Two Pushy Ladies Burning Up Television

I recently received an invitation to a television and video festival in Biarritz, Switzerland, and was casting about for an interesting hour of television–”something you feel passionate about”–to present at a panel with critics from four other countries. I’d just worked up an appetite for the trip–balmy weather in January, an excursion to Bilbao, Spain–and was deliberating which episode of Law and Order to take when I was uninvited. The event had been scuttled because three of the panelists dropped out.

Meanwhile, I had asked a friend to lend me her cassette of Ken Burns’ and Paul Barnes’ documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony –first shown on PBS in November with so little fanfare that I’d neglected to tape it. The request was made more out of a sense of duty than through any insatiable curiosity. Nothing seemed more opposed to the glam gams and swinging hair of today’s hot telefeminists who I adore–the lawyers on Ally McBeal , the assistant district attorneys on Law and Order , the variously preoccupied professionals on Sex and the City –than those two stolid 19th-century suffragists, Stanton and Anthony, rocking on the front porch like one’s maternal and paternal grandmother, ironing out the differences for the sake of family.

But by the time I’d sat through two enthralling hours, I considered the program the best thing on television last year. The only question left was which hour I’d have taken to Biarritz. The first introduces the two women–Anthony, Quaker schoolteacher and spinster by choice (“to be wedded to an idea may be the holiest and happiest of marriages”) and Stanton, the fun-loving child of a large, well-to-do family, later a wife with seven children of her own–and takes them through the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 with its Declaration of Sentiments, up to the American Equal Rights Association Convention in 1869 when there was a bitter falling out among the ranks over black male suffrage.

The second episode shows their struggles and conflicts with the world and each other, their love of a good campaign, their uncanny ability to submerge their differences for the common good, their winding down, Stanton’s last richly solitary decade, her writing of The Solitude of Self , and the denouement, the 20th-century aftermath. In 1920, women’s suffrage wins by a hair’s breadth, the vote decided by one very young legislator from Tennessee, a man who’d fully intended to vote against, but was swayed at the last moment by a letter from his mother.

Mr. Burns has a genius for bringing back the past with poignant immediacy, and through my tears I began to ponder the marginalization of the documentary, the presumption of a general lack of enthusiasm that was, from my own first reaction, not misplaced. His brother Ric Burns’ six-part documentary about New York may have used up the prime-time quota for PBS audiences.

Why the indifference? Why do we so take for granted these extraordinary women and relegate to the musty attic the scrapbook of their miraculous collaboration on the most momentous revolution in our country’s history? They are no less important to the evolving push and pull of democracy than the fathers of our country, yet we hardly treat them with the same reverence, or give them the space they deserve in the history books. The fact that the enfranchisement of women took so long–72 years after the Seneca Falls convention–only underlines the ferocity of the resistance to the idea of women’s equality that still plagues our lives with doubts as we all too often run for cover.

Why do women, most of whose rights and privileges as workers, wives, divorcees, single mothers, largely proceed from these two lionesses, disavow the word feminist? And those of us who call ourselves feminist, why do we not beat a path to the shrine?

The image of those two strong old women pricks our consciences, and shames and embarrasses. Like one 100-year-old witness says, “They were a little bit unladylike, but when they got the vote we were thankful. We had to wake up, too.”

Susan B. Anthony, the master strategist and pragmatist, is of course the better known of the two, having stayed the course with the National Woman Suffrage Association when the younger women were turned off by Stanton’s radicalism. This “wild woman” was embarrassing the movement by telling women to take control of their bodies, and, even more notoriously, preaching against the church in her Woman’s Bible .

Both were shaped by the reformist ferment and evangelical zeal of their day, antislavery and temperance causes that were being debated throughout the northeast, but Anthony was the activist, Stanton the philosopher with words as her weapons (“I forge them, she fires them”).

Born into a large upper-middle class family–or more accurately, an upper class mother and self-made lawyer father–Stanton’s allegiance was always to her father even though, after the death of all three of his sons, the inconsolable man told her, repeatedly, he wished she’d been a boy. She vowed to fill the void, yet ironically, he never approved of her feminist activities as she paved the way on a spectrum of women’s sovereignty issues–marriage, property rights, sexuality–always understanding the importance of suffrage in anchoring the wider agenda.

Plump, pretty, and quick-witted, Stanton loved being a star on the lecture trail where she projected a reassuring motherly image while calling for radical change. At various junctures we see the “enemy”–a phalanx of smug white males, as jurors or legislators, who “just don’t get it.” But what made Anthony and Stanton truly despair was the apathy of women. As she grew older, Stanton continued to urge political action but addressed herself more and more to the “inner woman.”

“The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education,” she wrote in The Solitude of Self , “for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear–is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.”

This was the existential message she bequeathed us, the most radical and terrifying of all.