Friday, May 13, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Susan B. Anthony's "Is it a crime for a U.S. citizen to vote?"

It was public speaking that spurred Susan B. Anthony to seek the right for women to vote in the United States--or, more precisely, finding that she was often barred from speaking. When she was 32, in 1852, she attended a temperance convention and was told to "listen and learn" rather than participate; two years later, she was forbidden to speak at the Congress and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Around this time, she attended her first women's rights convention.

While the early timeline of her career includes those barriers to speaking, eventually Anthony averaged 75 to 100 speeches each year for much of her life. Even her purse played a role in her public speaking: Her alligator bag served as a briefcase in a time when women carried no bags because they had no money of their own. It often contained the texts of several speeches (and you can buy a replica of it today).

Anthony voted in a presidential election in 1872 in the front parlor of her own home. She was indicted in Albany, and tried in the following year. This week's famous speech took her case to the court of public opinion in a direct effort to reach potential jurors: Anthony delivered the speech "Is it a crime for a U.S. citizen to vote?" in 29 of Monroe County, New York's towns and villages, then gave 20 more in Ontario County when the proceedings were moved there. In the Federal Judicial Center's thorough history of Anthony's attempt to vote and the ensuing court case, the record of her speech begins on page 63. You can't ask for a more content-filled or concrete opening:
Friends and Fellow-citizens: I stand before you to-night, under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last Presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s right, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any State to deny.
Anthony leads her listeners through a reasoned set of arguments based on the nation's founding documents, and echoes the familiar words in the pinnacle of her case:

It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed this Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government—the ballot.
She ends with a repetitive call to action: "We will no longer petition Legislature or Congress to give us the right to vote....We appeal to the women....We appeal to the inspectors of election....We appeal to United States commissioners and marshals....We ask the juries....We ask the judges...." and gave each group a charge to carry out. In the end, the judge ordered the jury to find her guilty and fined her $100 and costs, which she refused to pay--but because she was not imprisoned, she could not appeal the judgment.

She didn't live to see women get the vote, but there's no doubt that her vote and this speech laid the ground for the changes that were to come. Here's what you can learn from Anthony's famous speech:
  • Don't mince words: While she used elegantly reasoned arguments, Anthony didn't shy from more direct and plainspoken mockery, as in "it is downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty." In pressing her case, she pushed buttons and laid plain the tactics of her opponents.
  • Use a strong start to your advantage: Anthony knew no one needed to take up her cause, and that she had to grab her audiences right away to build her case and persuade them to help. She leaves no mystery about her purpose with that forthright first paragraph.
  • Bring it back home at the end:  This persuasive speech also leaves no doubt at its conclusion as to what she wanted from the audience. Far from leaving it up to the listeners, she made specific calls to action and even urged them to watch what other parties were doing and correct them if necessary.
Below is a video recreating another famous set of Anthony's remarks in this case--a statement she made in court before the sentence was handed down. You'll get some of the flavor of how she might have spoken in this example:



Even with as long a speaking record as Anthony's, finding good documentation of her speeches is difficult. You can find more in the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project at Rutgers University, and many more details and resources at the Susan B. Anthony Home in Rochester, New York.

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