Although Martin Luther was initially a faithful German monk, his actions in the 16th century broke the millennium-long rule of the Catholic Church and changed the face of Europe forever. During the Middle Ages, the most common economic system was feudalism, in which peasants worked the lands of the nobles, but each family was also required to work for the local church or monastery. In addition, they were obliged to pay 10% of their earnings to the church as a tithe (Ozment, 1980). Over time, the church gathered so much money and property, and its power became so strong, that the clergy used it for their personal gain (Ozment, 1980). Martin Luther became a monk in the early 1500s. Repulsed by the rampant corruption and immorality of church leaders, especially in the sale of “indulgences” (essentially “get out of purgatory free” cards), Luther studied the Bible in hope of an alternative (Luther, 2008). In 1515, he developed the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Two years later, when the Pope announced new indulgences aimed at building St. Peter’s Basilica, Luther responded with a list of ninety-five theses criticizing the corruption of the Catholic Church, especially with regard to indulgences (Luther, 2008). Since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg had occurred in the previous century, copies of the 95 Theses were quickly made and spread across Europe within two months (Ozment, 1980).
Attempts were made by the clergy to convince Luther to recant his ideas, but he refused, and was eventually excommunicated. For a period of about a year, he hid at Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament into German (Luther, 2008). Although the Bible had been translated into the vernacular — that is, the language used by the people — prior to Luther, most of these translations were based on the Latin Vulgate and were disallowed by the church. Luther’s translation, based on the Greek New Testament, had two advantages: one, it was translated in New High German, which was used in the Holy Roman Empire and two, it was printed on the printing press. Luther’s work made it possible for lay people to have interaction with the scriptures without a middleman. After the Reformation, the Catholic Church had lost money and property, as well as much of its control over Europe, and the downtrodden peasants began to feel their own power both socially and politically (Ozment, 1980).
Susan B. Anthony was an American social reformer of the latter 1800s and early 1990s. She began as an activist for temperance (against drinking alcohol), but when she found out that she could not give speeches or appear at temperance events because she was female, she added women’s rights to her causes. At that time of the Civil War, women in the United States could not vote, own property, keep their wages, become professionals such as doctors or lawyers, or join labor unions. Anthony initiated change by forming groups especially for women, such as women’s labor unions and the American Equal Rights Association, with reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Susan B. Anthony House, 2013).
Anthony frequently spoke before Congress, urging them to pass a constitutional amendment to give women the vote. Even though she was ridiculed, she persisted in her efforts. As the United States grew to the west, she worked to get those states to allow women’s suffrage, and to help states who did so to be admitted to the U.S (McCammon et al., 2001). She died in 1906, but the movement she helped to start did not end, and fourteen years later the Nineteenth Amendment, called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, was finally passed giving women the right to vote. This was a phenomenal event for the United States, one which would not have happened without the actions of Susan B. Anthony (McCammon et al., 2001).
Anthony was an activist for women’s rights in other spheres as well. She believed that women should be able to dress in more comfortable clothing. She worked in the state of New York for women to have the right to own property, and in 1860, a law was passed giving married women the right to own property and keep their own wages. Via the Workingwomen’s Central Association, a labor union she created for women, she endorsed equal pay for equal work, and represented women at the 1868 National Labor Congress. Her activities that encouraged equal education for women and girls went along with her stance on female labor. She also encouraged racial equality. In 1900, she convinced the University of Rochester to admit women (Susan B. Anthony House, 2013).
- Luther, M. (2008). The bondage of the will. Hendrickson Publishers.
- McCammon, H. J., Campbell, K. E., Granberg, E. M., & Mowery, C. (2001). How movements win: Gendered opportunity structures and US women’s suffrage movements, 1866 to 1919. American Sociological Review, 49-70.
- Ozment, S. (1980). The age of reform, 1250-1550: an intellectual and religious history of late medieval and Reformation Europe. Yale University Press.
- Susan B. Anthony House. (2013). Biography of Susan B. Anthony. Retrieved from http://susanbanthonyhouse.org/her-story/biography.php