Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony is a lavishly illustrated accompaniment to the film by the United States’ premiere documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Geoffrey Ward, author and screenwriter, has worked previously with Burns and the team at Florentine Films on the miniseries The Civil War and Baseball. It has been said that more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than from any other source, and that forty million Americans have watched The Civil War. If that is so, then readers should be glad about the latest collaboration on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the most important (and, say the filmmakers, least-known) women of the nineteenth century. The project was affectionately known to the production team as “The Babes” because of an editorial cartoon picturing “Ken Burns’ TO DO list.” The first thing on the list was “WAR,” which was checked off. The second thing on the list was “SPORTS,” and it was checked off. The third thing on the list was “BABES,” which was not checked off. Saying that Stanton and Anthony are unknown, however, denigrates the restoration work of women’s studies scholars over the past quarter century. Burns and company are admitting that they were not familiar with Stanton and Anthony, whereas most colleges and universities now include women’s studies and women’s history in the curriculum.
As the guest historians make clear in both book and film, the process of making the United States a more democratic institution—“the largest social transformation in American history”—really began with Stanton and Anthony’s strategies in the nineteenth century. Jeffersonian democracy was only for white males while the vaunted Jacksonian period of the 1830’s did nothing for women or African American slaves. All the twentieth century movements for expanding the electorate (the Civil Rights movement, the gay rights and Native American movements) use the techniques and arguments first pioneered by Stanton and Anthony: petition drives, grassroots organizing, lecture tours, national conventions, direct action, and arguments based on the common humanity of all citizens.
These two women formed a partnership and intense friendship based on their mutual belief in women’s rights, but they were dissimilar in many ways. Their childhoods could not have been more different. Stanton’s wealthy lawyer-father, after the death of his sole surviving son, kept saying to Elizabeth throughout her childhood and brilliant school days, “I wish you had been a boy.” Stanton soon learned what she could not do as a female of middle-class status: She could not get a college education, become a lawyer, vote, control her own money, sue for divorce, have custody of her children; if married she could not earn her own living, sue or be sued, and she was not to speak in public.
Anthony, on the other hand, grew up in a rural Quaker family where the Quaker meeting was so strict that when her father married “out of Meeting” (her mother was a Baptist), he had to appear before the elders for chastisement and sentencing. Still, Daniel Anthony was adamant about equality for daughters and sons, so when the elementary teacher refused to teach Susan long division because she was a girl, he began his own home school for his children and the young women who worked in the textile mills.
Stanton’s awakening to the necessity of a women’s movement came at the 1840 London World’s Anti-Slavery Convention where she accompanied her new husband Henry, an abolitionist organizer, on their wedding trip. The female American delegates, duly elected by their antislavery societies in the United States (some female-only groups and some mixed groups), were denied credentials on the grounds of their sex: It was not ladylike for women to participate in such public groups. The debate on whether to seat the women took up several days at the beginning of the convention, and although well-known male abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison supported the women, they were forced to sit upstairs behind a curtain and were not allowed to speak. Stanton met Lucretia Mott, a well-known Quaker preacher, at the convention, and together they vowed to have a meeting about women’s rights on their return.
Holding that meeting took eight years, during which Stanton was busy as a housewife and mother. In 1848, Mott traveled to upstate New York from Philadelphia, and Stanton was invited to tea in Waterloo with five other women. There they determined to hold a meeting on women’s rights five days hence at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, Stanton’s hometown. Stanton wrote most of the document presented at the meeting, the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled on the Declaration of Independence but beginning, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The grievances listed are laid not at the feet of King George, but at the feet of man, all men. The resolutions, which called for equal access to the professions, no sexual double- standard, equal education, consciousness-raising, and, finally, the vote, were...
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