by Jeanne Gehret

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Susan B. Anthony’s last birthday on February 15, 1906, was the most bittersweet of all.

It was sweet because, at age 86, she had lived long enough to become a beloved “Aunt Susan” to countless women, both young and old. Not only that, but she was beginning to see the fruits of her labor. She enjoyed these immensely, since she had endured great scorn and mockery in her early years of activism. Newspapers filled many column inches with her praise that year, and she received many gifts. 

The bitterness of the occasion was owing to the tremendous suffering she endured at that time. It was so great that she confessed to her inner circle that she was “ready to go.” That year, weakness and what Susan called the “torture” of nerve pain in her head and face kept her sidelined during most of the combined birthday celebration/convention that had become typical of her beloved National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).

Susan’s 80th birthday

Six years earlier at her 80th birthday celebration, she had taken important steps to establish her succession in the organization that she cared so deeply about. She used the well-attended annual party/convention to present Anna Howard Shaw as the new president of the NWSA. She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had co-founded this organization many years before.

Three tributes stood out from the many she received that evening:

  • From Wyoming, the first state to grant woman suffrage, came a flag. It bore on its field four diamonds that represented the states—Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho — that had already accorded women the vote.
  • She received notice that upon her return home, she would find two fine Smyrna rugs to replace the worn ones in the parlor and sitting room. The Anthony home sometimes entertained 50 guests a day.
  • During the party, eighty boys and girls, marching in time to music, passed in single file across the stage where Miss Anthony sat and deposited a rose—one for each of her 80 years—in her lap.

Last birthday tributes

Despite her frailty on her 86th, she must have experienced considerable satisfaction knowing that Anna Howard Shaw had things well in hand. Anna conducted most of the meetings while Susan rested in a nearby hotel with medical care. Because the attendees knew of Susan’s infirmity, they did not expect her to speak, but she wanted to say one last word. In appreciation of the new guard, she stretched out her hand to thank the national officers on the stage before saying these famous words:

“There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause…. with such women
consecrating their lives, failure is impossible!”

(Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, p. 1184)

Final wishes and regrets

Returning a few days later to her Rochester home under medical care, Susan took to her bed and soon developed pneumonia in both lungs.

Anna Howard Shaw kept vigil almost constantly for several days while Susan floated in and out of consciousness. Here is a conversation they had when Susan held up one hand and measured a little space on one finger: 

“Just think of it, I have been striving for over sixty years for a little bit of justice no bigger than that, and yet I must die without obtaining it. Oh, it seems so cruel!”

Miss Shaw replied, “Yes, it is cruel .  . . but remember what you have done for other women everywhere. Think of all the splendid opportunities open to the young women of today, largely through your efforts.”

“Oh, yes . . . it is very different now, and most of the young women who are benefitting by it haven’t the least idea how it came about. They don’t realize the change, they don’t know what it has cost other women to get it for them, but some day they will learn.”

(Harper, p. 1420)

Susan also instructed Anna to redirect funds that Susan’s brother D.R. had given sister Mary for a memorial to Susan. She said, “The best kind of a memorial would be a school where girls could be taught everything useful that would help them to earn an honorable livelihood . . . .”

Within a month of her last birthday, Susan B. Anthony was gone. Her prophecy about the awareness of her younger followers came true as the newspapers trumpeted all that Susan B. Anthony had done for them.

As this blog chronicles Susan’s life alongside her brothers and sisters, it is worth noting that only Mary, Susan’s youngest sibling, outlived the great reformer. Devoted homekeeper for all of Susan’s public life, Mary also kept vigil with Anna and the handful of other suffrage friends who had become as close as family.

2 Comments

  1. Cheryl McCargar-Voyna February 16, 2023 at 7:35 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this information I love it!.
    I am related to Susan on the Brownell side. Distant cousin. Who was the Brownell she was named after?
    Thanks in advance for any information you can give me.

    • Jeanne Gehret February 16, 2023 at 12:31 pm - Reply

      Hi, Cheryl,
      It’s good to hear from you, and I’m glad you like the blog. Would you do me the favor of subscribing for twice-monthly emails? I know it may seem strange, but having people on my subscriber list helps me picture who I’m writing for. And that keeps me motivated!
      How satisfying it must be for you to have such a distinguished person among your ancestors. Miss Anthony was named after her Aunt Susan, who married a man with the surname of Brownell. If you learn anything more about this Susan Brownell, kindly message me by commenting on any post. I love sharing information.
      Are you, by any chance, interested in Victorian style clothing and homes? If so, have a look at my Pinterest account (SusanBAnthonyFamily), where I’m always collecting
      images.

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