It’s Election Day 2016, and in my city of Rochester, New York, eyes are turning to Mount Hope Cemetery and the grave of Susan B. Anthony.
On November 5, 1872–just over 144 years ago–Anthony voted for the first time in Rochester, in defiance of national policy that still restricted suffrage to male citizens (mainly, let’s be clear, white male citizens). Today, there’s a coffee shop on the spot, selling breakfast pizza and local donuts and an almond chai dedicated to American writer and activist Alice Walker; when you order, the barista offers to show you the ballot box on the sidewalk outside.
Anthony’s dramatic ballot dropped at the end of an interesting year in the history of America–a year which quietly marked the monumental change at work in the nation. 1872 saw the deaths of New York politicians Erastus Corning, Henry Seward, and, just 24 days after November 5th, Horace Greeley; it also saw the birth, on July 4th, of future president Calvin Coolidge, though at the time the incident was notable only to his family in Windsor County, Vermont.
Susan B. wasn’t the first woman to insist on her ambition in 1872: on May 10 of that year, the Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull for President of the United States, making her by most estimates the first female nominee for that office.
Unlike Anthony, Woodhull never got to vote that year: a few days before the election, she was arrested on obscenity charges arranged by Anthony Comstock, the man behind the Act passed the following year that effectively criminalized birth control in the United States. Woodhull and her sister spent Election Day of 1872 in Ludlow Street Jail in New York City.
Woodhull’s running mate was Frederick Douglass, though he was not aware of the fact himself and never acknowledged his nomination. In 1872, Douglass had more on his mind: his house on Rochester’s South Avenue burned down in what was almost certainly a case of arson. The fire was evidently the last straw after well over two decades of living among the antagonistic, racist white citizens of Rochester; Douglass left the burnt wreck of his home behind and moved to Washington, D.C.
The shot fired on the streetcar in Utica on January 17 marked the beginning of a year that would quietly mark the changes at work in America: racial tension on the rise even in supposedly progressive Northern cities; the passing of the Republican old guard in New York State; and above all, the peak of frustration among American women, who for too long had taken the patient, passive route towards change.