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.
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.