Not For Ourselves Alone
In Death of a Salesman Linda Loman tells her children that Willy Loman must not be ignored at the end of his life. "Attention," she says, "must be paid." In our culture today attention is for sale: advertisers pay for ours when we watch commercial television, and the price, according to documentary film maker Ken Burns, is that we sacrifice our ability to attend. "Attention," he argues, "is the only thing any of us have of value in our lives."If attention must be paid, your attention to Burns' latest work will be repaid -- not only in knowledge, but in inspiration. With a two-part documentary sponsored by General Motors, titled "Not For Ourselves Alone," Burns and his co-producer Paul Barnes bring us the story of two great women leaders in American history: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In this touching, well-wrought film, covering more than 100 years of American history, we learn that these women were not only great leaders: they were also great friends.The story begins in 1815 with the birth of Elizabeth Cady. The eighth child of eleven, she is plagued throughout her life by her father's refrain, "I wish you were a boy." She becomes a loving mother and an excellent hostess, but she also becomes one of the most radical authors -- quite literally -- of the movement for women's rights.Meanwhile, Susan B. Anthony, born in 1819 to a devout Quaker family, is a school teacher who has refused several marriage propositions on the grounds that she does not want to become either a "drudge" -- an unpaid housekeeper -- or a precious pet, a "doll." She is an abolitionist activist, and first meets Stanton after the Seneca Falls convention in 1851.When Stanton and Anthony meet the intellectual attraction is instant. Stanton, more house bound because of her children, becomes the author and the ideologue. Anthony, freer to travel, becomes the organizer and the coalition builder. As Stanton wrote of their partnership: "I forged the thunderbolts. She fired them."Seventy years later, in 1920, after years of struggle, a newspaper called "The Revolution," hundreds of conferences, meetings, and public speeches, splits, factionalism, racism within the movement, legal strategies, and civil disobedience, American women win the vote. Stanton and Anthony are not alive to see the movement they created reach one of its most important goals. And yet their failures remain as important -- and as interesting -- as the movement's ultimate victory.For instance, did you know that Stanton first submitted a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote to Congress in the 1870s, and that it was rejected for more than 40 years? Did you know that Anthony tried to vote in Rochester, New York -- and succeeded -- and was then tried and convicted of the crime of being a woman in 1872? Did you know that Stanton wrote an interpretation of the Bible called the Women's Bible, which became an immediate best-seller in 1895? Until this minute, had you ever heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at all?Burns explains that he himself was "humiliated" when he first learned the story of Stanton's life, and realized how little he knew about the struggle for women's rights. His "humiliation turned to outrage" when he started tracking the pernicious attempts to keep this story out of the mainstream:"People assume that because women did it, it is somehow lesser. Or, that like castor oil, women's history is 'good for you.' But I'm interested in this story because it's a great story. It's as dramatic as the second day of Gettysburg and as dramatic as the sixth game of the '75 World Series."Over the last 15 years Burns has been criticized for focusing on subjects -- like Gettysburg and the World Series -- which are more likely to be about men and attract a male audience. Though his films always treat women subjects, Burns himself said that baseball "is the key to the emotional life of millions of people -- particularly men." And so what might be the key to the emotional life of women?"That's a terrific question. Women are everything, and yet they have been nothing in American history. I wanted to change the nothing into everything. Because in the end, this film is not about women, it's about American history. This film is an attempt to degender the story of American feminism. I'm as proud of this film as anything I've ever done."Burns continues to remain a target for criticism, in part because his viewers do pay attention. When "Not For Ourselves Alone" was previewed at Harvard University, one audience member wondered where Burns filmed the Seneca Falls convention scene, since the Wesleyan Chapel in which the convention took place no longer exists. Burns explained that he used another chapel, very similar to the original, because he wanted to convey the emotion of the place; in a Ken Burns film truth can be found in the emotion it produces as much as in its attention to historical fact.In Not For Ourselves Alone the emotion is produced by the friendship between Stanton and Anthony. While Stanton, with her seven children, explains that her "soul is in the work but [her] hands belong to her family," Anthony frequently persuades Stanton to leave her home to write, attend conferences, and make speeches. Stanton tells Anthony, "there is no saying no to you." Their bond seems stronger and more durable than most marriages.The real sadness of the film comes not from the litany of their failures, but from Stanton's conclusion, towards the end of her life, that women must have equal rights in order to face the "solitude of self," the inevitable aloneness that comes near death."In the tragedies and triumphs of human experience, each mortal stands alone...there is a solitude, which each and every one of us has always carried, more inaccessible than the ice cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea, the solitude of self."Ironically, however, if there is any lesson to be taken from Not For Ourselves Alone," it is that "alone," we are powerless. Stanton, while she faced the solitude of self with great eloquence, gave a greater gift to us in her example: her commitment to building a movement, her commitment to Anthony, and her commitment to making her daughters feminists, too.As for Burns, if he has changed the face of public television, drawing 40 million viewers to the Civil War and 45 million to his series on baseball, perhaps his influence is also being felt in commercial television -- with the proliferation of biographies, "intimate portraits," and "mysteries and scandals" on channels, like A&E, Lifetime, E! Entertainment Television, VH1 and MTV.The popularity of such programs, and Burns' own successful biography series, of which Not For Ourselves Alone is a part, can be explained by the fact that in biography we have access to the story of a whole generation. Biography is not just the history of a person, but of a people. In biography we seek not the solitude of the self, but rather the reassurance of the collective: the knowledge that we are not, for ourselves, alone."Not For Ourselves Alone" airs on PBS on November 7 and 8. Check local listings for showtimes.