The Secret Lives of Objects: Susan B. Anthony’s Purse of Her Own

Why do people carry purses? What do they keep in them?

What would a woman in the 1800s carry in her purse?

This year marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony’s determination and efforts, though she never legally voted, is one of the reasons women can vote today. 

But how do we inspire students to get excited to learn about women’s suffrage and pioneering women behind the movement? 

The Secret Lives of Objects

One strategy is to take them on a trip of discovery through the Secret Lives of Objects. 

For example, instead of starting a lesson the typical way — through dates, politics and people — what if you started with Anthony’s purse?

If Anthony’s purse could talk, what history and experiences would it share? And why is it famous in the first place?

Anthony was a stalwart crusader for women’s rights in a time when women had few legal rights.

She believed some of women’s disadvantages came about because of their lack of authority over money. And this inability to own property was symbolic of their lack of power.

Susan B Anthony A Purse of her Own quote

Until the mid-1800s, when women married, they could not open a bank account, enter into a contract, rent a place to live or file a lawsuit against someone. Any income that a woman earned was considered the property of her husband.

Alligator Purse from Susan B Anthony
Courtesy New York State Museum

Anthony’s alligator purse, pictured here, was not a fashion statement — the purse was about the size of a doctor’s satchel, and curators at The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House believe Anthony used it more as a briefcase than a fashion item. The purse was more of a symbol of her desire for every woman to have access to her own money and a “purse of her own.”

As she traveled advocating for women’s rights at suffrage conventions and speaking engagements, this purse, and a bright red shawl, became her trademarks. As curators from the Smithsonian explain, “It was said in Washington that there were two signs of spring: the return of Congress to the nation’s capital and the sight of Anthony’s red shawl as she also returned to lobby congressmen.”

This purse is an inquiry-driven opportunity for students to explore Anthony and suffrage movement events in a completely unique way.

For example, in the timeline below, if the purse traveled with Anthony while she petitioned for universal voter rights in 1866-1869, what did the purse hold? What places did it see? Why did Anthony carry this clunky bag around instead of something smaller?

Susan B. Anthony was born Feb. 15, 1820 — 100 years before women gained the right to vote by the federal government of the United States. For most of her life, she campaigned for suffrage, and her work led to the 19th Amendment in 1920.

She died before seeing the fruits of her tireless labor, but she and the many suffragists who carried the cause are the reason women can head to the voting booths this fall on election day.

And students can gain a more profound appreciation of Anthony’s life and work through an unlikely object: her alligator purse. 

Built with an Inquiry-Based Learning Lens, the Studies Weekly Social Studies curriculum takes students deeper into learning.

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