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Featured Article: “The Complex History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement” by Jennifer Schuessler
This past August, the United States celebrated 100 years of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which established American women’s right to vote. But we’re discovering that the traditional telling of the women’s suffrage movement — that it began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, was led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and ended with all women getting the right to vote in 1920 — is not the whole story.
Three museum exhibits seek to broaden that narrative. Though this article was written in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic had canceled the many yearlong exhibitions, parades and conferences planned to celebrate the centennial of suffrage, reading about these exhibits can offer a fuller picture of the fight for the 19th Amendment and teach us about the “messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change.”
In this lesson, you’ll learn the lesser-known history of the struggle for women’s voting rights, including that of important activists, strategies and divisions in the movement.
To further explore the themes and ideas raised in this article, teachers can use our resource “19 Ways to Teach the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” which includes activities to help students learn a more complete history of the women’s suffrage movement, make connections to current events and find ways to “finish the fight.”
What do you know about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States?
Create a K/W/L chart to show what you know. In the left column, write down everything you think you know about how women won the right to vote, whether ideas, facts, names, places or anything else.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are some prompts to get you thinking:
What period in history did the movement take place in? What was the social and cultural climate of the United States at that time?
How and why did the movement begin?
Who were some of the key figures in the movement?
What strategies did suffragists use to fight for their right to vote?
Then, in the middle column, write down what you want to know about the suffrage movement.
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions. As you read, you might annotate the text, using one color or symbol to mark what you already knew about the women’s suffrage movement and another to mark what you learned.
1. What are some of the common myths and misconceptions about the women’s suffrage movement that are being excavated in these exhibits? Why is it important to correct them?
2. This article says that suffragists staged “a dogged fight for the vote.” What evidence and artifacts collected in these museums support this idea?
3. Kate Lemay, one of the exhibition’s curators, says that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not the 19th Amendment, is the “true conclusion” of the fight for women’s voting rights in the United States. What does she mean by this?
4. Why do you think these exhibits chose to highlight the stories of lesser-known activists like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee? What do their stories tell us about the women’s suffrage movement?
5. Take a moment to closely study the images in the article. Taken together, what story do they tell about the women’s suffrage movement? What is interesting or surprising about that story?
6. Each of the exhibits profiled in this article ended in a different way. Choose one of them to examine. What message does its ending send about the 19th Amendment? What does it say about the role of voting today? What do you think of the curators’ decision to conclude in this way?
7. Return to the K/W/L chart you created in the warm-up and add your key takeaways from the article to the “Learned” column. In what ways do these lessons confirm, challenge or add to your previously held ideas about the women’s suffrage movement?
Show what you’ve learned about the women’s suffrage movement by trying one of these multimedia projects from our related teaching resource, “19 Ways to Teach the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment.”
Build a visual history of the women’s suffrage movement. This might take the form of a poster, comic strip, TikTok video, timeline or anything else that illustrates the important events, activists, themes and artifacts of the movement.
Reflect on what democracy means to you. Share your thoughts on the significance of voting and civic engagement in our recent Student Opinion question “Is Your Generation Doing Its Part to Strengthen Our Democracy?” What lessons from the fight for the 19th Amendment can you apply to politics today?
Create an infographic debunking common myths. On paper, or using a program like Venngage, create a piece that corrects the myths, misunderstandings and incomplete truths about the women’s suffrage movement.
Make a found poem or blackout poem. Use the words and images in the article to create a poem that speaks to the major themes and ideas of the complex history of the women’s suffrage movement.
Interview a woman about the right to vote. Talk to someone in your family or community about the first time she voted. What did it mean to her? What role does political participation play in her life? What issues in the upcoming election are most important to her and why?