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  • Teaching the New Departure:The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony
  • Kathi Kern (bio) and Linda Levstik (bio)

When Susan B. Anthony stood trial for voting illegally in the federal election of 1872, she was not permitted to testify in her own defense. The judge, however, allowed the prisoner to address the court, a moment for which she was entirely prepared. In a speech that has often been regarded as the most famous address on behalf of women's rights, Anthony advised Justice Ward Hunt that just as the slaves got their freedom by taking it "over, or under, or through the unjust forms of law," now must women "to get their right to a voice in this government, take it; as I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity."1 For Anthony and hundreds of other women in the early years of Reconstruction, "taking" their freedom meant exacting their rights at the point where citizenship was "produced": the polling booth.2 This strategy came to be known as the "New Departure."

Between 1868 and 1873, at least seven hundred women that we know of voted or attempted to vote in local, state, and federal elections in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Washington Territory. Despite important scholarship on the New Departure over the past two decades, women's efforts to test the inclusiveness of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments is simply not a story that has been picked up by textbooks or fully integrated into our national narratives of the Reconstruction era. This is a missed opportunity to teach a number of significant historical themes, including the contested nature of citizenship in the postwar period; the balance of power between the state and federal governments; and, most important, whether or not the right to vote was inherent to citizenship.

In contrast, what does get textbook coverage is the acrimonious discord among women's rights advocates over the Fifteenth Amendment. This splintering of reformers into two rival woman suffrage societies in 1869 should not be neglected, of course. That controversy points out in bold [End Page 127] relief the racism of many of the movement's leaders; it signals the beginning of a duplicated effort to achieve woman suffrage that would last until 1890; and, finally, it reveals the limited scope of the national plan to reconstruct the body politic after the Civil War. Women suffragists who pressed for the abolition of slavery, petitioned for the Thirteenth Amendment, and supported the Union cause are often considered naïve by historians for assuming that their voting rights would be part of a larger Reconstruction package to overhaul the electorate. Yet, as important as this moment of reckoning was, it has had the effect of overshadowing what came immediately in its path: the direct action of hundreds of African Americans and white women who went to the polls to test the constitutionality of denying women the right to vote. In this article, we synthesize the recent historiography on the New Departure, consider the larger implications of this scholarship for understanding the Civil War era, and provide sample instructional materials, which we have tested in classes at our home institution and in our work with public school teachers in the Teaching American History Grant program. Finally, we offer an assessment of what our students reported to have learned from studying the New Departure and the trial of Susan B. Anthony.

The New Departure

In her recent edited volume, No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U. S. Feminism, Nancy Hewitt argues that the history of the woman's rights movement has been oversimplified. The dominant narrative lays out a trajectory that begins in Seneca Falls and ends with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. This timeline centers on the experience of middle-class white actors and privileges the issue of disenfranchisement above other forms of feminist dissent, a reduction that does an injustice to the multivalent nature of feminist protest and the wide array of women who engaged it. Women's rights, according to Hewitt, "were born in multiple arenas, defined in myriad ways, and advocated...


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