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The Other Sexual Revolution

Our daughters know everything about their bodies and their selves. What they don't know is what it took to win them their rights. Ken Burns thinks it's time they met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the brilliant odd-couple activists who brought women the vote.

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Ken burns is all worked up. in the twenty years he has been making documentaries, Burns hasn't exactly confined himself to history's quieter moments. Brooklyn Bridge (1981), The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), Thomas Jefferson (1997), Lewis & Clark (1997), and Frank Lloyd Wright (1998) all presented him with the challenge of renewing interest in some of America's most grand and familiar narratives. But in his latest project, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, airing on PBS November 7 and 8, this single father of two daughters has charged himself with telling the virtually unknown story of the crusade for women's suffrage propelled by two heroines who have been all but forgotten.

Burns isn't happy about that: "I could go to a convention of 10,000 American historians and say, Could someone talk to me about the second day at Gettysburg? Could you tell me about the sixth game of the 1975 World Series? And everybody's hand would go up. Could you tell me what happened in November 1872 in Rochester after Susan B. Anthony voted? Nothing. What's 'The Solitude of Self,' a speech that ranks with Emerson's essay 'Self-Reliance'? I mean, these women led the largest social transformation in American history, and nobody knows a goddamned thing about it."

Seventy-two years after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote what she called the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. She shocked the first American women's-rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, when she declared that "all men and women are created equal," and insisted -- against the fears of her colleagues, not to speak of her husband -- that women had a fundamental right and an overwhelming need to vote. It would be another 72 years before the Nineteenth Amendment granted women's suffrage, and neither Stanton nor her collaborator Susan B. Anthony lived to cast a ballot. New York's Ariel Levy sat with Burns to hear why this crucial and compelling slice of history has gone unexamined, and to find out who these heroines were.

If God has assigned a sphere to man and one to woman, we claim the right ourselves to judge His design in reference to us. . . . We think that a man has quite enough to do to find out his own individual calling, without being taxed to find out also where every woman belongs.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The old idea that man was made for himself, and woman for him, that he is the oak, she the vine, he the head, she the heart, he the great conservator of wisdom . . . she of love, will be rever ently laid aside with other long since exploded philosophies of the ignorant past.
-- Susan B. Anthony

Ken Burns: This is, at its heart, the story of a 50-year friendship between two women who could not have been more different: Stanton's born to wealth and comfort, is a gourmet, she eats a lot, she's got kids, she's married, she's had a passionate life, she's a real revolutionary and a great writer. Anthony, who lacks confidence in the beginning, is thin and spare and a Quaker, chooses not to marry, and then becomes the pragmatic wing of the Stanton ideology.

Ariel Levy: Anthony starts out as Stanton's protégée, but ultimately outlives her and is the one who ends up the more effective champion of suffrage.

K.B.: I worked on this project two or three years before I decided we had to include Anthony as a co-equal -- even though she's the legs and the eyes of the movement and she's the one who decides that the vote is at its heart. But Stanton's courage was the starting point of my interest.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the youngest of the five women who organized the Seneca Falls convention. It was she who insisted on including the right to vote in their platform despite the doubts of her abolitionist husband Henry Brewster Stanton and her colleague Lucretia Mott, who warned: "Thou wilt make the convention ridiculous." In 1848, a married woman had no right to property, no right to sign contracts, no right to the custody of her children, no right to divorce, and no right to serve on a jury. But above these pressing needs, Stanton knew the right to vote was indispensable.

Strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live. . . . To have drunkards, idiots, horse-racing rum-selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners, and silly boys fully recognized, while we are ourselves thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens, is too grossly insulting to . . . be longer quietly submitted to.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The convention voted in favor of women's suffrage, immediately after a powerful endorsement from Frederick Douglass.

All that distinguishes man as an intellectual and accountable being is equally true of woman; and if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise. Our doctrine is that "Right is of no sex."
-- Frederick Douglass

A.L.: You have to wonder where Stanton got this courage and how she came to be such a free thinker. I had expected Anthony to be the more far-out of the two because she's the one who chooses to be single and travel the country while Stanton is tied up in motherhood and domestic duty, but it's Stanton who continually pushes for more and more radical goals.

"Whatever the theories may be of woman's dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life, he cannot bear her burdens. In the tragedies and triumphs of human experience, each mortal stands alone."
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

K.B.: That is the human mystery. These are decisions of the heart. I'm moved by the idea of giving up 50 or 60 years of your life to a movement.

A.L.: They don't start out with women's rights as their focus, but with the ideal of equality and, more specifically, abolitionism.

K.B.: Right, they are inspired in their work first by temperance . . . if you have no power and you're getting the shit kicked out of you, you need to change the laws about alcohol. It's a shrewd way to protect women. But what really draws them to a life of commitment and reform is the abolitionist cause, and at first that's where some of their great allies come from.

Susan B. Anthony, the daughter of a Quaker abolitionist reformer, met Stanton when she was visiting Seneca Falls to hear an anti-slavery address by William Lloyd Garrison. The two women began a lifelong partnership in which Stanton -- who often felt like "a caged lion," pacing the home in which she would raise seven children -- supplied much of the thinking and writing that energized Anthony's countless speeches throughout the country. It was Anthony who rented the halls, built the coalition, and faced crowds prone to pelting her with rotten eggs.

K.B.: There's a cruelty to history's selections. When you think about the last half of the nineteenth century, what comes to mind is Indian fighting, lawlessness, and Western expansion, right? Custer. This is the popular notion. But more of who we are now has to do with this great struggle.


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