In the midst of an historic election year, when I realized there was going to be a woman as the Democratic nominee for President, I couldn’t help but find myself inspired by Susan B. Anthony, this incredible woman who paved the way for half of our country’s voice to be heard. I had been thinking about our country’s history and how recently times have changed. Here we are, on the cusp of quite possibly having the first Woman President, and not long ago my own grandmother was born into a world where American women could not own property, sign contracts, handle their own money or vote. I felt I just had to commemorate this moment with a painting of some sort and a portrait of Susan B. Anthony casting her ballot, an illegal act that was a spark of suffrage in 1872, seemed like a perfect and timely subject.
I have always considered Susan B. Anthony as a visionary beyond of her era. I chose to portray her standing regal and strong, even as an elderly woman. The history books say she was a Quaker, unmarried, an abolitionist, and incredibly outspoken in her opinions and beliefs, which were all rather uncommon qualities for a woman in the 1800s. When asked why she never married she quipped something to the effect of: “No one wanted to marry a woman with ‘views’ and I had views.” Oh yes, she did. But somehow, strong and opinionated in an era when that was considered unseemly and suspect, she rose to great fame, inspiring countless numbers of women and men to reach for a more equitable world where every person had a voice.
She was relentless in her pursuit of justice for African Americans, for temperance, for women’s suffrage, and the rights of anyone disenfranchised. She dove into the women’s suffrage movement when she was told ladies were not allowed to speak at the meetings she attended. From then on she created and chaired women’s organization after women’s organization throughout her lifetime. When I read about all she had accomplished I thought this woman wasn’t just a firecracker, she was a canon!
I have encountered riotous mobs and have been hung in effigy, but my motto is: Men's rights are nothing more. Women's rights are nothing less. ― Susan B. Anthony
Partnering with her friend, fellow suffragette leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two created a powerful team, inspired each other and wrote speeches together. Stanton, married and caring for 7 children, could not easily travel so Anthony had to be the one to get the word out to the nation. Stanton was so important to the women’s movement and to Anthony that I wanted to include her in the painting somehow. I noticed that Anthony had a framed picture of her on her desk in one of my research photos, along with their abundant correspondence piled high.
As a great orator and entrepreneur, Anthony lived off her speaking gigs in a time when women were told to sit in the back of the gallery and keep quiet, which makes it all the more amazing that she is still one of the most quotable women I’ve ever seen. I wanted to include Anthony and Stanton’s many speeches, letters and quotes in the background of my painting because surprisingly they read as relevant today as they did in the late 1860s. For example, this quote sounds like it could have been on the news this week:
There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers. ― Susan B. Anthony
On November 5th 1872 Anthony voted in a federal election. Two weeks later she was arrested for it and after a lengthy and very public court battle she was charged a fine of $100.00 plus the cost of the prosecution. She never paid a dime.
I think about Anthony traversing the United States, in a time just after the Civil War, when people traveled on steam engines and horse drawn carriage for months. She traveled back and forth across the country most of her adult life, staying at the homes of fellow suffragettes and abolitionists, living out of a suitcase or trunk. She is almost always pictured wearing a corseted dark taffeta dress with a high lace collar, spectacles, and her red shawl. The shawl became so much of a fashion statement that once, when she forgot it back at the house, the crowd wouldn’t let her continue to speak until someone ran home and retrieved it!
I also noticed in my research that Anthony was almost always photographed in a silhouette view. Apparently she had a lazy right eye and was a little vain about it so she preferred to not be photographed from the front. I painted her with that right side of her face in shadow, but I wanted her looking straight out at us as she put her ballot in the voting box, looking strong and proud.
She died in 1906, 14 years before women won the vote, but in her last speech she said she believed women would win equality because “Failure is Impossible!” That final quote became the motto of the women’s movement after her death.
I’m proud to have been able to represent her in a painting commemorating her historic and powerful first vote!
If you want to read more about Susan B. Anthony I recommend this great book I used to research my painting: “Failure is Impossible!” by Lynn Sherr