Susan B. Anthony for Transparently Sourced Chocolate

The Ethics of Chocolate and Suffrage
by Lindsay Tarnoff

My move to Rochester

Inspired by a history of social justice

I moved to Rochester in the summer of 2016, knowing little about the city. My new husband and I relocated for his job. We had no connections to the area, but I was excited to open a brick and mortar version of Laughing Gull Chocolates, following my dream of changing the world with chocolate. Andy encouraged my passion and pursuit of social justice: history was made in Rochester – abolitionists and suffragists both made a difference from here. Among others, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were buried right at Mt. Hope Cemetery, just blocks away from our first home in the South Wedge! Days before the 2016 election, we walked to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite to honor her past and the work she did for voting rights. I was hopeful for the future, and would confirm days later that I was pregnant with our first baby girl, for whom we were building a better future. 

That election, of course, didn’t play out as we anticipated.

lilac flowers

Universal Suffrage?

Furthermore, it turns out that Susan B. Anthony’s history was more complex than what I learned in school. See, for example, this article from history.com. Did Anthony help women gain the right to vote? Yes – but  in order to win the vote for some (white women) she at times excluded others (in this case, women of color). Throughout her life, Susan B. Anthony had moments when she was anti-racist, moments of assimilation, moments when she was racist. As Ibram X Kendi affirms, there is no such thing as “not racist.” if one is not anti-racist, they are racist. Where does that leave Susan B. Anthony? 

In the mid 19th century, Anthony worked closely with Frederick Douglass to win voting rights for both women and Black Americans. As the decades passed, she left out Black women from her activism. Winning the vote for white women was easier, and though she often fought for suffrage of both white women as well as women of color, it was not so straightforward. The joint mission of Anthony and Douglass encountered a myriad of challenges. The American Equal Rights Association, the organization that united Douglass and Anthony, soon dissolved. The most infamous clash between the two activists surrounds the 15th Amendment. Frederick Douglass compromised on universal suffrage to advocate for Black men but this support excluded all women; Susan B. Anthony would not make the same concessions. She was fighting for equity, and women’s suffrage was necessary for that purpose. Thus, the fissure grew. 

Universal suffrage was not inevitable.

Odes to Susan B. Anthony on her gravestone

Socially conscious chocolate

It is devastating to me that throughout history, the gain of one group of people keeps another one out of the equation. Why can we not lift each other up? Is this how one demographic – historically white men – stays in power? 

Maybe. 

I was utterly disenchanted – with Susan B. Anthony, with suffragists, with the current state of the country, and the world. It was easy to see the flaws in people. I wanted to find the good. 

Owning and managing a socially conscious chocolate business sounds idyllic – and maybe it is, too much so. It’s harder than you may think to “do good” with each component of Laughing Gull Chocolates. We find tension everywhere. We think about the repercussions of every decision, and consider the impact of each partnership. What we do makes a difference: that is the entire concept on which Laughing Gull Chocolates is based.

ILoveNY Chocolate bars in a basket

Chocolate at The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House

When The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House approached us requesting our I<3NY chocolate bars and our chocolate uteruses, we were conflicted about how to proceed. Susan B. Anthony, “one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries,” was imperfect. One blogpost on the museum’s website, cites this 1866 entry from Anthony’s diary: 

What arrogance…to put the question, what shall we do with a race of men and women who have fed, clothed and supported both themselves and their oppressors for centuries…the only way to solve the race question; {was} to educate blacks to be equal to their opportunities, {and for} whites to be willing to share their privileges. 

Elements of this entry are anti-racist, elements push assimilation – and this is during the early days when she closely partnered with Frederick Douglass. This doesn’t even cover the subsequent years when Anthony distanced herself from Douglass, or late in the 19th century when she suggested that he not appear onstage with white women during a suffrage meeting – even if she ultimately left the decision up to him. There was a concern among some of the leaders of the movement that appearing together would offend white men, whose support they hoped to gain. What about intersectionality – what happens to progress without it? Choosing which aspects of her life or the narrative to share is not unique to this anecdote. 

In fact, both Susan B. Anthony and history have hidden her romantic relationships – but old letters reveal her relationships to be with women. However, she hid these relationships, presumably because had they been public, they may have dissuaded the public from supporting her – and therefore also pushing them away from the suffrage movement. 

Does this negate the progress she helped curate? Should we disengage from her history and vilify her, in spite of her advocacy and activist work? As individuals, and as a business, we strive to enfranchise all marginalized populations, and seek equity. Why must she hide her relationships – whether they were friendships with Black men like Frederick Douglass, or romantic relationships with women? 

(As a side note, we think she’d love our ethically, sourced chocolate – especially our Pride Bark and our Mind Your Own Uteruses!)

Chocolate uteruses in a basket

Hard questions & critical conversations

Historian and scholar Ann D. Gordon spoke in front of an audience at The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, posing the question “Was Susan B. Anthony a racist?” Even contemporary advocates of women’s suffrage disagreed: was the ballot a tool to achieve a social or religious purpose such as temperance, or was it a right? Gordon says, “to find inspiration in an historical figure is a complex task. In a sense we create a phantom person for our modern purposes.” We often pick and choose pieces of them.

Perhaps we can use all of Susan B. Anthony’s story to spark a conversation – about social justice and intersectionality, about activism, voting rights, or human rights. We can’t “wish away” her racism or her exclusionary tactics. In fact, unfortunately, as Gordon points out, activists and legislators are still forced to choose human rights. Whose rights do we want to fight for today? At whose expense? Who will we continue to marginalize? “Collision,” she calls it. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that we at Laughing Gull Chocolates fight against every day.

The way that we would support The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House pushed us to dig deeper and ask questions of ourselves. Ultimately, we are proud to partner with this organization that engages with all of Susan B. Anthony’s story. Supporting the museum supports a critical piece of history, and we love that they are sharing Susan B. Anthony’s whole story, and not picking and choosing only her positive traits. Furthermore, they are going out of their way to support a women-owned, LGBTQ+ owned, value-driven socially conscious business. In selling our chocolate, they are choosing to support our mission to decolonize cacao and change the world with chocolate; moreover, in alignment with our values of disruption and social justice, racial equity & belonging, our chocolate uteruses actively support reproductive justice for marginalized communities.

little girl playing on porch at

Laughing Gull Chocolates x Susan B. Anthony House & Museum

I visited the museum last week – it was my first time there, although it’s been on my Rochester bucket list since I moved here. I walked in, proudly donning my Laughing Gull Chocolates hat – newborn Micah asleep in my wrap, 3 year old Natalie playfully skipping inside looking for buttons to press, and asking innocent questions about the woman depicted throughout the building. Aisha, the Curator of Interpretation, welcomed us to the house with a smile. We had just missed the last tour, but could sign up online anytime. I introduced myself to Aisha, and mentioned that I was from Laughing Gull Chocolates. Aisha’s smile widened as she shared that since they started carrying them, our uteruses and I<3NY chocolates have been popular among their team as well as guests. Not only that, but they love the message of our business and our chocolates. This is the kind of partnership we appreciate: shared values, acknowledging and educating about our history together, disrupting and changing the world, and fighting towards equity today. 

We are proud that this partnership and our chocolate can help share Susan B. Anthony’s whole story, and I am looking forward to returning to the house for a tour. I shouldn’t be surprised at all of the things I have to unlearn, all of the misconceptions, and all of the history that hasn’t been told. I know I’ve just scratched the surface, and I can’t wait to dig deeper. 

Seven years after my move here, I’m still in awe of the legacy of activism and social justice here in western NY. I love being part of the Rochester community, continuing the tradition of making a difference and fighting for social justice for all – with our unique, delicious chocolate truffles, bars and confections.

PS – Before posting publicly, I shared this blogpost with the team at The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, who corrected a couple of facts I had mischaracterized, and added more context to my understanding. Did you know that suffragette was a derogatory term used by British detractors?? I found this 2020 New York Times article with explanation by seven distinct historians, who also provide further context. For example, the suffragist movement started with the abolition movement, and included thousands of Black women and working class women. Special thanks to Aisha and Aimee for reading, providing more context – and all your support! 

Ready to roll chocolate shortbread