Grand Old Women

Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryCourtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Corinne T. Field

When you think of the American women’s suffrage movement, you may imagine young women from the early part of the 20th century marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. But suffragists from an earlier era—the late 19th century—celebrated older women.

Beginning in 1870, when Susan B. Anthony turned 50, and culminating in 1900, when 2,000 people gathered to celebrate her 80th year, suffragists turned the birthdays of their aging leaders into national events that rivaled the annual celebrations of Washington and Lincoln. Suffrage birthdays aimed to prove women’s political capacity as well as their potential in later life.

A woman would never become a senator or president, the early suffragists argued, until Americans learned to respect women for mature wisdom and experience rather than youthful beauty and reproductive potential. At a time when few women publicly acknowledged their age, suffragists encouraged reporters to chronicle their leaders’ years of achievement, circulated photographs of women with gray hair, and dubbed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony the “grand old women of America.” How, then, did the women’s suffrage movement in the United States come to be associated with youth?

This is the question that my current research project asks—and thanks to the peerless women’s suffrage collections in the Schlesinger archives, I have begun to find some answers.

I arrived at Radcliffe this past summer eager to pursue more research on late-19th-century birthdays and was delighted to find evidence confirming the importance of these events. My research took a surprising turn when Ellen Shea, head of the library’s research services, suggested that I delve into the papers of woman suffragists who remained active after 1920. What I found amazed me: Women such as Alice Paul, Rose Arnold Powell, and Edna Lamprey Stantial tenaciously campaigned through the 1960s to turn the celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday into a national holiday. Boxes of letters, clippings, and photographs document their efforts to convince state and federal legislators, school boards, and women’s clubs that Americans should pause each February to honor Anthony, along with Washington and Lincoln, as the nation’s “third great emancipator.”


Suffrage posters from the Schlesinger collections

Their efforts failed, largely because clubwomen and male legislators alike refused to sponsor another national holiday—and also because many continued to regard women’s old age as unappealing, something to be hidden with creams and girdles rather than celebrated. Powell in particular tried to get around this antipathy toward old women by promoting images of a younger Susan B. Anthony, erasing her fame as the “grand old woman of America” and instead commissioning stories about her Quaker childhood and youthful activism. Explaining this strategy, Ethel Adamson, of the National Woman’s Party, noted, “We all love [Anthony] at every age, but a little youth does seem more attractive for a change.”

The result was yearly newspaper stories counting ever-higher numbers—Anthony’s “126th birthday”—with pictures freezing her in middle age. This severing of national leadership from old age did not help win Anthony greater recognition. It also robbed women of the insight that gaining national power will most likely require winning respect for women in later life. To this day, American holidays honor the birthdays of men, many voters doubt the political capacity of female candidates, and women in power often conceal their age. It remains to be seen whether Hillary Clinton, considered by some to be the most experienced candidate ever to run for the presidency, will win more respect or derision for her many, many years of national leadership.

Field is an assistant professor in the women, gender, and sexuality program at the University of Virginia. She received a research support grant from the Schlesinger Library to work on a project titled “Grand Old Women and Modern Girls: Racial Prejudice and Generational Conflict in the US Women’s Rights Movement, 1870–1920.”

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