Susan B. Anthony: Carrying Women’s Independence

The Esse Museum is not just a retrospective of twentieth-century handbags, but rather a history of women and society as told through the handbag and its contents. It’s pivotal to honor the achievements of those who fought for women’s rights and freedoms for all citizens. One of the most iconic crusaders for the Suffrage Movement, Susan B. Anthony, championed causes for women from birth control access to voting rights for both women and African Americans. Anthony sojourned throughout the United States from California to Washington D.C. to rally support for equality and pressure lawmakers to revolutionize democracy, independence and personal freedoms.

As she crossed the country on her quest for change, Anthony’s demand for women’s liberties did not exist in words alone. Though it is common knowledge that she championed the right to vote, Anthony also balked at laws disallowing women to have their own bank account, rent a home or room or enter into any kind of contract independently. Further still, occupations for women at the turn of the 20th century were limited and any earnings a woman received were considered the property of her husband once she married.


Anthony stated, “Women must have a purse of her own and 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 women without the possession of all her property rights.”


Anthony did not just mean “possession” in the figurative sense of law, she truly meant physical ownership. Her bag, shaped much like a doctor’s satchel, was emblematic in its concurrent representation of female liberation and condemnation of marital ownership. For Anthony, a crocodile handbag containing all her important documents (including the court papers from her conviction of “illegal voting” in the 1872 federal election) became as symbolic of female independence as the briefcase designated the working businessman.


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 legacy through the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, New York.

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