On this day in history: Susan B. Anthony was found guilty – of voting

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1855 (

Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1855 (“plus or minus 10 years” – Wikipedia)

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” – Marie Shear, 1986. See other feminism quotes on the Wikiquotes page.

Recent speaking clients know that I often note the parallels between the patient movement and other cultural revolutions – the women’s movements, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights. (I mention disability issues less often, but it was disability advocate Ed Roberts who said in the 1990s, after years of struggle: “When someone else speaks for you, you lose.”)

As anyone who’s heard me speak knows, I don’t get overtly “radically” about it. But I’ve been at this long enough now that I do see patterns. And the patterns teach me that the way people see things now may not be how we’ll see them in the future … and it’s up to us all to speak the truth as we see it.

So when I returned from the week’s travels, my eye was caught today by Wednesday’s “This Day in History” in the Boston Globe:

In 1873, suffragist Susan B. Anthony was found guilty by a judge in Canandaigua, N.Y., of breaking the law by casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election.

The Feminist.org blog has a great post about it – here’s how they say they would have covered it, if they’d been around back then:

Susan B. Anthony has been found guilty of having “illegally” voted in last November’s General Election.

She was not convicted by a true jury of her peers, because women cannot serve on juries.

Nor was she able to eloquently make her own case to the all-male jury, because the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution when the District Attorney said that as a woman “she is not competent as a witness in her own behalf.”

Her conviction did not come after secret deliberations by an unbiased jury because Judge Ward Hunt, after hearing the evidence, directed the jurors to find her guilty.

Even a defense motion to poll the jurors individually after they delivered their verdict was denied.

All of this may sound familiar to patients whose opinions are considered not worth hearing because, after all, they’re only patients, so what COULD they know? :-)  (Some docs still seem to think, “What business do patients even have, questioning my decision?? I’ll decide!”)

These things take time. Unless they don’t.

After that bold and illegal vote, it took another 38 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. It was 1920 – 100 years after her birth. (And we still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment in the US.) On election day in 2012 in The AtlanticEleanor Barkhorn wrote about a fabulous anti-suffrage flyer from that era that I’ve used in many talks:
women suffrage TheAtlantic barkhorn_womenvoters1Woman suffrage barkhorn_womenvoters2 Sample arguments:

“Vote NO” because:

  • 90% of women aren’t asking for it. (This is exactly like well-meaning people who say “My patients aren’t like that.”)
  • It means competition instead of co-operation. (This is directly relevant to cases where a physician feels that their authority is challenged by a patient who thinks.) (Note, too, that in the flyer’s case, “co-operation” meant “Women do what men tell them to.” Sounds a bit like the medical term “compliance.”)
  • It can be of no benefit commensurate with the expense involved.

Housewives !

  • You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout.
  • Why vote for pure food laws, when your husband does that? (That is paternalism, clear as a bell: “Oh, don’t you worry about that – we’re taking care of it for you.”)
  • Sulpho naphthol and elbow grease drive out bugs quicker than political hot air.

Spot Removers:

  • There is no method known by which mud-stained reputations may be cleansed after bitter political campaigns.
Photo by Saroney (Wikipedia). Date unknown.

Photo by Saroney (Wikipedia). Date unknown.

For more laff riot, I dare you to read the whole flyer. And that was years after Anthony’s death in 1906. Is it any wonder that in her later years she looked a bit bitter, after decades of making her case and getting responses like that?

The work is not done when things are better for you.

British suffragette being beaten on Black Friday 1910Thanks to friend Marge Benham-Hutchins for pointing out the photo at left, of one episode in the women’s movement where push truly came to shove. As far as I can tell from Google, it’s a  photo of an English suffragette being beaten on Black Friday (Wikipedia), Nov. 18, 1910 – right around the time when the flyer above was printed. More than 30 additional years after Anthony’s conviction.

Ten years later, Wikipedia says, some UK women got the vote: “From 1918-1928, women could vote at 30 with property qualifications or as graduates of UK universities, while men could vote at 21 with no qualification.” In 1928 the age restriction was removed.

In Switzerland the last region (canton) gave women the vote in local elections in 1991 (Wikipedia), and during my 2013 visit there, a TV news item in Lucern said “a woman driver” caused an accident on the motorway. That’s such an ignorant thing to say – in my testimony in Washington in 2010 I pointed out that insurance statistics show women have 1/3 fewer accidents than the men who used to make fun of them.

What’s right is right.

If it takes a lifetime of saying it, keep doing it. So far, the patient movement seems to be moving faster, due to at least two big factors:

  • The precedent of other movements after suffrage
  • The velocity of idea spread, enabled culturally by better acceptance of social movements and technologically by the internet.

But power politics still apply in medicine – enormous amounts of money are in play. So those who believe in the rightness of patient power will have to speak up – and perhaps fight – for a long time before the last “patient suppressor” is gone.

And please, please – don’t let anyone say, paternalistically, “Don’t worry, we’re taking care of that for you.” Speak up; speak out. Remember disability activist Ed Roberts:

“When someone else speaks for you, you lose.”

Speak up.


p.s. I hope this post will be of value to young women who don’t consider themselves feminists.

Consider what life was like just one century ago. You still don’t legally have equal rights, but many people fought for the liberties you’ve gained so far.

7 comments to On this day in history: Susan B. Anthony was found guilty – of voting

  • Amen, brudda. Particularly on the historical perspective here, since “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Thank you, Mr. Santayana.)

    I’m often accused of being overly strident in my push for change in the medical-industrial complex. My passion is fueled by the amount of history I’ve lived, and witnessed – I know that the only way something changes is when that change is forced upon it by the weigh of outside pressure.

    I speak for no one but myself. I will gladly speak on behalf of anyone not yet awakened to the urgent need for voices raised in service of patient-centered transformation.

  • Marge

    “And the patterns teach me that the way people see things now may not be how we’ll see them in the future … and it’s up to us all to speak the truth as we see it.”

    So true! We have to think for ourselves and speak up. Thanks Dave for a great column. Did you see the photo I posted on FB of her being beaten and arrested for voting?


    • e-Patient Dave

      No, Marge – link it and I’ll post it!

      • e-Patient Dave

        [Edited at bottom]

        Indicating again that social movements are global, the picture Marge found seems to actually be of an English suffragist, Ada Wright. According to Wikipedia she was one of 200 who were assaulted by police on Black Friday in 1910. Two died (Wikipedia says).

        I’m going to add the picture to the post. It disgusts me – but this is when, literally, push comes to shove.

        [The ObitOfTheDay site on Tumblr says it’s Ada Wright; the Arcane Images Tumblr says it’s Ernestine Mills. Doesn’t matter – though it does illustrate that the Web is full of information and full of mistakes.]

  • e-Patient Dave

    About “suffs”:

    Until yesterday I’d never seen the “Housewives !” side of the sheet. Reading closely, I see that it seems to refer to suffragists as “suffs,” and compares them to annoying door-to-door salesmen. An “Anti” seems to be an anti-suffrage woman:

    Bottom left: “To drive out mice, scatter small pieces of camphor in cupboards and drawers. Peddlers and suffs are harder to scare.”

    Right side, above the “Spot Removers” heading: “If an Anti swallows bichoride, give her whites of eggs, but if it’s a suff, give her a vote.”

  • Hi Dave, I am a narcolepsy spokesperson and I’ve just discovered your website in preparing for my presentation at the upcoming “Disruptive Innovations” conference in Boston, MA on September 11, 2014. I’m fairly certain I’m the only patient perspective speaker at this conference, as I usually am at most conferences I speak at…

    Anyway, all I can say is THANK YOU! I’m in awe of your leadership in the patient advocate community and I particularly love this post, it really brings appropriate perspective to our patient movement and reminds me of the bigger picture. You’re my new role model and I will be reading up on your past posts and looking forward to following your efforts closely and cheering you on. Thank you so much! Sincerely, Julie Flygare

    • e-Patient Dave

      Hi Julie – I thought I’d replied already. Great to meet you!

      Keep in touch, and feel free to bring up anything you want here. You might also want to explore the Patient Voice Institute, started by a couple of patient voices (of course) – we’ve crossed paths from time to time and it’s great to see multiple seedlings sprouting in this movement!

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