Susan B Anthony Portrait

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

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.

Susan B Anthony quote

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?

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.


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