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The Other Sexual Revolution


A.L.: Do you have an explanation for why certainly Stanton, but both of them really, haven't become heroes the way, say, Frederick Douglass did?

K.B.: They were women.

A.L.: So we aren't interested?

K.B.: I think men are just fearful of women. Men have written history, and there's something threatening about this story. I mean, that is where my humiliation is -- I've been making films of American history for twenty years, why the hell don't I know anything about this? Women's history is somehow less -- somehow not as important, and that's what we wanted to overcome here.

Little by little, Stanton and Anthony gained ground. Their first legislative victory came in 1860, when the New York State Legislature passed the Married Woman's Property Act, which gave a wife the right to keep her earnings, own property, share custody of her children, and sue in a court of law. Women in other states began pressuring their legislatures to pass similar measures. The following year, the Civil War began.

K.B.: All of a sudden, the greatest country on earth tears itself apart over this issue of slavery. No matter what people tell you, it's slavery that was why the Civil War came, it was why the Civil War was fought . . .

Stanton persuaded Anthony, against her better judgment, to postpone their next convention and halt their activities until after the war, assuming that if women supported the Union, the government would reciprocate by granting women the vote. She was mistaken.

K.B.: When it's over, there's a sigh of relief. The women thought, Oh, this is great, we suspended what we were doing to help you, and now we're going to get universal suffrage. But the Republicans didn't have the fortitude to deal with them at that point.

The Thirteenth Amendment -- for which Stanton and Anthony vigilantly petitioned -- abolished slavery in 1865, three months before the end of the war. The South was readmitted to the Union on the condition that federal troops would occupy the region for a period known as Reconstruction. That summer, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed, stipulating that color would not be a reason to deny any American citizenship. The Fifteenth Amendment raised the right to vote. Over the objections of Anthony and Stanton, gender was not mentioned. The women were outraged; their abolitionist former allies had deserted them.

Abolitionists bid the women of the nation stand aside and behold the salvation of the negro. Wendell Phillips says, "One idea for a generation," to come up in the order of their importance. First negro suffrage, then temperance, then woman suffrage. Three generations hence, woman suffrage will be in order! What an insult to the women who have labored 30 years for the emancipation of the slave, now when he is their political equal, to propose to lift him above their heads.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Well, well . . . while the old guard sleep, the young "devils" are wide-awake. . . . We deserve to suffer for our confidence in "man's sense of justice."
-- Susan B. Anthony

K.B.: It becomes a zero-sum game for former slaves and women. A huge polity has to deal with the notion of emancipation, and the people who petition get left out. You can say blacks had the vote, but they didn't, really -- Jim Crow takes over as soon as Reconstruction collapses.

A.L.: But the women feel betrayed and embittered nonetheless.

Sambo isn't ready for the vote.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I must say that I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when they are the objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.
-- Frederick Douglass

When Mr. Douglass tells us that the cause of the black man is so perilous, I tell him that wronged and outraged as they are by this hateful and mean prejudice against color, he would not today exchange his sex and color, wronged as he is, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
-- Susan B. Anthony

K.B.: I think that this is what's so fascinating in this story: it just doesn't conform to what you think will happen. Oh, isn't that nice that Frederick Douglass stands up for Stanton and suffrage when no one else will -- not even Stanton's husband, not even Lucretia Mott -- and his voice carries the day at Seneca Falls. But then twenty minutes later, you're dealing with her talking about "Sambo" and him saying, This I can't abide! I think from the beginning they were heartsick about what she said. The way I've come to understand it is this: I'm sure you've been mad at someone at some point and said something you really regretted even though you loved them.

A.L.: It isn't just that one comment that mars their record on race, though. They exclude black women from their Atlanta convention years later in 1895 in order to placate other factions of their coalition.

K.B.: They were thinking, What do we have to do to get the vote? And so they made compromises. Remember, it's not until the mid-1960s that any of this stuff with race was earnestly taken up. So we're asking these women to be in a vanguard that none of the rest of the country was prepared to accept, and yet they were actually speaking about these things early on. I'm so interested in race -- it's what's animated most of my professional life -- and as uncomfortable as it is, I like the intersection here of race and gender.

A.L.: Isn't the idea of women's equality complicated by the fact that we're still debating the differences between men and women and, really, that "the cult of true womanhood" hasn't completely dissolved?

K.B.: No, it has not. We're in a postmodern, postfeminist movement in which so many people's self-definition is tied to external ideas of beauty and sexuality that it actually forces you not to ask a lot of these questions. And that's where you hope history is not about the past . . . hopefully, in some respect, people -- daughters -- say, Why do I have to be this way or why can't I do this? That's the thing that touched me the most about making this film. As a father of two daughters, as a single father of two daughters, I think about this. Stanton and Anthony themselves are burdened by the most unfair thing: that they don't look beautiful. Walt Whitman said that Lincoln was so awfully ugly he was beautiful. But men are forgiven; they are who they are. Women have to conform to some idea, and so there's another resistance to this story.

A.L.: It seems to me that a lack of appreciation for the work of the last generation has been a chronic problem for feminism.

K.B.: Absolutely. The word itself went out, because it wasn't sexy. But what could be more sexy than "claiming your birthright to self-sovereignty," as Stanton would say? There could be nothing more desirable, it would seem to me, than a free and independent woman.

No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men prefer to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency, they must know something of the laws of navigation. . . . The talk of sheltering women from the fierce storms of life is sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, to resist, to conquer. . . . 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,
"The Solitude of Self," 1892

A.L.: Really, we could say that it was actually a woman who cast the final vote for the Nineteenth Amendment and brought Stanton and Anthony's work on suffrage to fruition -- I mean Harry Burn's mother.

K.B.: There is no more dramatic story in American history than this: the passage of an amendment which requires a certain vote in the House and the Senate, then has to go to the states for ratification by two thirds of the votes. It comes down to the last state, it comes down to the last day and the last vote, and it is tied to a guy -- Harry Burn -- who's heretofore given the impression he's not going to vote for suffrage, which will send this issue back into the ages. But he votes for it because his mother tells him to.

Dear son . . . Vote for suffrage and don't keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were very bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not seen anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy. . . . With lots of love, Mama.
-- Phoebe "Febb" Burn

K.B.: You couldn't make this up. If you sent it to a Hollywood producer you'd have to change it because it's too improbable. There but for Mrs. Burn . . .

A.L.: Who knows?

K.B.: Who knows.


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