and fined $100 for her “crime.” In this lesson, students close read an excerpt from Anthony’s speech Is It a Crime for Women to Vote? in which Anthony defended her actions. The speech, written prior to Anthony’s trial in 1873, contains many themes that resonate with contemporary debates about membership in American society. At a time when voter suppression, gerrymandering, and election interference dominate the headlines, this lesson prompts students to draw connections between the past and present, especially around acts of civil disobedience, the role of voting in a democracy, and the meaning of equality.

Learning Objectives

  • Through a close reading and class discussion, students will identify the purpose and central argument of Susan B. Anthony’s speech Is It a Crime for Women to Vote?
  • Students will develop an initial argument about how citizens should respond to unjust or discriminatory laws in a democratic society.

Materials

Activities

  1. Take an Initial Stand on Civil Disobedience
    • Begin the lesson by asking students to take a few minutes to reflect in their journals on the following prompt:
      Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? — “It is always wrong to break the law.”
    • Then, transition to a Barometer activity based on the same question. Ask students to stand on the spot along the line that represents their opinion, telling them that if they stand at either extreme, they are absolute in their agreement or disagreement. They may stand anywhere between the two extremes, depending on how much they do or do not agree with the statement. Ask volunteers at various stages of the continuum to explain their thinking. Tell students that they will be returning to this question at the end of the lesson.
  2. First Read
    • While students do not need any prior knowledge to complete this lesson, it is still helpful to give them some historical context for the text they are about to read. Tell them that they will be reading a speech from Susan B. Anthony, a nineteenth-century women’s rights advocate, that will help them develop their thinking on the meaning of civil disobedience. Explain that Anthony gave this speech after she was arrested for voting in the 1872 presidential election, at a time when women were not allowed to vote.
    • Either you or a fluent student-reader can read aloud the speech, Is It a Crime for Women to Vote? Ask students to circle unfamiliar words as they listen. After the read-aloud, ask students to share these words with the class. Decide which words to define immediately to limit confusion and which definitions you want students to uncover through careful reading.
  3. Close-Read and Analysis

    In small groups, have students read the speech again, stopping between paragraphs to answer the questions below. You might write the questions on the board or copy them on a handout. Below the questions, we have provided you with guidance for responding to and evaluating students’ responses:

    First Paragraph

    • While reading the first paragraph, what two things did you learn about Susan B. Anthony?
      A good close reading starts with some “easy wins” for students, and this question should definitely elicit the response that Anthony is accused of illegally voting in the last presidential election. Students should also note that Anthony believed she did not commit a crime but simply exercised her right as a citizen.

    Second and Third Paragraphs

    • What importance does the first line of the preamble to the United States Constitution have for Anthony’s argument?
      Anthony notes that the very first line of the preamble is “We, the people” and not “We, the white male citizens” or even “We, the male citizens.” The fact that the preamble begins by calling together all of the people in the Union and not just the men suggests to her the significance of women within the Constitution. The Constitution formed a government that does not confer the “blessings of liberty” but is intended to “secure” them, for both men and women. Thus, women must be granted the right to vote in order not to make a “mockery” of the way in which citizens protect and defend the “blessings of liberty” within a democratic republican government.

    Fourth Paragraph

    • What other types of inequality in American society does Anthony mention in this paragraph?
      Anthony refers to various forms of “oligarchy,” a system in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few members of society. She describes “oligarchies” based on race, income, and level of education, in which whites, the wealthy, and the educated exert control over the rest of society.
    • How does she view the importance of women’s struggle for equality in comparison to the struggles of other groups? What might this tell us about the limitations of her belief in equality?
      Anthony argues that the United States is an “oligarchy of sex” in which “father, brothers, husbands, and sons” rule over “mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.” It is her belief that because gender inequality extends into the most intimate space, the household, the oppression of women cannot be tolerated. She suggests that such oppression “carries rebellion. . . in every home of the nation,” undermining the functioning of American democracy in a way that other forms of oppression don’t. For this reason, while Anthony acknowledges the oppression of African Americans and the poor, she views their oppression as more tolerable. This suggests that Anthony viewed the struggle for women’s rights as ultimately in competition with other struggles, which limited her ability to recognize multiple forms of inequality and work with other marginalized groups demanding new civil rights.

    Fifth Paragraph

    • Explain how, following Anthony’s logic, the “only question left to be settled” is “Are women persons?”
      Throughout her speech, Anthony argues that the founding documents of the United States give all citizens certain rights, and that in a republic, the rights of citizens cannot be taken away by the government. As the right to vote is not merely one among many God-given rights but the most important liberty a citizen can exercise, a government cannot eliminate or curtail that right and remain republican in character. Since Anthony believes (but does not argue) that all persons are citizens, the only question left in determining whether women should be allowed to exercise their natural right to vote in a republic is whether or not women are persons—a proposition so obvious that she claims, “I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not.”
    • Explain how Anthony justifies breaking the law that prohibited her from voting. Do you agree with her argument?
      Anthony claims that because women are citizens, the government does not have the right to make or enforce laws that infringe on their constitutional “privileges or immunities.” Anthony declares that, therefore, any discriminatory law against women is “null and void” and should be disregarded.

     

  4. Return to the Question of Civil Disobedience
    • Regroup as a class and ask volunteers to share their answers to the questions in Activity 3, encouraging students to justify their answers with direct support from the text.
    • Then, expand on the theme of civil disobedience introduced in the Barometer activity at the start of the lesson, using the following questions to launch a whole class discussion:
      • What did Anthony do when faced with an unjust law? What other choices might someone in her position have made? Which would have been most effective?
      • How does Anthony’s speech relate to contemporary political debates over voting rights, elections, and democracy? How was the debate she was engaged in different? (In addition to soliciting students’ own connections to current events, you might choose to guide students in a discussion of specific contemporary debates about voting and elections such as voter identification laws and gerrymandering, including the Supreme Court case Gill v. Whitford.)
      • When faced with an unjust law, what is the role or responsibility of citizens in a democratic society?
    • To close the lesson, ask students to collect their ideas by completing an Exit Card, responding to the prompt below from the whole class discussion. Students should use evidence from the discussion, their class notes, and/or the text to support their position:
      When faced with an unjust law, what is the responsibility of citizens in a democratic society?

Extensions

For older and more advanced students, consider using the more extensive close reading of Susan B. Anthony’s speech described in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy (p. 154). You can also assign it for homework or extra credit.

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