Susan B. Anthony at her desk in 1900.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Every movement develops symbols and rituals that create a recognizable group identity and rally its members.

For the 19th century women’s rights movement, the celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday became such an event; beyond paying homage to a beloved leader, Anthony’s “birthday parties” were also political moments.

On Feb. 15, 1870, her 50th birthday, the woman known to her allies as “Aunt Susan” was feted in New York City. Anthony used the opportunity of newspaper coverage to press for female suffrage. But the movement’s print media that month hailed Anthony not only as a persistent and courageous leader, but as a single woman.

At a time when being self-supporting was virtually impossible, Anthony’s unmarried state was rare among her sister activists and rarer among U.S. women. Reforming the institution of marriage–and all the myriad ways in which a wife was her husband’s “property”–was as important to the feminist agenda as the vote was.

In Revolution, a journal edited by Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, poet Phoebe Cary hailed Anthony for carrying on “a civil war” and making a “Revolution.” While other women, Cary wrote, have been “banded or hus-banded,” Anthony “has bravely fought her way. Alone and single-handed.”

Published by presidential candidate-to-be Victoria Woodhull and her sister, the journal Woodhull and Clafin’s Weekly editorialized that Anthony showed the world “that a single woman can have a home and an anniversary as well as married people.”

Anthony herself took up the banner of single womanhood to resist a legal system where, as she said, “husband and wife are one, and that one the husband.” She gave talks about single women’s homes, describing some she knew, “no spurious second-hand domesticity affected for the praise of some man or conscientiously maintained for the comfort of one who furnishes the money.” And she was photographed seated at her own desk in front of a wall of pictures of other women’s rights activists, thus redefining her “family” as friends and colleagues.

For the rest of her life, Anthony’s birthday celebrations remained loving celebrations not only of women’s progress, but also of that new definition of “family,” long before contemporary feminists began referring to themselves as members of a “sisterhood.”

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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For more information:

“Susan B. Anthony’s Abortion Position Spurs Scuffle”:

“August 1920, Women’s Suffrage Ratified”:

“Women Stage Vote-In to Raise Political Support”: