Story of women's right to vote may open some eyes

When my mother was born in 1915, her mother did not have the right to vote. Within five years, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women would gain the right to vote, thanks to the tireless work of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who did not live to see the amendment pass or to vote themselves.

As we near the end of the 20th century, we have an opportunity to reflect on the substantial changes that have occurred in the lives of women since the turn of the century.

The noble and epic struggle of the Suffrage Movement will be told on PBS television on Nov. 7 and 8, when documentary filmmaker Ken Burns presents "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony."

In an interview with Bob Herbert of the New York Times on July 4, 1999, Mr. Burns reflected, "When these two women were born in the early years of the 19th century, women could not attend college. They were barred from the professions. They could not keep or invest their earnings.

They could not testify at a trial, were actually considered incompetent to testify. They had fewer rights than an insane lunatic - male, of course - in an asylum.

"They could not own or inherit property. They could not win their children in a custody battle. Women were the property of their husbands. Their bodies were literally owned by their husbands.

"And of course, they couldn't vote."

Burns continued in the New York Times interview, "Their story is so incredible. When they died in the early years of the 20th century, all of those rights - which seem to us to be self-evident - had been achieved, with the exception of the right to vote."

The clips of Burns' documentary that I saw in late September led me to believe that the two-part presentation will be an evocative and heartfelt reminder of how how far we've come, and how far we still need to go.

Burns himself observed, "I don't think I could call myself a documentary film maker interested in surveying the terrain of my country's history , as I have been doing for the past 25 years, without expressing artistically my outrage at why this story, the largest social movement in the history of the United States, is given essentially a picture and a caption in our history books."

Cady and Stanton began to submit the amendment to Congress in 1878, but

it was not ratified until 1920. That ultimately successful 42-year campaign should serve as an example and an inspiration to Nevadans who have already been struggling for parts of three decades to prevent Nevada from becoming the host to the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

As with the right to vote, fundamental principles of equality and equity are at stake. As with the right to vote, those in power (in this case nuclear) have a vested interest in making sure that they prevail by disenfranchising Nevadans.

From the distance of the decades, we can look back into the 19th century and see that the emancipation of women was the next step, although at the time it didn't seem to be. By the end of the twenty-first century, what will Americans conclude about states' rights, Nevada and nuclear waste?

Stay tuned, and in the mean time, mark your calendars for the Ken Burns

documentary, PBS, Nov. 7 and 8, 8 p.m. (check local listings). The League of Women Voters, which was formed as a result of the suffrage movement, is planning a special viewing event in Carson City on Sunday, Nov. 7. For more information, call 882-8883.

The Department of Energy will be taking comments from the public on the impacts of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository project: Dec. 1 in Reno; Dec. 2 in Carson City. For more information call DOE at

(800) 967-3477 or the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office at (775)


Abby Johnson consults on rural community development, grant management and nuclear waste issues. She is married and has one middle school-aged child.


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