Bringing Primary Sources to Life

Friday was the culmination of a unit on women’s suffrage. The goal of the unit was to show the students what women, and some men, went through to win the right to vote, a right that most of the girls take for granted. The girls studied primary source documents from the scrapbooks of Emily Smith Miller and her daughter, Ann Fitzhugh Miller, that are part of the Library of Congress’ online library of documents. There are seven scrapbooks that chronicle the actions of suffragists in New York from 1897-1911. They include everything from early photographs of the New York Women’s Suffrage Convention to invitations to concert to raise money to letters to the editor. They shared what they learned from their investigations online on a ning on Women’s Suffrage. (See previous blog post about using online tools for collaborating.)

I also showed them the movie, Iron Jawed Angels, with Hilary Swank, to help them get a better feel for the time period and for the limitations on women at the time. The combination of the film and the primary sources brought the women to life. As the students read the words from letters and newspaper articles, they began to grasp the contrasts between their lives and those of women in 1918.

Using the information that they gained from the Library of Congress documents, they had to build their own campaign, one that had a signature slogan, a stump speech as well as a button or sash. They worked hard to craft their campaigns in ways that avoided slipping into modern ways of thinking and expressing themselves. They had to return to the original documents to verify that their ideas fit with the thinking of the suffragists. One main struggle was to keep the focus on the Right to Vote, rather than expanding it into all sorts of other areas and general complaints.

After building their individual campaigns, I put them into groups of 4 to collaborate on a group campaign, one that used the thinking of each girl. They could decide to use one girl’s initial ideas, but they had to all work to develop them further to be even more effective. Or they could blend together the different ideas to generate a new single direction. Once they had a central theme and strategy, then they were ready to prepare for the parade, one that was going to go all through the school and then down the street and around the campus of the boys school next door.

Throughout the process, I kept sending them back to the sources. Was their thinking in line with the times? What could they wear or create that would present a sense of the late 1910’s? How were they going to present their message? As they went back and forth between their own thinking and the documents, their thinking developed and they became eager to craft the most effective campaign possible. There was an amazing energy that was created by using the papers and photographs of history to capture their imaginations and minds.

The day of the parade was sparkling and bright! The girls dressed in their campaign outfits and hoisted their banners, ready to change the world. And off they marched, aware that they could walk right into a voting booth when they turned 18 because women before them had fought and sacrificed to give them the power to do it. As they carried their placards through the halls and down the sidewalks, my hope was that somewhere deep inside them, they were mkaing a memory, one that will lead to a commitment to be full citizens, remembering this march whenever they don’t feel like making the effort to get out of the house and to the polling place. May the voices of women long gone call out to them to make their voices heard!

One response to “Bringing Primary Sources to Life

  1. What an excellent unit! In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a better combination of primary sources, modern media (the Iron Jawed Angels film to makes it all seem more real), and a learning presentation (the campaign) based on solid research. I especially liked this line in your post: “Throughout the process, I kept sending them back to the sources.” You had reflection and revision built right into the problem solving. Congratulations!

    Did you by any chance take photos or video of the campaign marches?

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