Soft-peddled in history books, virtually ignored during the latter half of the 20th century, the selfless revolution forged by feminist/suffrage pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony finally gets its due nearly a century after the women’s deaths in this typically extraordinary docu profile from genre master Ken Burns and partner Paul Barnes.
“Not For Ourselves Alone” carries all of the familiar Burns devices that made his “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The Brooklyn Bridge” and other docs such illuminating viewing. That plaintive piano music, the flawless use of stills and poignant voiceovers, the plentiful onscreen commentary — all are in evidence from the get-go. It is an evocative and spare style that never grows tiresome. And in the case of Stanton and Anthony, we have the bonus of illuminating a couple of historical figures of which remarkably little is widely known, rendering the formula all the more affecting.
Turns out that Stanton’s and Anthony’s story is a pretty darn fascinating one — and a clear case of opposites attracting, and uniting, for a common goal. As we learn in “Not For Ourselves Alone,” the two were born four years and 71 miles apart “into a world ruled entirely by men.” Stanton entered the world late in 1815, Anthony in February of 1820.
Yet to say these women were an unlikely team in the fight to forge women’s rights is to greatly understate the point. Stanton was born into wealth and privilege, a flamboyant hedonist, short and plump, with a husband and a brood of seven children. Anthony was a plain-spoken Quaker, singleminded, never-married, cranky and independent. Yet they managed to work together for better than a half century and, in the process, change America forever.
Stanton, whose skills were in philosophy and rhetoric, and Anthony, who rarely forgot a fact, dovetailed their strengths to create the voice of the Women’s Movement in a time akin to the Dark Ages. As the docu shows, women of the 1800s America were prohibited from owning and trading property, could not serve on a jury, were considered incompetent to testify in trials and had no rights even in marriage. They were considered to be largely the property of their husbands. It would be 1920 before women won the right to vote.
Things were so bad that Stanton and Anthony would not live long enough to see the fruits of their labor borne out, yet Burns makes clear that the women suspected all along it would turn out that way.
The two-night “Not For Ourselves Alone” — passionately narrated by the distinctive Sally Kellerman — seamlessly interweaves heartfelt voiceovers from the likes of Amy Madigan, Julie Harris, Adam Arkin and Charles Durning with commentary from historians like Elisabeth Griffith and ABC correspondent Lynn Sherr.