Not just in history itself but in our telling of history, Ken Burns says, women have been shunted aside.
Their accomplishments have been buried to make room for the classic American tales we know: the struggles of the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, civil rights. Where, in all this vast and worthy history, are the women?
In his latest documentary, "Not for Ourselves Alone," which airs on PBS in two parts tomorrow and Monday nights from 8 to 10, Burns attempts to right this wrong. He tells the history of suffrage through the experiences of two greats, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They were fierce crusaders for the vote, yet as obscure to the modern-day American, Burns maintains, as the flip side of a dollar coin.
"These two women led the largest social movement in the history of the country," Burns said this week in an interview, referring to the endpoint of the women's struggles: the 1920 suffrage vote. "Why is this less important than the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg or the sixth game of the 1975 World Series?"
"Not for Ourselves Alone," which traces the efforts of Stanton and Anthony through the latter half of the 19th century, brings back a time when women could not own property, speak in public forums or testify in court. It was a time so different from ours that when five women (one of them Stanton) organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention declaring women equal to men, not one of those organizers felt qualified to chair the event.
So they asked a man.
When Stanton and Anthony met and began their 50-year friendship in 1851, women's enfranchisement was far off, but perhaps not as far off as they expected. Neither woman would live to vote--unless you count the incident in 1872 when Anthony fast-talked her way into a registry in Rochester, N.Y., voted, and was arrested for it. Her trial, conviction and $100 fine make up one of the refreshing anecdotes that "Not for Ourselves Alone" unearths.
In truth, there's a lot here that may surprise you. There are tales of the two women traveling to little towns where they were pelted with eggs, lecturing in legislatures and in an insane asylum, labeling a group of uncooperative schoolmarms "jackasses," and generally stirring up as much trouble as two fiery reformers of their time knew how.
It's a testament to how much things haven't changed, say producers Burns and Paul Barnes, that the history of these two women has been virtually buried.
"We'd arrive at some archives," Burns said, "and it was almost as if we were explorers, discovering."
Stanton, a reformer from a wealthy background, and Anthony, a fiercely principled Quaker, sparked each other like matter meeting antimatter. Stanton was a writer with a free-thinking brand of brilliance that became eccentricity in old age. She bravely slashed "obey" from her marriage vows, and her relationship with her abolitionist husband was pockmarked by the years they spent apart pursuing separate dreams.
Anthony was a former teacher with a fierce sense of justice who never married. "I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man's housekeeper," she once said. Her interests moved from temperance to abolition and finally settled on women's suffrage. She was eager to travel and speak publicly at a time when women simply didn't do that.
Stanton had seven children, and the film reveals that her constant childbearing annoyed the single and single-minded Anthony, who always kept her eyes on the prize of women's suffrage.
Later in life, Stanton pursued such issues as women's right to divorce and alternative interpretations of patriarchal themes in the Bible, but Anthony always remained a formidable locomotive for women's suffrage. Nothing was as important to her as the vote, and she pursued it with an obsessive, even narrow pragmatism.
In time, Stanton's unorthodox stands alienated her from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which she and Anthony had partly founded. And Anthony, a former abolitionist, grew more conservative in her old age as she forged alliances with Southern whites who wanted to exclude blacks from the group.
By the time Stanton died at age 86 in 1902, she was nearly blind, weighed at least 240 pounds and could barely walk. Anthony, who was four years younger, died in 1906.
"Just think," Anthony once told a friend, according to the documentary. "I have been striving for over 60 years for a little bit of justice, no bigger than that. And yet I must die without it. It seems so cruel."
There is such a thing as cultural myopia. From our vantage point in 1999, it seems inevitable that women would one day hoist their long skirts and step into some hot schoolhouse to cast paper ballots in the name of individual freedom. That this moment of enfranchisement seems fated is a testament to this century's crescendo of rapidly changing circumstances. But this distorted perspective makes the struggles of Stanton, Anthony and other suffragists seem easy. It wasn't easy.
With the storytelling finesse he demonstrated in "The Civil War," "Thomas Jefferson" and "Baseball," Burns pulls anecdote and intrigue from the depths of documents to give his audience a feel for the savory internal lives of Stanton (played by singer Ronnie Gilbert) and Anthony (played by Julie Harris). The bulk of the three-hour documentary consists of voice-overs layered upon black-and-white photographs, but the energy of the tales manages to make us feel as though the pictures move.
At the same time, the film's pace sometimes drags and its focus on the minuscule quibbles of the women's friendship may prompt the viewer to click away, impatient. Of course, Stanton's and Anthony's lives were characterized by times of fading hope and rejuvenation, failure and success. But the documentary's obligation is to spin those lives into a story, and its occasional false starts may make the viewer long for a smoother ride.
Still, "Not for Ourselves Alone" is a penetrating and rewarding examination of two brave and moral women. As the film makes clear, theirs was a voyage not merely through the courts and the Constitution, but through the outer limits of courage.
CAPTION: Susan B. Anthony in 1848.