Still Seeking Susan B.
As the University hosts the first academic conference dedicated to Anthony,
Rochester scholars and students reflect on her legacy over the past 100 years.
By Jenny Leonard
|ANTHONY LEGACY: Bredes, Huth, and Ridarsky helped organize the yearlong commemoration.|
Sitting in her Women in Politics class, Mary Kathleen Smith ’07 heard for the first time an evocative tale, handed down like a birthright from one generation of Rochester students to the next: the story of how Susan B. Anthony relinquished her own life insurance policy on a scorching day in September 1900. The desperate gesture was part of a last-ditch effort to ensure women would be admitted to the University that fall.
As she listened, Smith replayed in her mind how she and her best friend had written and performed a skit for a sixth-grade history class: Smith starring as Anthony and her friend as Anthony’s compatriot Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
“I thought how odd it was that I would have these recurring connections to Susan B. Anthony, that I would travel across the country and attend a school with such strong ties to her, a school just miles from her house,” says Smith, a lively and ambitious woman who grew up just outside Portland, Ore. “Maybe it was destiny.”
Anthony’s life and the legacy she left to the multitude of women who have followed, including current undergraduates such as Smith, will be in full focus this year as the University and others honor the 100th anniversary of Anthony’s death. Some of the nation’s foremost scholars in women’s history, particularly the suffrage movement, will make their way to Rochester this spring for an unprecedented conference dedicated to Anthony. The event is part of a yearlong regional commemoration, titled “100 Years Since Susan B: Consider the Anthony Legacy” that will feature concerts, exhibitions, lectures, tours, and other events, including an Eastman School performance of “Music in the Time of Susan B. Anthony.”
Those scholars will, in a certain sense, re-create the historic gathering of suffragists who met in Rochester in March 1906 to salute their former general one final time.
At the age of 86 (twice the life expectancy of most women at the time), Anthony left the world, burning right to the end with righteous fury. Much of her work was left undone: The vote had not been achieved, and women, in the eyes of the law, were very much alienated from those inalienable rights. If there was solace to be had, it would come from knowing Anthony had lived to see the first of “her girls,” as she called them, graduate from the University, a school rather contentedly all-male for its first 50 years.
Anthony died on March 13, 1906, at her Rochester home, a three-story brick house that now operates as a nonprofit museum and education center. Her funeral was attended by thousands, some estimate as many as 10,000, with most standing outside the Central Presbyterian Church, now the Hochstein School of Music, in a snowstorm for a chance to pay their respects.
The Susan B. Anthony House is orchestrating a reenactment of the well-documented event and has invited local dignitaries and representatives from women’s groups to stand in for those who attended the original funeral. Women students from the University have been invited to serve as honorary pallbearers, just as some of the University’s first female undergraduates did 100 years ago.
Such a dramatic revisiting may seem somber, but Nora Bredes, the director of
the Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership at the University, says the
reenactment, along with the conference and other events, will serve as a platform
to reflect on the battles Anthony waged against gender inequalities, to gain
a deeper appreciation for her accomplishments, and to discuss what’s yet to be achieved.
“We’re hoping to assess this year where women are today,” Bredes says. “More women than men attend college, yet women don’t earn as much as men, and the disparity grows as children are born. We don’t have a solution to the work–life imbalance between men and women and how to combine a family and career, because our society views those issues as personal rather than collective. We don’t look for ways in which communities can enhance women’s ability to lead and be economically independent. And economic independence was very important for Anthony, because women in her lifetime were the property of their husbands and could not even claim their own children should they leave a marriage. They were impoverished.”
Bredes says not only was Anthony determined to see women achieve their legal status and their independence, she was hopeful that over time there would be an underlying shift in the way men view women and the way women view themselves. That ultimate goal, adds Bredes, is why Anthony’s fight for gender equality extended beyond the voting booth and onto the Rochester campus.
The drive for coeducation began in the late 1880s, when women’s groups and local citizens began petitioning the Board of Trustees to rescind the school’s males-only admission policy. By the turn of the 20th century, coeducation was the norm for state universities opening in the West and Midwest. More than 5,000 American women (compared to about 22,000 men) graduated from college in 1900, and their numbers were growing.
Despite the changes happening nationally, Rochester went kicking and screaming into the new century when it came to women’s education, says Lynn Gordon, associate professor of educational leadership at the Warner School who holds a joint appointment in the history department.
|HOPEFUL NOTE: “May their numbers increase until the daughters of the city shall be all thoroughly educated is the hope of yours sincerely,” Anthony wrote in 1902, two years after winning admission for women at the University. (Photo: University Libraries/Department of Rare Books)|
“By the time coeducation was approved at the University, women in other locations had already had a lot of success in getting access to higher education,” Gordon says. “There were plenty of good women’s colleges in the East, such as Smith and Vassar, and coeducational state universities were opening, especially out West.”
Under mounting pressure, the trustees relented in 1898—against the wishes of many alumni and some in the administration—to open the school to women with one stipulation: The petitioning committee led by Helen Barrett Montgomery would need to raise $100,000 (about $1.8 million by today’s standards) to defray expenses. The unreachable sum was eventually reduced to $50,000, but a deadline was set. Deliver the money by September 8, 1900, or all bets were off.
Anthony, who felt that the fundraising effort was in capable hands, did not get involved immediately. She had for years, however, been active behind the scenes, convincing David Jayne Hill, Rochester’s president from 1889 to 1896, to allow a young woman named Helen Wilkinson to attend classes as a regular, but not matriculated, student in the fall of 1893. It was an arrangement that continued for three years until Wilkinson fell ill and later died.
On September 7, less than 24 hours before the deadline was to expire, Anthony received a call at her Madison Street home. Much to her shock, she learned the fund was $8,000 short. Physically drained from a recent suffrage tour in Wyoming, Anthony summoned her strength and set out the next day during a heat wave. She went to every person she felt might be sympathetic to the cause and went door-to-door to others who were not.
According to her biographer, Ida Husted Harper, Anthony even urged her sister, Mary, to offer the $2,000 she had intended to bequeath to the University should it become coeducational. “Give it now,” said Anthony. “Don’t wait, or the girls may never be admitted.”
That afternoon, just as the trustees were calling the meeting to a close, Anthony,
joined by several other woman involved in the campaign, rushed in and announced
the money had been secured. The trustees reviewed the pledges and rejected one
$2,000 offer from a local citizen based on a technicality, which left Anthony
no choice but to pledge the cash value of her own life insurance policy to make
up the difference.
The next day it was clear to those who knew her well that the frantic fundraising had taken a toll on the 80-year-old Anthony. In the days that followed, she suffered what appears to have been a mild stroke. Barely able to speak, Anthony attended the trustees’ meeting on September 10 to hear their official decision. In a brief statement, they announced that women would be admitted to the school and given the same rights and privileges as the men. Reports suggest that Anthony returned home from the meeting in terrible shape. A single journal entry she scribbled in a barely legible hand reads: “They let the girls in. He said there was no alternative.”
Word soon spread around the city. The September 11 issue of the Democrat and Chronicle included a two-column headline: “Opens Its Doors to Young Women. Rochester University Henceforth a Coeducational Institution. Last $8,000 Needed for the $50,000 Endowment Raised by Susan B. Anthony Yesterday. What Seemed Like a Hopeless Task Accomplished by Her Energy and Courage.”
When she heard the news, Vera Estelle Chadsey was about two months shy of her 20th birthday. All summer, she’d read rather pessimistic reports about the fundraising drive and had decided to enroll at a local business school just in case the effort failed. That backup plan was abandoned the next week when Chadsey and 32 others became the first women undergraduates to enter the gates of the Prince Street campus.
In a letter written 60 years later, Chadsey recalled what the opportunity had meant to her as a young woman: “To actually go to college, and really graduate, and wear a cap and gown, the very thought of it made every nerve in my body tingle.”
That thrill was soon tempered by a harsh reality. The women, she wrote, were not wanted or welcome, a fact the male students made perfectly clear by running ahead and slamming classroom doors in their faces, shoving them aside in the hallways, and pushing them while walking up the stairs.
One morning, she recalled with vivid clarity, Chadsey had to physically push her way into Anderson Hall when a group of male students “closed ranks” and refused to let her pass. After asking three times to be allowed through the blockade, she wrote, “I turned a bit and with all the strength I could give, my elbow went into the boy nearest to me, followed quickly by another strong jab, and the third and hardest of them all caused him to give way, and I walked up the steps.”
An editorial in the January 18, 1901, issue of the student newspaper, Campus —which would eventually morph into today’s Campus Times—reports similar sentiments: “To be sure, the ‘coeds’ were not received with open arms by all. . . . There are many who are ‘bearing it as a necessary evil.’ ”
‘Struggle for Equal Rights’
The conference “Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Equal Rights” takes place March 30 to April 1 on the River Campus and features the latest scholarship on Anthony’s life, her legacy, and her status as an iconic figure in American history.
Ann Gordon, editor of the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and research professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, will give the keynote address. She was a program consultant and gave an onscreen interview for the 1999 Ken Burns documentary series Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony.
Christine Ridarsky, a doctoral student in the history department, helped organize the groundbreaking event, along with Mary Huth, assistant director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections that houses an impressive array of Anthony-related materials. The two women worked with Nora Bredes, director of the Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership at the University, and a committee of women historians from regional colleges and universities to put together what will be the first-ever academic conference dedicated solely to Anthony.
“The involvement from so many women, across so many disciplines, has been instrumental in developing what I think is a fabulous program,” says Ridarsky. “There will be a wide range of thought-
provoking presentations. We’re also reaching out to area schools with a special session that will offer high school teachers fresh ideas on how to make Anthony and her story seem alive and relevant to their students.”
Huth, who is curating a related exhibition at Rush Rhees Library, says she hopes those who attend take away a deeper appreciation for who Anthony was and what she accomplished.
“And we hope the exhibit is a chance to showcase the amazing collection of materials here at the library,” she adds.
The conference is one of many events planned as part of the yearlong commemoration that kicks off in March.
“It was a rocky start, and it was clear no one wanted the women there,” says Gordon. “Higher education is not in itself enough to guarantee gender equality. It’s one of those things that is necessary but not sufficient.”
It was a full month after the women were admitted before Anthony felt well enough to venture outside her home. She asked her carriage driver to pass through the Prince Street campus. “I thought with joy, ‘These are no longer forbidden grounds to the girls of our city,’” she wrote in her journal that night. “It is good to feel that the old doors swing on their hinges to admit them. Will the vows made to them be kept? Will they have an equal chance?”
A decade after Anthony asked those questions, the answers were still uncertain. While the number of female students had grown to 121 (out of 352 total) by 1909, there were signs the “girls” were not receiving the equitable treatment promised. Editorials in local and regional newspapers questioned whether women students had access to the same resources and opportunities as the male students. Rush Rhees, University president at the time, made it clear that he would prefer for the women to be educated separately in their own college. To develop that idea, he hired Annette Gardner Munro in 1910 to serve as dean of women.
In response to the conspicuous absence of “coeds” from official activities and records, such as the yearbook, Interpres, the women students decided to publish their own yearbook, Croceus, in 1910, dedicating the first issue to Anthony. In the preface, the senior class wrote: “About the middle of the year 1905, we began to realize that Rochester needed US, just US, and so we cheerfully gave up Wellesley and Vassar and Smith and came, 25-strong, to share the results of Miss Anthony’s work.”
The social and academic division between the men and women students at Rochester would continue for almost 50 years after Anthony’s death, with the men moving in 1930 to the River Campus, a site that became truly coeducational in 1955.
Bredes says that reluctance on the part of the University administration at the time to fully support coeducation would have disappointed Anthony.
“The inspiration for wanting women to be coeducated wasn’t just to give women the skills they needed to be economically independent, but to allow men to see women’s intellectual gifts, the rational side of their being, and come to respect them as equal partners,” she says. “Today, we have more women going to college than men. We’ve done a great job with Title IX and trying to get equal funding for women’s athletics so that women see themselves as active subjects rather than sexual objects. What would be surprising to Anthony and maybe surprising to women from the second wave of feminism is that it seems every generation needs its consciousness raising, that the values and cultural norms persist.
“The message for young women is that change, which seems so right, so correct, so necessary today, took a tremendous effort to achieve. It took vision and persistence and sacrifice. And it didn’t happen all at once. The more difficult lesson of this yearlong observation is to realize that one can work for something for more than 50 years and then have to pass it on to other people, recognizing that very necessary change may take several generations to be achieved.”
Julie Stoltman ’06 says she feels a strong sense of gratitude to the women who paved the way for her as well as a responsibility to continue the fight. As president of the Women’s Caucus, she talks to her peers about gender issues and sees a reluctance on their part to be identified as feminists.
“Our generation grew up assuming that gender no longer mattered, that men and women were guaranteed equal access to all the same opportunities,” Stoltman says. “And, as a female, you don’t want to distinguish yourself from your male counterparts and imply that you are different in some way. You don’t want to appear that you’re asking for special privileges. At the same time, women still don’t earn advanced degrees in the same numbers as men, still don’t earn equivalent salaries, are still absent in significant numbers from the executive positions in many Fortune 500 companies and from senior faculty and administrative positions at universities.
“I continually get frustrated by the passive attitudes I encounter from both men and women my age who don’t acknowledge that problems still exist and that it’s our responsibility to find the solutions.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Smith, who is majoring in economics and minoring in women’s studies. When she enters the workplace next year, she hopes to apply her degree to the real world to address some of the inequalities women face beyond the gates of the comparatively unbiased ivory tower.
“Getting women admitted into universities didn’t mean that everything was going to change,” Smith says. “We see the struggles women face in the workplace, their absence from management roles and positions of power. We realize that higher education was just the first step. Now that we’ve pushed our way into the system, we have to figure out how to work with it and make the system work for us.
“There have been so many wins, but those wins are nominal unless society is going to view women as equals,” reflects Smith. “As I’m sure Anthony would agree, there are battles yet to fight.”
Jenny Leonard is editor of Currents, the faculty-staff newspaper.