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Pioneers of women's rights get overdue attention

Sunday, November 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Susan B. Anthony was: (A) Pictured on a failed $1 coin. ( B) Someone who helped achieve voting rights for women.

(C) One of the two most important women in American history.

Depending on your knowledge of history, you'd probably choose A or B. PBS documentarian Ken Burns wants you to consider choice C, and he's created a four-hour biography to prove his point.


"Not for ourselves alone"

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on WQED/WQEX

Narrator: Sally Kellerman


"Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" premieres tonight at 9 (the second half airs tomorrow) and tells the remarkable story of two of the most prominent figures in the women's suffrage movement.

Using the style he made famous in "The Civil War," Burns documents the friendship and efforts of Stanton and Anthony through their correspondence. Actress Julie Harris gives voice to Anthony, and Ronnie Gilbert, singer in the old folk

group The Weavers, speaks for Stanton.

"When these two wonderfully opposite and equally brilliant women were born in the beginning of the 19th century,

women in America had less rights than a lunatic -- male, of course -- in an insane asylum," Burns told TV critics this summer in Pasadena, Calif.

He described his film as a universal story about the friendship between two women from different walks of life -- Stanton was married with children, Anthony was single -- who formed a political movement. Yet their achievements have gone unnoticed.

"You look around and Andy Jackson gets two chapters in any history book, and these guys get a picture of Amelia Bloomer in her pants with a caption about a developing women's rights movement," Burns said. "But they changed for the better the lives of a majority of American citizens."

Burns directed "Not for Ourselves Alone" and produced it with long-time collaborator Paul Barnes. While Anthony is the better-known of the pair, Burns and Barnes place greater importance on the work of Stanton. Barnes said she was forgotten because her views were more radical, that Anthony took a more pragmatic, even conservative approach.

"If Anthony were here today, she would unquestionably agree with what we've said, that Stanton is the mother of us all in regard to these philosophical and political rights that she was advocating," Burns said. "And that Anthony needed to be wound up in the beginning and take the words of Stanton out into the world.

"Stanton, who was married and had seven children, didn't have the mobility that Anthony, who was unmarried all of her life, had," Burns said. "So Anthony was out there on the road, meeting, forging the constituencies. The disciples of Anthony naturally made her the mother of it all because she was the face they saw in every Middlesex village and farm."

That viewpoint doesn't sit well with Kathleen Barry, a Penn State professor of human development and author of "Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist" (1st Books). Barry served as a consultant on "Not for Ourselves Alone" and praised the film, save her one disagreement with Burns.

"He follows the popular view of historians today that Stanton was the great philosopher and Anthony did the work for her," Barry said. "He uses these terrible images of Stanton as the head and Anthony as the foot. You can live without a foot; you can't live without a head.

"I just don't think he can deal with single women," Barry said. "He can deal with a philosophical woman who was a wife and mother, but Anthony seems to be too strong for these guys."

Barry emphasized both women were lost in history.

"The reason I did the biography of Susan B. Anthony is that we only know her as a name and as a very unpleasant looking spinster, and we don't have any other knowledge of her except that she worked on the right to vote," Barry said. "What history does to women who accomplish great things, and in this case great things for women, is to diminish them by making them invisible or reducing them to ridicule."

While Barry and Burns may have their differences about which of the two women at the heart of this movement deserves the greater amount of credit, both agree that recognition of their contributions is long overdue.

"You can open a textbook and find no commensurate space [given] to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony today," Burns said. "Having begun the century with no rights and gone into the new 20th century with basic human rights, you would assume that this democracy would have promoted, that this would be one of the hallelujah stories that would be taught and re-taught. That Stanton's prose would be as celebrated as Emersons', that she would with Anthony and the rest of the movement take up at least proportional space in our history books. And that has not happened."

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