In the 1800s, women in America didn’t carry purses. The reason was simple: women didn’t own anything.

In a marriage, everything of value belonged to the man, including the children. A wife couldn’t open a bank account, make a will, sign a contract, or transact business. There was no need for purses. Want to carry a handkerchief? Tuck it up your sleeve.

Susan B. Anthony carried a purse. Not just a purse, but a bag that resembled a satchel carried by doctors.

Anthony’s purse was made out of alligator hide, and she used it like a briefcase. In it, she carried petitions, speeches, notes, schedules, and other important papers. The purse, like Anthony herself, was so distinctive, it was a means of identifying her. Is there a room full of women? Anthony will be the one wearing a red shawl and carrying a purse.

If you visit the Susan B. Anthony Museum in Rochester, New York, you will find the alligator purse on display there.

Anthony was dedicated to winning the right to vote for women. She traveled a lot and gave up to a hundred speeches a year. Her alligator purse was a valuable asset in her work. But it was useful in another way, too. A purse was a symbol of a woman’s financial independence. It showed that a woman had a right to own things.


Anthony didn’t dress like a man. She wore black, fashionable dresses with high collars and white lace. She wore a red shawl. She looked like a woman of her day, but a woman who meant business.

I told you all that so I could tell you this.

In a certain schoolyard rhyme, there is a reference to Susan B. Anthony. I speak of the song, Miss Lucy. There are many variations, most of which start:

“Miss Lucy had a baby, she called him Tiny Tim. She put him in the bathtub to see if he could swim. He drank up all the water, he ate up all the soap. He tried to eat the bathtub, but it didn’t fit down his throat.”

Miss Lucy, of course, is concerned. She calls three trusted people: a doctor, a nurse, and the lady with the alligator purse. What happens next goes something like this:

The doctor and nurse arrive, as does the lady. The doctor’s diagnosis is that the boy has measles. The nurse, however, says he has mumps. The lady with the alligator purse says there is nothing wrong with the boy.

Tiny Tim throws up the bath water and the soap. He also throws up the bathtub that didn’t fit down his throat. Miss Lucy dismisses the doctor and the nurse. She pays the lady.

The version we are familiar with originated in the 1950s, but there is an earlier version, called Miss Susie, that was popular in the mid-1800s. There is even a version from California around the time Anthony was campaigning there for Suffrage. The last line goes, “Vote!” said the lady with the alligator purse.

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