PBS in the Classroom

Powerful Ways to Explore Women’s Rights Through History

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January 30, 2017

Thanksgiving week in schools across the country is like herding cats – excited cats that don’t want to stay in their seats. Aside from excited kids and turkey dinners, another interesting event occurred Thanksgiving week. I was given the opportunity to test-drive lesson plans for PBS’s Mercy Street. I had used tons of resources for PBS in the past, mainly Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, but I hadn’t considered a PBS original series to use in my classroom. I was immediately drawn to the show’s themes and lessons surrounding women’s roles during the Civil War. My students find women’s role in America fascinating, from colonial women  to recent history, when a woman was able to run for the highest office in the land. I wanted to use those lessons with Mercy Street, not only because I felt they would resonate with my students, but because I could easily see women’s role being a Long Essay Question (LEQ) on the AP American History exam (of personal interest to me, as I teach 2 AP US History classes).

I wanted students to be able to connect women’s roles during the American Revolution to their roles during the Civil War, and onto the sharp increase in women’s suffrage movements during the post-Reconstruction period.  From there, I could show the connections of events to the massive changes in women’s roles in World War II and post-WWII America. I envisioned my lesson having three parts: pre-Civil War women’s roles, during the Civil War, and post.

I started by having my students read the Declaration of Sentiments side-by-side with the Declaration of Independence.  One of the first things my kids recognized was the similarity of language between the two documents. One even stated, “It seems as though the women used the Declaration of Independence as a basis for their Declaration.”  A few students questioned why women during this time period would feel the need to create their own Declaration. Many of my female students jumped in even before I could answer to argue that perhaps women did not feel represented under the Declaration of Independence. I knew my kids were on the right track!

*One note for other teachers about this topic: due to some unfamiliar and antiquated words that caused some confusion, I plan to create a word bank for the next time I teach this lesson.

As we moved from Revolutionary War to the Civil War, we watched theThe Good Stuff: Time Capsule time capsule video on women’s roles in society and the Dorothea Dix excerpt from Mercy Street on PBS LearningMedia. I wanted students to focus on how the Civil War complicated the role of women in society. They had already researched Antebellum Women’s Rights movements and could see the changes between the two time periods. My students loved working through the material and felt as though they had a better understanding of the women’s movements from the American Revolution to the Civil War. I knew I was pushing their thinking, asking them to consider the Civil War as a catalyst to women’s suffrage.

On our second day of exploring the role of women, students were assigned to groups and given a women’s organization to research. They were expected to become experts on their group and be able to teach their fellow students about their chosen organization. Each group created a poster for their organization and we hosted a “gallery walk” for the class. This exercise proved to be the most popular part of the lesson as students were able to discuss how “their” organizations affected women’s rights. They took pride in their posters and ownership of the group they were researching. As a long essay question for homework, I asked the students to evaluate the extent to which the Civil War was a turning point in the women’s rights movement. In their arguments, they had to analyze what changed and what stayed the same in the period before and after the war. Students were already buzzing and bringing up the Declaration of Sentiments, Antebellum groups, and post-War groups that they had just completed. Some students were even talking about Rosie the Riveter!

As I watched my students discuss the various women’s movements throughout history, I keep hearing the same thing: why are women still fighting the same battles decade after decade? Why would women fight so hard for changes to then have to fight again a few years down the line? Some students discussed complacency – that some women would fight tooth and nail to get rights such as birth control or voting, and then once they received those rights, would back down and go home. Some students couldn’t understand how women weren’t already completely equal to men, citing their confusion around the recent Women’s March on Washington. My students began mixing groups so that they could discuss the women’s movements that were currently taking place in today’s society. While my students didn’t get all the answers that day, their thoughtful discussions went to the heart of many of the issues still facing women in this nation as a whole. A lesson that I had planned as an exploration of the Civil War not only connected them to the past but became a great springboard to discuss issues affecting my students today.

If you are interested in doing this lesson with your classroom, here is a link to my complete and detailed lesson plan, for download.

For more Mercy Street and Civil War resources, explore the entire collection in PBS LearningMedia.


Photo courtesy of PBS/Erik Heinila

Eden McCauslin has taught for 6 years as a high school English and History teacher for District of Columbia Public Schools. She currently teaches Advance Placement English Language and Composition, Advance Placement United States History and 12th grade United States Government at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in NW Washington, DC. Previously, she taught 9th grade World History at Spingarn High School in NE Washington, DC. In August 2015, Ms. McCauslin debuted on Ken Burns’ re-mastered documentary Civil War in which she demonstrated how she used the documentary in her classroom. Ms. McCauslin also recently presented lessons to educators at the National Conference of Social Studies in New Orleans, LA in 2015 and in Washington, D.C. in 2016. 


Eden McCauslin

Eden McCauslin High School English and History Teacher

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