So Much More Than a Purse
Susan B. Anthony worked for many reforms, including suffrage, temperance, and abolition, but found that women were hampered by their lack of power--their lack of money. In the early nineteenth century, very few occupations were open to women. Once married, a woman could not open a bank account, enter into a contract, rent a place to live, or sue someone against whom she had a grievance. Any income that she earned was considered to be the property of her husband. For Anthony, the purse was not a fashion statement. The "purse of her own" became the symbol of a woman's financial independence:
Woman must have a purse of her own, & how can this be, so long as the wife is denied the right to her individual and joint earnings. Reflections like these, caused me to see and really feel that there was no true freedom for woman without the possession of all her property rights. . .This demand must be made by Petitions to the Legislature. . .
Susan B. Anthony Diary November, 1853
"Vote!" Said the Lady with the Alligator Purse
The traveling champion of the women's rights movement, Susan B. Anthony, was recognized by two trademarks: her red shawl and her alligator "purse." You can see the famous alligator bag she carried across the United States and to Europe when you visit the Susan B. Anthony House at 17 Madison Street in Rochester, NY. You may recognize this children's jump-rope rhyme that was recorded by the press when Anthony was campaigning for suffrage in California:
Miss Lulu had a baby, she called him tiny Tim.
She put him in the bathtub, so see if he could swim.
He drank up all the water! He ate up all the soap!
He tried to swallow the bathtub, but it wouldn't go down his throat!!
Call for the doctor!
Call for the nurse!
Call for the lady with the alligator purse!
"Mumps!" said the doctor. "Measles!" said the nurse.
"Vote!!" said the lady with the alligator purse!!
Anthony used her alligator bag more like a briefcase or backpack than like a purse. In it, she carried her speeches and pamphlets, a copy of the transcript from her 1873 trial in which she was found guilty for having voted "illegally" in the 1872 federal election. What would be the most important item for you to carry in your alligator bag?
A Purse with a Purpose
In 2010, the Susan B. Anthony House introduced "Ms. Anthony: a Purse with a Purpose" designed by the Abigail Riggs Collection. This contemporary handbag has two purposes: to share the story of Susan B. Anthony, champion of woman's independence, and to generate income to sustain her llegacy through the Susan B. Anthony House.