Once again, Americans will watch as Ken Burns raises the country's lost voices. He's been doing it now for two decades, like a spiritualist who beckons viewers to gather around their TVs. But there's no need for hand-holding, candles or incantations on these occasions as filmmaker Burns channels the spirits of the past.
There were the soldiers and leaders, famous and obscure, whom Burns brought to life in "The Civil War." There were the long-gone players of "Baseball," and the ghosts of Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright, all conjured up for television.
"It's like a seance," said Burns. "I'm like a medium. The important thing is that people need to hear from their dead relatives, and their dead relatives have something to say."
His newest PBS documentary, "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony," airs Sunday and Monday at 8. In it, viewers will hear from two women who have been relatively overlooked -- and that, believes Burns, is not acceptable.
Burns said he had thought he knew a great deal about American history, but when his co-producer, Paul Barnes, began telling him about Stanton's life, he realized he knew almost nothing about Stanton and Anthony.
"They are the two most important women in America in terms of social and political change and they're almost completely unknown," he said. "They changed, for the better, the lives of a majority of Americans, and they're responsible for the largest political and social transformation in American history. How can we ignore this as a people?"
Stanton, he has concluded, "is the most important woman in American history, the mother of us all." Anthony, a plain-spoken Quaker, was pragmatic and tireless in her pursuit of the cause, he said, "but she's known to many people as a failed dollar coin."
For 41 consecutive years, the Congress of the United States refused to consider granting to more than half the population the right to vote in federal elections.
By 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally passed and ratified (in the Tennessee legislature, by only one vote), neither of the two women who had devoted their lives to the effort was alive to share the joy and cast the votes.
One of them would be remembered, to some extent: Susan Brownell Anthony, who remained unmarried and devoted herself to her single-minded strategy.
But the work of the other, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would remain largely overlooked. The daughter of a former Revolutionary War hero, gifted in both the written and spoken word, she was the mother of seven children and Anthony's longtime friend and comrade in the war for women's rights.
Both died at age 86, Stanton 18 years before women were given the right to vote, Anthony 14 years before. But they had been partners in a task they believed was so vital that, in Anthony's words, "failure is impossible."
The four-hour film was directed by Burns, written by Geoffrey C. Ward and narrated by Sally Kellerman. Julie Harris gives voice to Anthony and Ronnie Gilbert portrays Stanton.
Among the on-screen historians is Elisabeth Griffith, whose biography of Stanton Barnes had read. But no men speak on-screen, said Burns, because there was no one "qualified to speak about the largest social transformation in the history of our country, no male who was familiar with the nuts and bolts of this story, who could speak with authority."
"Not for Ourselves Alone" recounts the lives and struggles of the two very different women, who combined their talents to challenge the social, cultural and legal inequalities that for centuries had shackled American women.
Before they met, the two were driven by other agendas -- Cady's, abolitionism; Anthony's, temperance. Only after each had been denied the right to speak on their individual concerns did they meet and begin their historic partnership.
Elizabeth Cady was born on Nov. 12, 1815, in Jonestown, N.Y., into a well-to-do family. Her father had great plans for his sons, but they all died in childhood. "I wish you were a boy," he told her.
Cady was graduated from Troy Female Seminary, the nation's only institute of higher education for women, in 1832. (Not until the next year did Oberlin College in Ohio become the first in the country to admit women.) In 1840, she married abolitionist lawyer Henry Stanton and went with him to London for an anti-slavery convention, where she and another American, Lucretia Mott, were seated in a balcony behind a screen and denied the right to speak or vote.
The two decided to hold a convention for women's rights upon their return and did, in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848. Stanton presented her "Declaration of Rights and Sentiments" and 11 resolutions for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. Among the more than 300 men and women who attended was abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who helped persuade the delegates to pass the suffrage resolution. Black men were granted the vote in 1870 with ratification of the 15th Amendment.
Anthony was born Feb. 15, 1820, in Adams, Mass., where the local Quaker community numbered 40 families. She became a teacher in Rochester, N.Y., and an activist, speaking publicly in favor of temperance
-- a bold move at a time when speaking in public was considered indecent behavior for a woman. In the early 1800s, the film notes, women could not testify in a court of law or attend college, and wives were considered the property of their husbands.
In 1851, Stanton met Anthony at an anti-slavery lecture in Seneca Falls. Two years later, they founded the New York Woman's Temperance Society. Anthony gathered 28,000 signatures on a petition seeking to limit the sale of alcohol, but the state legislature rejected it because most of the signers were women.
At a time when women were urged to adhere to "the cult of true womanhood," focusing on marriage, children and home life, Anthony had other plans. In 1872, she and three others dared to register to vote (a shocked registrar in Rochester allowed them to do so) and then vote. This act of civil disobedience resulted in Anthony's arrest and conviction. She was fined $100, but refused to pay it.
The "Anthony Amendment," as Congress called the 19th Amendment, was simply stated: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
But for 41 years, the U.S. Congress refused, making the country slower to grant women the vote than many others, including New Zealand, where women could vote in 1893, and the Soviet Union.
The western states, as well, were ahead of the federal government: In 1869, Wyoming granted women the right to vote; in 1910 and 1911, Washington and California; in 1912, Oregon, Kansas and Arizona.
"Not for Ourselves Alone" -- dedicated to Burns's daughters Sarah and Lilly, and to Barnes's niece Melissa Barnes, whom he is raising -- is a documentary that Burns feels can empower a daughter and enlighten a son. But for this film, Burns may have an additional motive -- a tribute to his mother, who died when he was 11, and his grandmother, who "became the most important woman in my life."
On his grandmother's 85th birthday, Burns recalled, "I gave her a pair of Reeboks -- she wore them every day, bounding up the stairs. Then in the middle of one night, she fell -- somebody moved an ottoman -- and had so many fractures there was no way to fix them."
Lucille Burns, a graduate of Goucher College with a PhD from Yale, died in 1992 at age 94, and her grandson gave the eulogy.
Now Burns wonders about the legacy of Stanton, Anthony and his grandmother.
"In the 30 years since the heyday of the feminist movement, how much of those ideals have been abandoned? This post-feminist movement, this era of Victoria's Secret, has asked women to defer their dreams in many, many ways," he said.
"What could be more attractive to a man than a woman who wants to be equal?"
Burns, in town last month to talk to Howard University film students, had finished his lentil soup and herbal tea and was wrapping up an interview on a cheery note, describing his favorite New Yorker cartoons tweaking his success.
"You know, I've got the best job in the country," he said. "I was supposed to take a vow of anonymity and poverty, becoming a documentary filmmaker, and neither has happened."
Then a final question: Does this man who brings so many historic figures to life on television believe in an afterlife?
"Yes, I think so," he said. "Yes. I do." But he wanted to explain a moment that had troubled him not long ago.
"My mother had been dead 30 years and in some way I still wasn't accepting this. And I mentioned that to a friend, and he said to me: `What do you think you do for a living? You wake the dead.' "
Solitude Of Self
On Jan. 18, 1892, when she resigned the presidency of the National American Women's Suffrage Association, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reiterated in a speech what she thought was a woman's personal responsibility to herself.
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. And with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer.
Whatever the theories may be on women'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.
The strongest reason why we ask for women a voice in the government under which she lives, in the religion she is asked to believe, equality in social life where she is the chief factor, a place in the trades and professions where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty, because as an individual, she must rely on herself.
There is a solitude which each and every one of us has always carried, more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea: the solitude of self. Our inner being, which we call ourselves, no eye or touch of man or angel has ever pierced. Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take on himself, the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?