THE LEGENDARY FEMINIST Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) is too often the silenced queer elephant in the room of U.S. history. As we observe the 200th anniversary of her birth, which was on February 15th, it’s important to ask ourselves whether we as a society are finally willing to see her not only as a heroic fighter for women’s suffrage but also as a lesbian.
Few historians, especially those reaching a mass audience, have discussed Anthony in the context of LGBT history. She is still straightwashed in most books, media depictions, cultural institutions, and classrooms throughout the U.S. There hasn’t been a major biography for adults since 1988, while more recent biographies and documentaries for young people predictably render her lesbianism invisible.
When I visited the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York, last summer, the tour guide insisted that Anthony and the queer women in her circle were heterosexual. I kept challenging the guide and asking questions, but was made to feel like a gay weirdo who needed to shut up so the tour could move on. Other staff members seemed equally insistent on maintaining the brick wall of heterosexist denial that the museum had erected.
Part of the problem may be of Susan B. Anthony’s own making. She felt compelled to create a conventional public persona and made excuses for her unmarried status (never found the right man, etc.). She talked in interviews about not wanting to be trapped in a male-dominated relationship. But the real reason she never had a serious relationship with a man was that her passions were directed toward other women.
For example, her writings make it quite clear that in the 1860s Anthony became enamored of abolitionist orator Anna Dickinson, who was undoubtedly a lesbian. The youthful Dickinson was heralded as “America’s Joan of Arc”—an interesting association, given Joan’s gender ambiguity—for inspiring the Union forces to victory and speaking out for the abolition of slavery. Frederick Douglass credited Dickinson with being instrumental in moving racial equality legislation forward. This was a woman who stirred Anthony’s progressive heart on every possible level.
It is important to acknowledge that in her day-to-day life Anthony had close and supportive friendships with many prominent LGBT figures in the suffrage movement. She even had her own queer-blended extended family. Her beloved niece Lucy Anthony was the life partner of the great suffragist leader and spokeswoman Rev. Anna Howard Shaw. It was Shaw who was at Susan B. Anthony’s bedside as the great activist lay dying. We have lost this moment in the fog of straightwashed history, which highlights only Anthony’s deathbed pleas for assurance that the great work will go on, not mentioning that the torch of suffrage leadership was being passed from one lesbian to another.
I am aware that many contemporary academics argue that the very word “lesbian” is inappropriate for discussing earlier eras of the American past. The L-word may not have been widely used, but the denial of Anthony’s same-sex orientation plays into the homophobic strategies of those on the far Right.
For the record, I did eventually speak with the CEO of Anthony House and ended the conversation reassured that the museum is open to adopting a more honest and inquiring approach to America’s most famous suffragist. Time will tell. It will also be instructive to see if commemorations of Anthony’s bicentennial in the mainstream media are inclusive, or if they continue the sad history of queer erasure.
Susan B. Anthony is to be celebrated on this anniversary as a brilliant organizer and energizer of many progressive movements, from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage—but not excluding the de facto gay-straight alliance of suffragists that she and her best friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, spearheaded. As debates about voter suppression and manipulation rage on, Anthony’s persistence in fighting for every citizen’s unencumbered right to vote seems as relevant as ever, as does her queerness.
Sted Mays, who lives in Atlanta, is a media agency founder and queer activist and contributor to The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, edited by Claude J. Summers.