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by  Rob Waring







It is not until the men stay home while their wives carry on the strike that the men are forced to confront the daily hardships endured by their wives.








A simplistic, but important lesson from Not for Ourselves Alone and Salt of the Earth is that different groups working for social justice may achieve their goals more rapidly by working together instead of competing.



by Rob Waring

   Women have made such substantial socioeconomic and political progress in the last thirty years that there isn't much talk these days about gender equality in the affirmative action debate. The victories of modern women against a male-dominated corporate structure have been portrayed on the screen in such films as Norma Rae and Silkwood. Less often seen on television and in films are examples of where the struggles for gender and racial equality have collided, resulting in either bitter conflict or hopeful cooperation. A recent tv documentary, Not For Ourselves Alone, and a long-forgotten film, Salt of the Earth, show how cooperation is the more fruitful option.

   What now seems forgotten, because women are significantly–though notanthony.JPG (25008 bytes) completely–integrated into the power structure, is that the struggle for gender equality began in the United States more than one hundred and fifty years ago and took half of that time to accomplish its first major goal: women’s suffrage. Ken Burns' recent PBS documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, portrays their struggle for suffrage during the nineteenth century. It is a first-hand account of their efforts to change discriminatory laws, told via letters read as voice-overs accompanying a series of photographs of these great women and their times, interspersed with narration. A primary motivation of the film makers was the fact that most Americans have never heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the intellectual soul of the suffragist movement. This roughly four-hour program likely will be rebroadcast or released on video and is well-worth viewing.

   I'll mention just two of the many fascinating things about this program: First, what drove Anthony and others to labor their entire adult lives, nearly sixty years, for a cause they correctly anticipated would not be achieved during their lifetimes? I won't attempt to explain their idealism here, you'll have to watch the documentary and draw your own conclusions. These women inspired those who worked with them to continue the fight for the vote until the Constitution was amended 1920. Surely their efforts deserve more national recognition than one side of a dollar coin that most people never use.

   Second, a great moral conflict arose during the campaign. Early on, in the two decades preceding the Civil War, suffragists worked hand in hand with abolitionists to end slavery. When that struggle was vindicated at the end of the war, Congress debated the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments–intended to grant all the privileges of citizenship to blacks. Much to the frustration of the suffragists, these amendments did not extend privileges to women–of any color. Splitting from the cause of the abolitionists, the suffragist movement opposed these amendments, preferring to hold out for including women in the change. In the end, women did not get the vote until more than sixty years later, and the documentary opines that this attempt to hold hostage rights for blacks cost the suffragists much needed political support.

   Another example of racial and gender politics colliding is the 1954 black and white film, Salt of the Earth, just out on DVD. The film tells the true story of a zinc miners strike in New Mexico in the early 1950's. It lacks the polished character development and plot tension of more recent labor films such as John Sayles' Matewan–dramatizing strikes and the unions' efforts to resolve racial conflicts leading up to the West Virginia coal mine wars of the 1920's. However, the inspiring story of Salt of the Earth makes the film well worth renting.

   The film begins (as does Matewan) by depicting the danger of miners' work. The miners' belief that the mining company is poorly protecting their safety leads to a flashpoint of anger about low wages. Racial discrimination is evident because miners at this mine, who are mostly Mexican-American, are paid less than those at neighboring mines where the miners are Anglos. A strike ensues, with all the violent and illegal attempts at strikebreaking that one could imagine would be perpetrated by an evil employer. The strikers do not have the discipline to avoid responding with violence of their own (one of several themes repeated in Matewan), but their wives intervene in a way that saves the day.

   Much of the film focuses on the home life of the miners' families. The wives are angry that their pitiful homes in the company town do not even have salt.JPG (20578 bytes)running water, while in the company towns of mines worked by Anglos, amenities and better sanitation make life significantly safer and easier. When the strike begins, the wives implore their husbands to make improved home sanitation a demand, but the men refuse. The men view pursuit of the women's needs as jeopardizing their goals of eliminating racial discrimination in mine safety and wages. It is not until the men stay home while their wives carry on the strike that the men are forced to confront the daily hardships endured by their wives, such as having to carry potable water and chop the wood needed for hot water and heat. When men and women unite in their struggle for racial equality, their combined efforts win both groups' goals. Perhaps Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony could have learned a lesson from this film.

   Some viewers will find the story of how Salt of the Earth was made to be even more noble than the labor struggle it chronicles. The story is told in considerable detail on the special features section of the DVD. The film was written, directed, scored and produced by film artists blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Government and the film industry continuously attempted to thwart the film, and those involved in its production were sometimes subjected to threats of violence and death. Salt of the Earth is a testament to the fragility of our First Amendment rights, which were of little help to alleged communists in 1954.

   All the extras and many of the principle actors were cast from the miners and their families who endured the actual events of the story. The only actor most viewers will recognize is Will Geer, who played the evil sheriff. He was not able to find work in films for a decade following Salt of the Earth, but later went on to portray Grandpa Walton on the long-running television series. The female lead, Rosaura Revueltas, a Mexican actress, was deported during shooting, and some of her scenes had to be secretly filmed in Mexico later. She was blacklisted in her homeland and never appeared in another film.

   Editing took more than a year, because most labs would not process the film. Work was done in secret safe houses to hide from those who sought to destroy the prints they imagined were Communist propaganda. Only thirteen theaters in the United States showed the film in 1954, but it had greater distribution in Europe where it won awards. Most people who have seen the film in the United States saw it on college campuses in the 1960's, projected from 16mm stock.

   A simplistic, but important lesson from Not for Ourselves Alone and Salt of the Earth is that different groups working for social justice may achieve their goals more rapidly by working together instead of competing. This documentary and film also show how the road to achieving idealistic goals is paved with moral conflict and hardship aplenty.

Posted December 21, 1999

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