She may have been “The Mother of Us All,” as Gertrude Stein dubbed her, but suffragist Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 at age 86 a childless spinster. Yet her spirit and name live on in the person of her great-niece, 62-year-old Susan B. Anthony. A three-times-divorced, recovered alcoholic, Susan II has been lecturing for the National Council on Alcoholism for the past two and a half years. (Her aunt’s original cause was also demon rum, but she was converted to women’s rights after being denied permission to speak at a temperance meeting in 1852 because of her sex.)
Susan B.’s namesake has spent a lifetime attempting to emerge from the shadow cast by her famous aunt and finally succeeded by doing exactly what Susan I did best—stumping for a cause. Heritage has been less of a problem for great-niece Charlotte, 50ish, a professional folk singer who recently joined Susan onstage for the first time when her older sister addressed the Greater Hartford Council on Alcoholism. “The one who got the name,” nods Charlotte, “got the ghost.” Susan agrees. “I spent so many of my years resenting her and wanting to live up to her,” she has admitted. “Now I’m very proud of her. I think she was a great old gal.”
So does the U.S. Treasury, which has announced that the original Susan B. will become the first real woman (the mythical Miss Liberty doesn’t count) ever to appear on a U.S. coin. Effective July 1, the Eisenhower dollar will be officially replaced by an Anthony version. “We’re very proud,” says Susan B. II, “but I must point out that it’s only worth half of what it once was.” Nevertheless, the austere suffragist has kept pace with inflation nicely, initially appearing on a 30 stamp in 1936 and stepping up to a 500 stamp two decades later.
Her name and current lecture tour notwithstanding, the present Susan B. Anthony is a different woman from her great-aunt. A paperback publisher of her 1971 book The Ghost in My Life ti-tillatingly underscored the contrast by describing the author as a “thrice-married adulteress.” That’s a departure from the original Susan B., “a highly moral virgin [who] lived like an absolute nun,” in the words of her great-niece. As a child, Susan II remembers “all the wreath-laying—I thought Aunt Susan was married to Uncle Sam.”
Young Susan took her first drink as a senior at Easton (Pa.) High and promptly “became the belle of the ball.” Her drinking problem worsened at the University of Rochester (a school her great-aunt helped open to women). There she started a fad of sorts by wearing a nightgown to the junior prom because, she said, formal gowns were too expensive. After earning her M.A. in political science, Susan became a reporter, first for the Washington Star and later for papers in Florida and Jamaica. Along the way she became known for her freewheeling love life. Politically she was tarred as a Communist “dupe” (but denied it) and then in 1954, while living in Jamaica with hubby No. 3, a British spice planter, she swore allegiance to the Crown. (She retained her U.S. citizenship.) Her aunt would not have approved.
A women’s activist as early as the ’40s, Anthony II penned two feminist tracts, which she now dismisses as “duds—no one cared about feminism then.” She swore off booze in 1946 and 14 years later claims to have found Christ in a San Diego YWCA. In time she converted to Catholicism, earned her Ph.D. in theology from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. and in 1975, “to test my vocation,” spent a year in a convent. “First I tried politics, then alcohol and then God,” she sums up.
Anthony now runs a halfway house for women alcoholics not far from her home in Deerfield Beach, Fla. There she indulges in snorkeling and solitary beach walks but has logged 220,000 miles the past three years on the lecture circuit, often exhorting her audience with the same rallying cry her great-aunt made famous some 70 years ago. “Failure,” she declares, “is impossible.” It’s also unthinkable if your name happens to be Susan B. Anthony.