How do you teach the history of female suffrage so that it resonates with students? This is the question I wrestled with over the winter and spring of 2019 while developing the online suffrage curriculum for the Suffrage 2020 Illinois website. After many years of teaching women’s history at Lake Forest College, I knew firsthand that most of my students did not appreciate the long, contested struggle for the female vote. I also realized that many American history textbooks characterized female suffrage too narrowly, as a seventy year battle sustained by successive generations of a small, but determined band of familiar white suffragists. My goals in designing this curriculum were twofold: to tell the broader story and to connect the battle for female suffrage to current issues of political identity and historical commemoration.
Rethinking Suffrage 2020, the online curriculum for the Suffrage 2020 Illinois website, recasts the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. It examines the topic thematically and in novel ways–focusing on fashion and female political identity as well as the relationship between monuments and collective memory. Students will discover that generations of “traditional” suffragists both weaponized gender norms and leveraged their power within the private sphere to claim the right to vote. They will learn that memorials and monuments often distort history, rather than accurately reflect it.
Rethinking Suffrage 2020 also tells the broader story of female suffrage, pulling overlooked black suffragists and organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) into the narrative. Students will learn that, despite the broad participation of African American women in the suffrage movement, the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 did not result in either universal suffrage or female equality. They will also discover the critical roles both the WCTU and black suffragists played in recruiting women to the suffrage cause, both in Illinois and nationally. Rethinking Suffrage 2020 gives students the tools and perspective to reassess the story of female suffrage and women’s rights in the United States and to participate in constructing a more inclusive narrative.
I invite all educators to explore this online suffrage curriculum and to use it in their classrooms and I welcome feedback as I continue to expand the content and lesson plans.
Catherine Sardo Weidner, Ph.D.