In the 1830s, Prudence Crandall was one of the most famous women in America. At a time when even most abolitionists didn't dream of offering equal rights to black people, she fought for those rights.

Today, she's fallen into obscurity. And that's unfortunate, because she's certainly a classic heroine.Her story of courage and determination is told in tonight's made-for-TV movie "She Stood Alone" (8 p.m., Ch. 2), which stars Mare Winningham as Crandall.

"When I first heard about it, I said I wasn't going to do this," Winningham said in a telephone interview. "I thought it was an ennobled white person helping black people, and I've had enough of those . . . But then I started reading the script, and by page 2 I started to change my tune."

In 1833, Crandall opens a school for girls in Connecticut. A short time later, she can think of no reason why a young black girl should not also be admitted - but the people of Connecticut can.

Soon, all the white girls withdraw. So Crandall opens the first school of "young ladies of color," bringing scorn, harassment and persecution down upon herself.

"Here's a woman who took a stand for the education of black women in 1833 and I never heard of her," Winningham said. "I knew the high school version of the abolitionist movement, but that's about it."

Her stand cost her her friends, her fiance, her school and her freedom.

Also starring in "She Stood Alone" is Ben Cross ("Dark Shadows") as fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Crandall is inspired by Garrison - and even grows to love him - but this is not a love story.

It's a good, family-oriented tale of fighting for one's beliefs. And Winningham, an Emmy winner, went out of her way to play the part.

Cast just two days before production began, she had some catching up to do.

"I was sort of in a panic. I started reading everything I could lay my hands on about Prudence and the period," Winningham said. "I found some books about American women in the pre-Civil War period and books about etiquette of the 1830s. What I really liked is that, during that era, there was really a high regard placed on language. The formality of the language is really appealing to me."

And the short notice made her performance rather more intense.

"It turned out to be a lot of fun for me," Winningham said. "I love period pieces. I got to play dress-up, and that's something else I love.

"It's a good movie about an important figure most people don't know about. I'm proud of it."