In Passing the torch at the Susan B. Anthony House, we met Susan B. in Anthony Park.
In See the “News” at Northeast: Booker T. Washington’s visit with George Eastman, we met Booker T. at the George Eastman House.
Today, Michael J. Nighan tells the story of a trans-Atlantic rendezvous.
Tea Time With Susan B., Booker T. & Victoria, R.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, it would have been difficult to gather together in one place, three individuals with less in common than:
Susan B. Anthony: stiff-backed Yankee Quaker; leader of the American women’s suffrage movement and tireless advocate for human rights.
Booker T. Washington: university president, born a slave, apostle of self-improvement, and arguably the leading influence on, and leader of, black America.
Victoria R(egina): more correctly, Victoria, By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India; for 62 years titular ruler of the world’s greatest empire, and the most famous person on the planet.
Yet on July 7, 1899 all three crossed paths at Windsor Castle, participating in the simple act of sharing — more or less — a cup of tea. If a tea party at Windsor could be called “simple.”
Here’s how that came about.
As queen regnant, Victoria had been living in Windsor Castle since 1837. But it was only by the sheerest of coincidences that, in the summer of 1899, Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington found themselves in town. Anthony, to participate in an international women’s conference. Washington, with his wife, on the first real vacation in their lives.
Washington’s trip had come as a complete surprise. In 1881, as a 25 year old, just a decade and a half out of slavery, he’d been selected as the first head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (later Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University). Possessing the gift of being able to persuade wealthy white philanthropists (including George Eastman) to support Tuskegee, Washington was continually on the road giving speeches, not only to raise funds, but seeking to reduce racial tensions in the United States while encouraging black Americans to improve themselves through their own efforts. Having hosted President McKinley and his cabinet when they visited Tuskegee in 1898, his autobiography describes what happened the next year after he appeared at a meeting in Boston:
“In the spring of 1899 there came to me what I might describe as the greatest surprise of my life…Some of those who attended the meeting noticed that I seemed unusually tired…a few days afterwards I was informed that some friends …had raised a sum of money sufficient to pay all expenses of Mrs. Washington and myself during a three or four month’s trip to Europe. It was added with emphasis that we MUST go…we finally gave our Boston friends our promise that we would…. and then they insisted that the date of our departure be set as soon as possible. So we decided upon May 10.”
Landing in Antwerp, the Washingtons spend several weeks touring Belgium, Holland, and France – where Washington was a guest, along with ex-president Benjamin Harrison, at a dinner given by the University Club of Paris. By early July, having rubbed elbows with the American ambassador, two justices from the US Supreme Court, and several other wealthy and influential Americans, they crossed the Channel and reached London. Susan B. Anthony was already there.
From June 26 to July 5, 1899, the International Congress of Women, under the auspices of the International Council of Women – an organization Anthony had helped to found a decade earlier – was holding their quinquennial meeting(every 5 years), presided over by Lady Aberdeen, a close friend of Queen Victoria.¹At the opening session Anthony had reported on, “The Position of Women in the Political Life of the United States.” Said one paper, acknowledging her stamina (and her lung power) as much as her leadership in the international women’s suffrage movement, “At nearly eighty years of age, her voice has still the best carrying quality of any of the fine voices heard during the meetings.”
The Official Minutes of the Congress made clear that Anthony remained ever mindful of the value of publicity to generate public support for her causes. During the first business meeting:
“Miss Anthony impressed upon them the necessity of a good Press Committee, who should know how to secure the insertion of items in the leading papers from which the smaller and more special ones would gladly copy. Their international work would be brought before the world by newspaper women who had influence with the daily Press.”
Her proposal was adopted and, not surprisingly, Anthony was selected to head the committee.
Of her activities outside of the meeting hall, the London Times reported:
“Miss Anthony is being entertained by all the lords and ladies of the United Kingdom. She dines with Lady Somerset, stops overnight with the Countess of Aberdeen, lunches next day with the Duchess of Sutherland, is received by the Queen, and threatens every day to call on the Prince of Wales.” ²
But Anthony wasn’t the only American in town who was making speeches and being wined and dined by High Society. Although technically on vacation, Washington was also giving talks and being fêted. On July 3 at a meeting at London’s Essex Hall before members of Parliament, Washington had addressed, “The Negro Problem in America.” At a July 4 reception hosted by Joseph Choate, America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James, he was introduced to Mark Twain.
Meanwhile, up at Windsor Castle, for over 60 years Victoria had been reigning as Queen. Yet for all that time she’d had to be content with the limited role of a constitutional monarch, a woman forced to watch while men did the voting, held the real power, and ruled the British Empire in her name. So it might have been expected that she’d be an advocate for granting women the vote. But her insulated upbringing and her years of dependence on her now long-dead husband, Prince Albert had actually made her an opponent of women’s suffrage, preventing her from using her moral influence to advise her ministers to adopt measures improving the lot of women in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, as the International Congress of Women was ending, Victoria was prevailed upon by Lady Aberdeen to host a reception for the delegates.As a result, the July 5 minutes of the Fourth and Final Business Session of the Congress stated that:
“Colonial, American and foreign delegates would be admitted to the quadrangle of Windsor castle on the following Friday before the Queen went out for her afternoon drive, and Her Majesty would drive slowly past them and desired her guests should afterwards be entertained to tea and shown over the castle.”
It was further announced that arrangements had been made for a special train to take the delegates to Windsor and that tickets of admission would be issued. At some point in this process, although uninvolved with the Congress, Booker T. Washington and his wife were invited along by Lady Aberdeen.
Upon arriving at the gate to Windsor Castle the next afternoon, a bureaucratic problem kept the 200 or 300 delegates — estimates vary — standing outside the main gate, fanning themselves in the July heat while matters were being resolved. The ladies were finally able to enter the castle proper, where they were arranged in a double row along the Grand Quadrangle’s carriage path. Soon the diminutive Queen (Victoria was only about five feet tall), appeared under the entrance porch — dressed in the black mourning gowns she’d worn daily since her beloved Albert’s death 37 years before — and carried in a chair by a kilted Scotsman and a turbaned Indian servant who gently seated her in her carriage. Slowly driving down the gravel path, Victoria’s carriage halted in front of Lady Aberdeen who, curtseying and kissing the royal hand as the rigid rules of court protocol dictated, took the opportunity to present two of the delegates to the Queen; Mrs. Sanford, who was representing the Dominion of Canada, and Susan B. Anthony.
While none of the London papers identified Anthony by name, they all reported that two women were presented to the Queen. And at least one eye witnesses to the event named names when she wrote about it in later years. Questionable however is the story that Anthony committing a major protocol faux pas when, presented with the Queen’s hand for the expected kiss, she instead gave a surprised Victoria a firm handshake while pleasantly inquiring, “Oh, how do you do?”, a move supposedly excused by some as being due to her Quaker upbringing, with its refusal to kowtow to monarchs.
After stopping a second time in front of a contingent of Hindu and Parsi women representing her Indian empire,
Victoria’s carriage rolled out the private gate to the strains of “God Save the Queen” being sung by her loyal subjects.³
The delegates were then led by the Master of the Queen’s Household into the cavernous St. George’s Hall for tea. Few households could provide a matching tea service for hundreds of guests, but unsurprisingly, Windsor was one of them. Each guest was handed a blue and white Sèvres china cup and a massive sterling silver teaspoon. (It was later rumored in some quarters that castle staff were seen surreptitiously counting the silverware after the delegates had left). Along with grapes and strawberries, the Queen’s specially-baked Brussels biscuits were served, with more than a few ladies tucking one away as a souvenir. Following their tea, the delegates were taken on a tour of the castle.
Meanwhile, somewhere on the grounds of Windsor, Washington and his wife had also been watching Queen Victoria take her drive and had also lined up for their cup of tea. In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, Washington described the scene:
“Through the kindness of Lady Aberdeen, my wife and I were enabled to go with a party of those who were attending the International Congress of Women, then in session in London, to see Queen Victoria , at Windsor Castle, where , afterwards, we were all the guests of her Majesty at tea. In our party was Miss Susan B. Anthony, and I was deeply impressed with the fact that one did not often get an opportunity to see, during the same hour, two women so remarkable in different ways as Susan B. Anthony and Queen Victoria.”
Although Anthony and Washington had previously met, and Washington was a celebrity in his own right, Anthony apparently never saw him in the crowd, or at least never mentioned, then or later, that she had. Nor do any of the London newspaper accounts mention his presence (or Anthony’s for that matter) at Windsor.
Interviewed that evening by the Associated Press, Anthony gave her impression of meeting Victoria:
“ I had never seen the Queen before and could not but feel a thrill when, looking in her wonderful face, I saw her, as her life is going out, welcoming the women’s movement, which is the precursor of the Twentieth Century.4 What pleased me most was when Her Majesty said: ‘Now, I cannot have these ladies who are visiting me return without giving them a cup of tea.’ Sir Arthur John Bigge, the Queen’s private secretary, replied: ‘But Your Majesty, they are here in hundreds’. ‘I do not care,’ said the Queen, ‘if they are here in thousands. They must all have a cup of tea when they come to see me.’
Anthony concluded, probably reading far more into Victoria’s offer of tea than the Queen intended, “And we had it in the Queen’s palace, as a recognition of the great womanhood of our country.”Later that night, writing in the privacy of her diary, Anthony made no mention of being presented to Victoria, merely and mundanely writing that:
“at 3:45 took train to Windsor Castle – stood in hot and glaring sun a whole hour before the gate was opened to let us through and file along the drive way – to see The Queen ride down and bow to each set along the line- after that – we were shown through the castle and served tea in the great St. George’s Hall – What a tired lot we were -“
Upon her return home, Anthony was persuaded to send the Queen a copy of her biography, which she inscribed, “To her Royal Majesty Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India, with profound appreciation of Her Majesty’s service to all womanhood, Susan B. Anthony presents this story of her own life-work”.
Later, reflecting on her visit to Windsor, Anthony told Ida Husted Harper, her hand-picked biographer:
“I thought Her Majesty was a very human looking woman – a good, motherly woman….The Queen is a most conspicuous example to refute the oft repeated assertion that public life destroys the feminine instincts and unfits women for home duties. As the mother of nine children and head of the largest household in the world, she always has been distinguished for her wifely and maternal devotion and for her thrift and ability to manage her domestic affairs.” 5
“However much I appreciate her splendid record, I cannot but remember that in all matters connected with women she has been very conservative, never wholly yielding her assent to any innovation until it was already practically established. I have no recollection of her ever giving her influence for any improvement in the laws relating to women.”
Had Victoria known of that comment, she might have repeated her famous (albeit apocryphal) remark, “We are not amused!”
- The International Council of Women, now headquartered in Paris, continues to work toward, “bringing worldwide attention to the issue of women’s rights and leading the battle against gender based social injustice. In that sense, the ultimate goal is the creation of a happier, safer and more egalitarian world for all.”
- During the Congress, Anthony and the other delegates were entertained at a luncheon attended by Lady Randolph Churchill, the American-born and raised Jennie Jerome, whose father had once practiced law in Rochester, and whose son Winston, about to embark on a career in Parliament, would arrive in Rochester just a few days after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 to give a talk at the Lyceum Theatre.
- The story was told that the Americans, unfamiliar with the words to “God Save the Queen”, but knowing the tune, hummed along or quietly sang “My Country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing…”
- It should be noted that Victoria was only 10 months older than Anthony. The Rochester Union and Advertiser was a bit more democratic, if cold-blooded, in their report of the meeting, “It must have been an interesting sight to view the meeting between our distinguished representative, Susan B. Anthony, and Victoria, both in the closing years of their remarkable lives.”
- One person who agreed with Anthony in some respects, but clearly not in many others, wrote a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, signing himself. “A Horrid Man.” Referring to the Queen, her tea party, and the women delegates: “She will be remembered as a good, wifely, womanly women, who did not run after any ‘fads’ but who, from girlhood to old age, filled an exalted position with tact, skill, and feminine grace. No-mesdames of the Women’s Rights cult- you cannot get any comfort or inspiration from Victoria in favor of your doctrines.”