Hidden Attic in New York Building Held Susan B. Anthony Portrait

susan b. anthony led the NAWSA during the women's suffrage movement in the late 19th century

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A New York building held an antique portrait of Susan B. Anthony, CNN reported. A man who bought the building in December 2020 had no idea the building even had an attic, but found a treasure trove in it. Anthony led the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Susan B. Anthony portrait
President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1892–1900, Susan B. Anthony helped advance the women’s suffrage movement toward the right to vote, with the 19th Amendment ultimately ratified in 1920. Photo by Johnston, Frances Benjamin / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to CNN, a new building owner discovered that he had gotten more than he bargained for when he changed a light bulb on the building’s third floor. “David J. Whitcomb had no idea that the Geneva, New York, building he bought in December 2020 for his law office even had an attic; so he was doubly surprised to find the treasures that have been stashed there for nearly 100 years,” the article said.

“Whitcomb and a friend noticed that the ceiling on the third floor looked odd after going up to change a light bulb. They saw an access panel and stacked up some chairs so that Whitcomb could climb up and see what was inside, illuminated only by the tiny flashlight on his phone.”

Whitcomb said he felt as though he’d found the pirates’ treasure from the film The Goonies, which included a portrait of suffragist Susan B. Anthony taken before her death. Anthony became a major figure in American history, particularly women’s rights.

After Slavery

The 13th Amendment ended slavery, while the 14th Amendment confirmed former slaves’ rights of citizenship. Meanwhile, the 15th Amendment states “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

What did this mean for women’s rights?

“The 15th Amendment split the women’s suffrage movement,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, in a lecture for The Great Courses. “Some of its leaders refused to endorse the amendment because it did not give women the right to vote. Others, including long-time women’s rights ally Frederick Douglass, argued that if Black men were enfranchised, their support would help women achieve their goal.”

Dr. Kurin said that in 1887, the movement overcame its internal disagreements and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and appointed Susan B. Anthony to lead it. Campaigns for women’s equality by NAWSA at the state level produced results most strikingly in the Rockies and the West. Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho all granted women’s suffrage in state elections before the year 1900.

However, the women’s rights movement didn’t stop there.

“In the following decades, Washington state, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and New York all followed suit,” Dr. Kurin said.

He added that the concept of women as intelligent, independent, accomplished, capable individuals rose to prominence in literature. This led to suffragists earning endorsements from labor unions, temperance advocates, education reformers, and physical fitness advocates.

“Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded [Susan B.] Anthony as NAWSA’s president in 1900,” Dr. Kurin said. “A former school superintendent, she had spent some time in law school and was a skilled organizer and negotiator. In fact, before marrying her second husband, George Catt, in 1890, she negotiated a prenuptial agreement that guaranteed her four months of every year to devote to the cause of women’s suffrage.”

Dr. Kurin said that Catt’s strategy was rooted in “logic, persuasion, and compromise,” which he called a “slow and steady” path toward the goal.

Under the guidance of pioneering women like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, the women’s suffrage movement gained speed until the 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

This article contains material taught by Dr. Richard Kurin for his course Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. He holds a BA. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo-The State University of New York. He earned both his MA and his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.