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“Our Big Time”

June 2024
6min read

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

On November 2, 1920, for the first time in history, more than eight million American women exercised their newly won right to vote in precincts all over the country. A caravan of automobiles shuttled seventy residents of a home for elderly women to the polls on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In Rhode Island a candidate for state office could not contain her joy. “Now we know what a political earthquake is,” she said. In Philadelphia large numbers of women voters turned out—despite a new city ordinance meant to discourage them by insisting that women declare their ages to the registrars. In Atlanta seventy-five black women went to the polls only to have their ballots nullified by technicalities. In Baltimore an elderly judge who had overseen elections in one precinct for twenty years found himself with little to do; according to the Baltimore Sun, “the women had taken almost everything out of his hands.” “I’m going to let them carry the ballot box downtown,” the Judge said. Of the twenty nuns at St. Catherine’s Normal Institute in the same city, ten went to the polls. “I only wish I had an airship,” said one who had been prevented from voting because she was from out of town, “so I could go home to Texas and participate.”

Across the country, from the mountains of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho, where women had voted for years, to the farm communities of the Midwest and the small towns of New England and the Deep South, it was the same. An energy, a deep, abiding, democratic energy, was being released, and in many ways the American Revolution was coming to fruition. Thomas Jefferson had proclaimed that equality would be the bedrock of a new American government in 1776, but it had taken 144 years for women finally to achieve full citizenship in the United States, and the two women who had fought longest and hardest for women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had not lived long enough to cast a ballot themselves.

For most of the life of this Republic, the way we have formally told our history has been from the top down.

For most of the life of this Republic, the way we have formally told our history has been from the top down. This is essentially the history of the state, and it basically focuses on wars and generals and Presidents, the story of “great men.” It relies on an assumption that this myopic view of our past eventually engages everyone in the American narrative and touches experiences common to us all. It does not, and we, as a people, have often been forced to rely on family memory and community recollection to make all that political history somehow meaningful.

In recent years, though, we have begun to see our past from a variety of new perspectives, finding in the million heroic acts of ordinary citizens—history from the bottom up this time—a new and sustaining vision of the ongoing pageant of human events in America. As we explore these new historical approaches, we are confronted daily with an increasingly vivid sense of their central importance to the whole of American studies.

In the summer of 1988, during the production of a documentary film series on the history of the Civil War—a series that struggled in every one of its episodes to show the war from a variety of personal as well as aerial viewpoints—my editor Paul Barnes regaled our small staff each day at lunch with his infectious enthusiasm for a book he was reading on the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a name that rang only the vaguest of bells for me. As retold around the table by Paul, Elisabeth Griffith’s excellent biography came alive for all of us, and I decided that summer to add Stanton’s name to a list of film portraits we were planning to produce in the years to come, films on Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, and Frank Lloyd Wright.


stanton and anthony
Anthony and Stanton. PBS

It took us longer than we expected, but finally Paul (who was persuaded to leave his editing machine to produce the film with me) and I started work on what has proved to be one of the most satisfying experiences of our professional lives. Eventually we decided to enlarge our scope by transforming the two-part mini-series we envisioned into a dual biography, pairing Stanton with her long-time friend and protégée, the more well-known (perhaps “less obscure” is the better and more honest phrase) Susan B. Anthony. The completed three-hour film not only details the dramatic and sometimes poignant fifty-year relationship between these two remarkable women but is in effect the story of women’s rights in the nineteenth century. The documentary became as well an anatomy of a nascent political movement, filled, as all great movements are, with success and retreat, compromise and conviction, individual heroism and transcendent rhetoric. In the end the story of these two women touched themes that speak to the deepest aspect of the personal, indeed spiritual and psychological, lives of all of us.

The documentary became as well an anatomy of a nascent political movement, filled with success and retreat, compromise and conviction, individual heroism and transcendent rhetoric.

These two women are most responsible for the largest social transformation in American history, a transformation that, unlike Jefferson’s narrow (white, propertied males) Declaration of Independence, affected a majority of American citizens and has provided the model for a host of other twentieth century agitations.

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 property 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.”

“This was our big time,” she said of the suffragist marches that paraded up and down Beacon Hill in Boston.

“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.

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