Last year, my 18-year old daughter cast her first vote in a U.S. presidential election. I was proud that she fulfilled her civic duty and told her so, adding that it was especially important for women to always exercise this precious right. She nodded, but was a bit startled by my vehemence. Women of her generation, after all, aren’t bound by sexist dress codes (I had to wear skirts to school on snowy days.) or limited to only one or two sports opportunities in school. Indeed, many women of my daughter’s generation believe everything is open to them. When I once asked my daughter if there were any career paths she thought were “off limits” to women, she gave me a quizzical look and shook her head. It’s no wonder, then, that she would not link voting to activism.
I am pleased that women today have greater access to opportunities than they did as recently as 20 years ago. Still, I hope that we don’t forget to honor those women who fought for generations for the advantages we now enjoy. January is a perfect month to pay homage to women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who entered into marriage with a contract that safeguarded her right to campaign for suffrage, and Lucy Burns, who spent more time in prison than any other suffragist.
The House of Representatives Votes for Women’s Suffrage
Help your students understand the significance of January 10, 1918 by first watching “Battle for the Ballot”(at 16:50 in the video) in program 2, “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible” of Democracy in America. After watching the segment, ask students to use primary sources, like newspapers in the Historical and Cultural Contexts Interactive, to further explore the women’s voting rights movement in the United States. Students will first be directed to enter their names; they can then select Story 3 to begin their investigation. Students will understand the extraordinary efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Carrie Chapman Catt. The exercise also reveals how challenging it is to modify the Constitution of the United States. Questions you can then discuss in class include:
- Why were women originally excluded from voting?
- Why was it so difficult to secure the right to vote for women?
- Should it be so difficult to amend the Constitution? Why or why not?
Activism in the Gilded Age
While some women took to the streets to protest inequality, others found voice through their prose. Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska were writers from very different worlds during the American Gilded Age of the 1920s. In American Passages, works from Wharton and Yezierska are presented as examples of “realistic” literature: writing that offers a true depiction of American life. The wide gap between the rich and poor in New York is vividly revealed in the program for unit 9, “Social Realism.” Both of these writers explored how women were constrained—by poverty in one setting and social norms in the other.
Explore the following questions with your students:
- Do you think literature has the power to effect social change?
- How have ideas about ‘realism” and “accuracy” in fiction changed over time?
- What contemporary authors could be considered “realistic” writers?
Students may better understand the characters that inhabit stories from Wharton and Yezierska once they’ve explored the Context Activities included in the “Social Realism” unit. One of these activities is Making Amendments: The Woman Suffrage Movement. How might one of Wharton’s characters respond to a suffragette? What might someone from Yezierska’s world think about the voting rights crusade?
Commemoration days abound in our yearly calendar. As a woman with a daughter, however, January 10, 1918, is a date especially worthy of tribute.