- Historic Sites
“Our Big Time”
THE FILMMAKER, who has just finished a documentary on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believes what the two women achieved was nothing less than the largest social transformation in American history
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
When these two wonderfully opposite and equally brilliant women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were born in the first fifth of the nineteenth century, women in America had fewer rights than a raving lunatic (male, of course) in an insane asylum. Women were barred from the pulpit and all professions, prevented from attending college. No woman could serve on a jury, and most were considered “incompetent” to testify in court. Women could not sign contracts, keep or invest earnings, own or inherit property; they had no rights in divorce, including the custody of the children they bore. In fact, women were the prop erty of their husbands, who were entitled—by law—to their wives’ wages and bodies. Moreover, the ballot by which women might have voted to improve their status was denied them by law. Nowhere in America—nowhere in the world—did women have the right to vote.
When these two extraordinary women passed from the scene in the opening days of the new twentieth century, most of those rights self-evident to us had been achieved for women in America, and Stanton and Anthony could take credit for much of that progress. “They are women’s history of the 19th century,” the biographer Kathleen Barry insists. And when the vote finally came, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that gave women that right was word for word what Stanton and Anthony had been submitting and resubmitting to Congress for decades.
Looking back over the complicated expanse of the twentieth century, the ninety-eight-year-old Ruth Dyk, speaking in an interview for our film, remembered the excitement of the push for the vote when she was just a girl (her mother was active in the movement). “This was our big time,” she said of the suffragist marches that paraded up and down Beacon Hill in Boston. When the vote came, Ruth was overjoyed: “We had worked so long, we had worked so hard. We never thought it would happen....If you had worked for years to do it, if you believed in it, if you thought great things were going to come out of it—great in terms of the position of women in our culture, position of women in their jobs, position of women everywhere—and this was going to improve that...I mean lives would be changed.”
“Remember, in those days, women were in the kitchen. Men did the voting. And [the women] let them do the voting. [Women] weren’t interested,” says Ethel Hall, of Long Island, now one hundred years old. She, too, vividly recalled for us the excitement of the new movement: “...a woman in Cold Spring Harbor...rode a white horse all the way to Albany trying to educate people along the way on why women should have the vote.” She also recollected the worries and doubts she and many others had, the undertow of all the hubbub for rights: “I remember the women suffragettes. It seemed rather bold and unladylike to venture out in the world...they were a little bit unladylike, but when we got the vote, we were thankful to them. We had to wake up too.”
On November 2, 1920, Ethel voted for the first time, in Rockville Centre, New York. She had turned twenty-one the previous April and was just starting her career, teaching English and math to eighth graders. With an impish shrug she admits on camera that she followed her father’s advice and voted “for Warren G. Harding of Teapot Dome!” But then Ethel Hall, born in the waning moments of the nineteenth century, alive and well at the dawn of the twenty-first, smiled an even deeper smile and told us of the pride she felt that day and still feels, a pride that speaks not only to her own personal transformation but to the two great women who had made that development possible. In the last moment of the interview she gave, she paused and in a strong, clear voice said, “I had just been graduated from college, and up there we were taught the slogan ‘Not for ourselves alone, but that we must teach others.’ I felt [voting] was something I could do for my country. And I was very happy about it.”
Not for ourselves alone.