Best Friends – A Bookwomen Article

BookWomen June–July 2011  11

To tell the true story of a friendship that changed the world is a great challenge, and great reward. By Penny Colman

Best friends

I’ve had the feeling before upon signing a book contract, but with this book—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World—it was particularly intense. What feeling, you ask?  Panic, in con­cert with the words echoing in my brain:  “And what have I gotten myself into this time!?”
Sure, I had tackled big topics before, including a history of burial, the true story of Thanks­giving, a collective biography of eight historic women with widely varying amounts of source material, and the story of Rosie the Riveter. But this book was to be a joint biography that spanned more than 90 years through the lens of a legendary friendship between two very different women that lasted 51 years and was at the center of a momentous social movement that is typically trivialized.

Fittingly, I think, the idea to write a book about a friendship originated during lunch in 2006 with Christy Ottaviano, my long­time editor, who is also a friend. We had just wrapped up our negotiations for my social history, Thanksgiving: The True Story, (pub­lished by Holt in 2008), and Christy wanted to celebrate.  She also wanted me to write a biography. We tossed around names, includ­ing Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and parted with the understanding that I would continue brainstorming ideas.
I did consider other subjects, but kept coming back to short, rotund, vivacious Elizabeth, a scintillating thinker, prolifically influential writer, fearless orator, and the married mother of seven children; and tall, angular, austere Susan, an indefatigable doer, an organizer and planner extraordinaire, principled pragmatist, and an unmarried former teacher. In particular I was intrigued by their fascinating friendship that fueled their fierce fight for women’s rights, a fight they relentlessly waged despite fierce opposition, daunting conditions, scandalous entanglements, and betrayal by their friends.

In May 1851 when they met, Elizabeth was 35 years old and Susan, 31. Of course, I could have started the book at that point, but I was curious about the differences and similarities in how they grew up. That curiosity certainly ratcheted up my writerly anxieties about how to structure the telling of these separate stories.

I spent weeks working through this decision. I taped long sheets of paper on a wall and made parallel timelines from their births to their first meeting.  I used Post-it Notes so that I could easily add or remove items, as I tried to discern a structure.  Then, one day, I saw it—four time periods that encompassed significant events in both their lives: 1815-1832; 1833-1839; 1840-1847; 1848-1850. Eureka! With that insight I was able to organize their early years into eight alternating chapters that focused on one and then the other.
Their friendship lasted 51 years, and, as Susan once wrote, they were “busy through every one of them stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women.” They didn’t always agree, and, at times, they were at odds. Nevertheless, Elizabeth once wrote, “Nothing that Susan could say or do could break my friendship with her and I know nothing could uproot her affection for me.”

To do my research, I traveled to libraries, archives, historical societies, sites, and mu­seums. I surveyed online sources, I talked with knowledgeable people, including Coline Jenkins, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great, great granddaughter.
In July 2008, I undertook a three-day, 880-mile road trip for a first hand look at sites in New York that I was writing about, including Battenville where Susan’s childhood home still stands, and Johnstown, the site of Elizabeth’s birthplace.

I arrived in Seneca Falls in time for the cel­ebration of the 160th anniversary of the first Woman’s Rights Convention, which Elizabeth had spearheaded in 1848. She met Susan three years later when Amelia Bloomer, a mutual friend, introduced them.

Immersing myself in their places is one of the ways I brought Elizabeth and Susan to life for myself, and, of course, I hope for everyone who reads “Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World.”

BookWomen subscriber Penny Colman’s 17th book of nonfiction for all ages has just been published, celebrating a friendship that changed the world. Colman lives and writes in Englewood, N. J.

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Photo by Linda Hickson

“Their friendship lasted 51 years, and, as Susan once wrote, they were ‘busy through every one of them stirring up the world to recognize the rights of women.’”

In Seneca Falls, Penny Colman was touched by the statue “When Anthony Met Stanton,” sculpted by Ted Aud, which shows (from left) Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Bloomer, their mutual friend who introduced them, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Stirring up the world

Penny Colman’s latest book, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friend­ship that Changed the World, is her 12th that focuses specifically on women’s history.
“The stories of women from our past are our identity,” Colman believes. “We know who we are by who we have as role models.” Her mission as a writer is to recover and tell, in the most engaging narratives possible, the true sto­ries of women who have made a difference.
For women today, knowing women’s history is critical, she believes. “It is an antidote against taking hard-won gains for granted and against being duped into thinking that we have to keep proving ourselves.”

Over the years of writing about women, Col­man focused primarily on “women who aren’t well known, but should be.” She had always assumed Stanton and Anthony were well known historical figures, but since writing this book, she has been surprised to discover that although Anthony’s name is recognized by many, a surprising number of people, know little or nothing about Stanton, not to men­tion their amazing friendship.
When she decided to write about the two suffragists and started extensive research into their lives, it was a revelation. “As I began to get to know them better, it was, ‘Oh, wow!’” Colman told BookWomen in a recent interview.” I became captivated by who they were as individuals and by the power of their friendship.”

She considered several different titles during the writing of the book. The first was based on Stanton’s famous quote about the two of them, ‘I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them.”

Colman changed to “Stirring up the World,” using a quote from Anthony, and kept this title until she finished the book. Then, “I had an epiphany—Stanton and Anthony didn’t just stir up the world, they changed the world.”

When Colman’s granddaughter Sophie, who was 6 at the time, asked, “Grammy, did they really change the world?” Colman told her about all the ways the world was different—and better—because of these two women.

Then grandmother and granddaughter worked together to craft the book’s dedication:
To everyone who has fought and who is fighting and who will fight for the rights of women everywhere.

Colman is already at work on her next proj­ect, which will be a travel book, memoir and history rolled into one. The working title is “Women’s Fierce Fight for the Vote: In Search of Landmarks.”

Penny Colman has included many useful resources in her book, including lists of “Places to Visit” and “Namesakes,” and a “webliography,” and has written an insightful Readers Guide.

She writes regularly about the book on her blog www.pennycolman.com/blog and on a Facebook page  (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Penny-Colman/121670284513664).