At face value, the statement, "Failure is impossible!" may seem full of bravado laced with a bit of hubris. It's a phrase you might expect to hear on Wall Street or in the locker room before a big game. And, you might guess it was popularized by Franklin Roosevelt or General Patton or perhaps, Vince Lombardi. You'd be wrong.
Surprisingly, it was a woman who made this statement in the early 20th century. After 54 years of fighting for women's rights, Susan B. Anthony concluded during her final speech in 1906, that the campaign to secure a woman's right to vote was destined for success. "Failure," she said, "is impossible." Quite an audacious conclusion for a woman born in the early 19th century when the idea of women ever gaining the right to vote seemed anything, but possible! The fact is, Susan B. Anthony was a remarkable woman, and as February 15th was her birthday, it seems a good time to honor her lifetime of advocating for women's rights by sharing a bit about her in this week's post.
Born in 1820, Anthony was raised in a Quaker family which gave her a better than average chance of being educated -- seldom the case for women of that era. She grew up in a household with a strong sense of moral justice and early on became involved in the temperance campaign to stop the sale of alcohol. However, because women were prohibited from speaking in public, she became disillusioned,
In 1852, Susan met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early advocate for women's rights who, just four years earlier, had written the Declaration of Sentiments, which was a revolutionary call for women's rights. Connected by their shared sense of injustice toward women, the two partnered to bring about change. As the story goes, Anthony would tend to Stanton's eight children, while Stanton wrote the speeches. Then, Anthony would defy convention by going out to deliver the speeches publicly. She traveled the country alone (unheard of for a reputable woman at the time!), stayed in boarding houses and regularly endured insults, including thrown tomatoes, all in the name of securing the vote for women.
This determined duo launched petitions, founded The Revolution (a women's rights newspaper) and co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. The momentum they created continued to build at the state level and in 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote.
Not afraid to push the envelope, Anthony voted in the presidential election in her hometown of Rochester, New York in 1872. She was charged with voting without having a lawful right to vote, arrested, tried and fined. The trial was covered by the New York Times which generated widespread publicity for the women's vote campaign. By 1878, legislation calling for the women's vote was introduced in Congress. The legislation was popularly known as the Anthony Amendment. Sadly, she passed before it did.
In her later years, Anthony was keenly aware that she was living in a world quite different from the one she was born into. The Progressive Era (which began in the 1880's) ushered in many new freedoms as women moved to large cities, took jobs in offices and factories and lived in boarding houses. Women were forming their own clubs dedicated to effecting social change. They lobbied for better sanitation, libraries, public parks and pasteurization of milk. And, they now spoke out freely and publicly about the need for change; not just change that would enhance their own lives, but change that would benefit all of society in areas like health and safety.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of how much had changed since Anthony began campaigning for the woman's vote came when she celebrated her 80th birthday at the White House with President McKinley. She knew it was only a matter of time before Congress would pass the amendment federally granting women the vote.
Six years later, in 1906, Susan B. Anthony delivered her final speech. She had seen enough dramatic change over the course of her lifetime to state unequivocally, "Failure is impossible!" This was not an expression of bravado but rather, sheer determination.
Susan B. Anthony's persistence and dedication on behalf of all women led to profoundly positive changes in our society and should be honored and remembered as such. Why not take a few minutes on her birthday, this Sunday, February 15, to think about how fortunate we women are to have been born in a time made better for us by women like Susan B. Anthony?
Susan's is only one of the many stories of women who have dared to defy convention in pursuit of equality and in doing so, inspired both men and women to reach for the seemingly impossible. The National Women's History Museum has many such stories to tell.