One wintry night of December, 1860, Phoebe Harris Phelps, her face was disguised with heavy veils, showed up at the door of Susan B. Anthony looking for help. Anthony listened to her story with horror: Phoebe had been beaten, coerced, and separated from her children by her husband, a Massachusetts state senator.
Her husband, Charles Aber Phelps, had thrown her down the stairs and then continued to batter her. When she threatened to go to authorities, he had her sent to an insane asylum. She was held there for 18 months, barred from any contact with her friends or family, including her three children. After her release, she was still barred from seeing her children except for brief visits, and she begged for more time with them. Her own brother refused to help, telling her, “The child belongs by law to the father.”
Phoebe then went into hiding with her 13 year old daughter, and searched out help from Anthony. After making some inquires as to the truth of the woman’s story, Anthony took on her case and escorted the mother and child to New York. They were turned away from several hotels because they were not accompanied by a man. Finally, Anthony got them to a friend who gladly took in the runaway wife and her daughter. But when Anthony’s abolitionist friends heard of the story they objected. Concerned that her association with the woman would hurt their anti-slavery cause, they repeatedly asked her to stop assisting the women and her daughter.
Anthony refused. “I feel the strongest assurance that all I have done is wholly right. Had I turned my back upon her I should have scorned myself. In all those hours of aid and sympathy for that outraged woman I remembered only that I was a human being. That I should stop to ask if my act would injure the reputation of any movement never crossed my mind, nor will I allow such a fear to stifle my sympathies or tempt me to expose her to the cruel, inhuman treatment of her own household. Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.”
At an anti-slavery convention, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison attacked her stance. “Don’t you know the law of Massachusetts gives the father the entire guardianship and control of the children?” he said.
“Yes, I know it, and does not the law of the United States give the slaveholder the ownership of the slave? And don’t you break it every time you help a slave to Canada?” Anthony responded.
“Yes, I do,” Garrison said.
“Well, the law which gives the father the sole ownership of the children is just as wicked and I’ll break it just as quickly. You would die before you would deliver a slave to his master, and I will die before I give up that child to its father.”
Anthony never gave in, but Phoebe Phelps was tracked down by a detective, and her daughter was then abducted by her father’s agents. Mother and child were never reunited.
(source: Failure Is Impossible: Susan B Anthony in Her Own Words, by Lynn Sherr, Times Books, NY, 1995)