Teri Finneman is not a fan of history textbooks that reduce the women’s suffrage movement to a few stories about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. To Finneman, an expert of suffrage history and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, the history is a rich stew of protest and struggle — one that continues in many ways today.
As November marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, she is hopeful educators will dive more deeply into its history and how it can connect to this year’s election.
“This is a story of sexism, racism and classism,” Finneman, who is a contributing author to “Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women's Suffrage,” told Education Dive. “Women were thrown in prison for wanting to vote, were beaten for wanting to vote, and came from all across the country with thousands, if not millions, who worked in individual states.”
But fights over the right to vote continue a century later, offering educators a way to tie the women’s suffrage movement into the 2020 election by exploring themes like those detailed below in K-12 classrooms.
Suppression didn't end with suffrage, civil rights movements
The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed Black men the right to vote, and the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, granted all women the right to vote. But Kimberly Hamlin, associate professor of history and global and intercultural studies at Miami University in Ohio, said there is still voter suppression at work in 2020 — even if people believe the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s put that issue to bed.
“That is blatantly false,” she told Education Dive. “We continue today to have issues of voting suppression in this country through various tactics.”
K-12 educators can bring this concept into classrooms through multiple methods, including journal articles such as those curated by the National Council for the Social Studies. Additionally, the New Hampshire Public Broadcasting website hosts lesson plans with options for elementary, middle and high school classrooms.
The website 100 for the 100th also provides a detailed timeline, from 1920 to 2020, that begins with the founding of the League of Women Voters and provides links to ongoing redistricting efforts around voting today.
Kathleen McHugh, a professor in the Department of English and the Cinema and Media Studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles, who created 100 for the 100th with Los Angeles-based mediator Eleanor Barr and Susan Garcia, a New World School of the Arts professor of music, wanted to highlight the issue of voter suppression that continues through the present day. She sees this lesson as one that could be brought into any classroom.
“For K-12 educators, the specific approach to this concept would need to be calibrated to the grade level, but what would be important to stress at every level is that the right to vote had to be fought for, should not be taken for granted, and is a vital privilege and responsibility,” she told Education Dive via email.
Teaching Tolerance also offers a specific lesson plan on suffrage, calibrated, as McHugh had suggested, for grades 6-12, including a link to a transcript on former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s views on women's rights activist Alice Paul. There’s also a map showing states that granted women the right to vote before 1920, prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment by Congress in June 1919. The amendment was not ratified until August 1920.
Women’s March provides lens to view activism
Educators could also examine the Women’s March in January 2017, which in many ways mirrored the Women’s Suffrage Parade of March 1913, when thousands of women marched up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., to bring attention to their voting rights battle the day before the inauguration of president-elect Woodrow Wilson. In this way, educators could tap into current events to discuss women's rights fights over the course of decades.
Teachers could turn to the Library of Congress, which has images of the 1913 event as well as the 2017 march, and Hamlin notes teachers could bring up how events are memorialized and recalled, citing decisions made to alter one of the 2017 images in an exhibit by the Library of Congress.
“You could talk with an AP class about memory, and how two of our national museums, the National Archives and the Library of Congress, had images of the 2017 marches and had doctored images, and what do we think about it?” said Hamlin.
An ongoing struggle for Black women in particular
There were also notable struggles that divided the suffrage movement itself, said Hamlin, the author of the recently published “Free Thinker,” a biography of suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener. When civil rights leaders came to suffragists after the passage of the 19th Amendment, asking them to help support enforcement of the 15th Amendment, they came back and said, "No."
“Some women said, ‘That’s not our issue, that’s a race issue,’” said Hamlin. “So teachers could ask students what did the vote mean for Alice Paul, versus what did it mean for [suffragette and activist] Mary Church Terrell?”
Educators could weave in documents, from transcripts of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, given during the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. These and other resources are also available through the Sojourner Truth Project. Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics also has a detailed lesson plan on women’s suffrage, including short biographies on figures like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell.
Finneman believes it is crucial that educators be more inclusive of the figures students learn about within the suffragist movement, from Truth to Terrell, so they understand more than White women fought for the right to vote.
“So much of history has been white-washed, and that needs to be corrected at the elementary school level,” Finneman said. “That way, children of color can see there were heroes who looked like them, as well.”
Language, and history, repeats itself
Educators can also initiate these lessons by having students look at writings penned by the suffragists themselves, including the 1871 petition to Congress — written by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others — asking for women to be granted the right to vote. They could also study the women who fought against suffrage and the argument that the push for the right to vote was distracting “the patriotic portion of the American people” from handling the demands of World War I, made in a 1917 letter to the U.S. Senate.
Finneman believes it's also valuable to look at the language used during the suffrage movement to describe women fighting for their right to vote, some of which can be found through Chronicling America. Suffragists were accused of being seditious and disloyal, language also often heard in the political arena today.
"There was a lot of fear-based rhetoric that is eerily familiar to what we are seeing today,” Finneman said. “In newspaper stories at the time, they were advocating ‘America First.’ They were saying that giving women the right to vote would be a 'menace to society.'"
Understanding these connections across time is crucial for students for future civic engagement.
“When we have such divisiveness as a country, we need to look to the past,” she said. “When we don’t, history repeats itself.“