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Teacher's Guide - Suggestions For Active Learing

Lesson 1 - Women's Suffrage

Grade Level: Grades 7 through 12

In this lesson, students study the strategies used by a variety of women's suffrage organizations to win the vote during Wilson's presidency. Students will begin by looking at the life of his first wife, Ellen Axson, who came of age when Victorian ideals were giving way to modern ones. After they view segments about her from the American Experience documentary, Woodrow Wilson, they will evaluate in what ways her life embodied the ideals of "True Womanhood" and in what ways she was a "New Woman."

The irony that the president's wife did not have the right to vote for her husband will lead students into a study of the suffrage movement itself. Students will be divided into six teams. Four groups will represent pro-suffrage groups. They will agree on the goal of winning women the right to vote, but will disagree on strategies to attain it. A fifth group of students will represent a coalition of anti-suffrage positions. The sixth group will represent President Wilson. A symposium will bring together all six groups to argue about a variety of issues in 1912. The student groups will reconvene to reassess and react to recent events in 1916. Finally, students will evaluate the reasons why women were successful in winning the vote, including the role President Wilson played in helping them.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Relevant National Standard

Through the lesson, students will:

… Learn about the last phases of the woman's suffrage movement.
… Learn about President Wilson's presidency from the perspective of women seeking suffrage.
… Learn about the obstacles faced by the suffragists and the strategies they used to overcome them.
… Learn to research historical events and present position papers based on what they have learned.

Estimated Time

Several distinct teaching activities within this lesson could be taught, ranging in duration from one to three class periods. Completing the entire unit of activities would require approximately seven 45-minute class periods.

Necessary Materials

… The American Experience documentary, Woodrow Wilson, on DVD or on video cassette.
… Access to computers on the Web.
… Drawing materials such as markers and paper with which to create posters.
… Writing materials.

Teaching Procedure

Activity 1: Ellen Axson Wilson
Lead a discussion with students about how Wilson's presidency witnessed the final efforts of women to win the vote. In order to learn more about women during this time period, students will begin by looking at the life of Wilson's first wife, Ellen Axson. During her lifetime, what roles were women expected to play? What career options were open to them and which were closed? How were these roles changing? Who was clamoring for change, and how?
Ask the class in what ways American society is still in conflict over women's roles. For example, do all Americans agree today about the role the first lady should play in our society?
Begin by showing the 7-minute segment on Ellen Axson's early life that begins in the first episode of Woodrow Wilson at approximately 15 minutes and 45 seconds into the documentary and ending at 22 minutes and 14 seconds. (On the DVD, access the first part of Chapter 2 titled "Love & Career.") Ask students as they view the segment to consider what ideals seem to have motivated Ellen Axson in her early adult years. You may also wish for students to review this Web site's online portrait of Ellen Axson Wilson.
After viewing the segment, make three lists on the board: (1) Early Hardships, (2) Aspirations & Accomplishments, and (3) Compromises. Then ask students what information they remember from the film clip and under which of the headings they would place it.
If you have time, also show the 9-minute section about Wilson's childhood and young adulthood, beginning at approximately 6 minutes and 32 seconds into the documentary and ending at 15 minutes and 45 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 1 titled "Early Years.") You may also wish for students to review this Web site's online portrait of Woodrow Wilson. Ask students what Ellen and Woodrow - then known as Tommy - have in common? What does each want in a spouse? In what ways are their aspirations conventional for the time period and in which ways are they forward-thinking?
To set Ellen Axson's life as a woman in historical perspective, assign students to one of three groups and tell each group to do the following:

Group I: Women's History Timelines Ask this group to report to the class on the progress of suffrage and other rights for women made by 1885 (the year Ellen married Woodrow). What rights were women still denied at this time? What new rights and opportunities had been gained? How did the timeframe in which Ellen lived expand her horizons compared to women living before her? How were her opportunities limited compared to women living today?
In addition to this site's interactive Woodrow Wilson timeline, students will find the following online timelines helpful:
A timeline of the woman suffrage movement from the American Experience documentary, One Woman, One Vote
One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage: An Overview from the American Memory project at the Library of Congress

Group II: "True Womanhood"

Ask this group to determine in what ways Ellen Axson's youthful aspirations exemplified the Victorian ideals of "True Womanhood." The group should be able to report to the class what those ideals were, to whom they applied, and how women's lives were shaped by them.
For background information on "True Womanhood," read:

Professor Jeanne Boydston's essay on the Web site of the PBS documentary Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Professor Catherine Lavender's essay on the Web site of The College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Group III: "The New Woman"
Ask this group to investigate and report back on the ideals of "The New Woman" emerging at the turn-of-the century. How were women's aspirations changing in terms of their claims to political rights, sexuality, control of their reproductive lives, and their economic independence? After contemplating Ellen Axson's young womanhood, do students see any evidence that these new ideals may have affected her?

For background information on "The New Woman," read Professor Catherine Lavender's essay on the Web site of The College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Additional Segments from Documentary

Continue by showing the following clips from episode one of Woodrow Wilson. Tell students that after they view them, they will debate whether Ellen Axson most embodies the ideals of "True Womanhood" or "The New Woman."

… Three-minute section on Ellen Axson's depression beginning at approximately 27 minutes and 7 seconds and ending at 30 minutes and 19 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 3 titled "Tragedy.")
… Five-minute section on how Wilson's affair affected his relationship with Ellen Axson, beginning at approximately 38 minutes and 47 seconds and ending at 43 minutes and 21 seconds. (On the DVD, access the second part of chapter 4, titled "Princeton.")
… Four-minute section on the presidential election of 1912 beginning at approximately 49 minutes and 42 seconds and ending at 53 minutes 47 seconds. (On the DVD, access the first part of chapter 6, titled "1912 Election.")
… Six-minute section dealing with Ellen Axson's death beginning at approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes and 8 seconds and ending at the end of episode one. (On the DVD, access the second part of chapter 8, titled "World Stage.")

Because these clips focus specifically on Ellen Axson Wilson, you may wish to assign students additional reading about Woodrow Wilson in their text books or through this Web site's online portrait of Wilson. Time permitting, you may wish to show the entire first episode of the documentary (total running time: 86 minutes).

Group Discussion
Divide the blackboard into two halves. Label one half "True Womanhood" and the other half "New Woman." As students discuss Ellen Axson Wilson's life, ask them to place events in one column or the other; this should generate some debate and opportunity for further discovery.

At the end of the discussion ask students the following:

… What did Ellen sacrifice - or gain - by adhering to the values of "True Womanhood"?
… In what ways did she extend the role of First Lady? What values may have motivated her to do so?
… How do you think she might have felt being unable to vote for president? What would you have felt in her place?
… How were the ideals embodied in the cult of "True Womanhood" used to justify depriving women of their right to vote?
… How can you explain why many women in Wilson's era, as well as men, believed women should not vote?

Activity 2: Women's Suffrage Symposium

Explain to students how Wilson's presidency coincided with the last great push to win the vote for women. Ellen Axson Wilson never lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, did. What happened during Wilson's presidency to bring about this change?
Inform students that they will be divided into six groups. Four groups will play a variety of organizations and leaders of the suffrage movement. The fifth group will be opposed to women's suffrage. The sixth group will represent President Wilson. The first five groups will have the opportunity to persuade the Wilson team of the merits of their goals. The first five will also be given time to argue amongst themselves about the merits of their causes and strategies.
Background Information

Before beginning, ask the students to look at:

"The History of the Suffrage Movement" by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler at the Web site for American Experience's One Woman, One Vote. This Web site's section on women's suffrage and the profiles of Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul.
Video clips on woman suffrage, including Banners and Parades, The Silent Sentinels, Suffrage and the War, and Final Victory.
Finally, students may also wish to explore Jane Addams' essay, "Why Women Should Vote" featured on this Web site along with a contemporary< introduction by Victoria Bissell Brown.)
Divide the students into six teams:

National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Carrie Chapman Catt (Susan B. Anthony's chosen successor) ran the organization from 1900-1904, and resumed leadership late in 1915. The organization's original strategy focused mainly on state-by-state action. In principle, the NAWSA remained neutral in political elections and shied away from taking on other "controversial" causes. In 1916 NAWSA adopted Catt's "Winning Plan."

National Woman's Party (NWP) The NWP was led by Alice Paul. Taking stock of the state-by-state plan which was faltering at this time, this organization was in favor of putting direct pressure on Congress and the federal government, and of directly attacking "the party in power" as long as women lacked the vote. The NWP imported more militant forms of protest from the English suffrage movement.

National Association of Colored Women (NACW) Privileged white women, especially those in NAWSA, had increasingly turned their backs on the struggle of African Americans, especially in the South. African American women, especially such leaders as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, kept up the fight for the rights of black women whom they viewed as needing the franchise more than any other group.

Socialists and Members of the Woman's Peace Party Socialists looked for more equality not only for women, but also for the working classes, including working women. They were opposed to joining the war in Europe because they viewed it as an unnecessary fight led by the ruling classes of capitalist countries. They often joined forces with other American pacifists as well as suffragists. Jeannette Rankin, Florence Kelley and Jane Addams were prominent advocates of these positions at various times.

Woodrow Wilson and His Advisors In 1912, presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson's support was courted by some organizations seeking suffrage, while other women's groups reviled him. As a Southerner and a Democrat, Wilson was aware that his supporters in the South were generally opposed to female suffrage. After Wilson won election, his son-in-law, William McAdoo, and other advisors continued to shape Wilson's views on suffrage as he sought to pass progressive legislation, keep the country out of war, and finally serve the country as commander-in-chief.

National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) Among those who lent their support to the NAOWS were: the liquor industry, who feared the temperance movement which was largely spearheaded by women; cotton manufacturers, who feared that women's rights would lead female workers to unionize; some Anglo-Saxon New Englanders, who did not want to enfranchise more immigrants; and some white Southerners who did not want to enfranchise more African Americans and claimed they were defending "states' rights." Their positions were bolstered by the cult of "True Womanhood."

Amending the Constitution: Posters and Visuals
Understanding how a Constitutional amendment is proposed and ratified has direct bearing on the strategies suffragists used to win the vote. Review Article V of the U.S. Constitution with your class. Then ask the students assigned to the Wilson team to make posters conveying the following information:

… The principal provisions of Article V of the U.S. Constitution, and how an amendment to the Constitution is proposed and ratified.
… The number of states needed in 1918 to ratify an amendment (36).
… The names of states (from 1912-1918) on a year-by-year basis that either passed or rejected legislation which gave women the vote.
Have students position these posters throughout the symposium. The other five teams should be assigned to make at least 5 posters or political cartoons which express the various positions each group will support in the symposium. During the role-play, these posters should be on display near the teams that made them.

Round 1 of Symposium: 1913

Assign teams to write position papers on the following issues for a symposium set in 1913:
… How should suffragists or anti-suffragists react to President Wilson's inauguration?
… Should suffragists protest his election, or try to make allies with him?
… Is Wilson likely to support the suffragist cause, or reject it and why?
… What legislative initiatives should Wilson be encouraged or discouraged from championing as they pertain to women's lives and interests (for example: income taxes and laws to protect labor)?
… Should suffragists concentrate on a state-by-state strategy, or focus their efforts on Congress and the federal government?
… Should suffragists expend energy in winning Southern states to their cause?
… Should suffragists make alliances with and fight for causes of working class women and African American women at this time?
… What are the main reasons for opposing suffrage, and what groups do they represent?
… Why would female suffrage be especially harmful to a variety of groups in America, according to anti-suffragists?
… What is President Wilson's position on suffrage at this time, and why?

If time permits, show the following segments from episode one of the documentary, Woodrow Wilson:

… Eleven-minute section on the presidential election of 1912 beginning at approximately 49 minutes and 42 seconds and ending at 1 hour and 28 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 6, titled "1912 Election.")
… Ten-minute section on the first family beginning at approximately 1 hour and 28 seconds and ending at 1 hour, 10 minutes and 18 seconds. This segment explores legislative reforms and Wilson's relations with African Americans during his first term. (On the DVD, access chapter 7, titled "First Family.")

Sequence for the Symposium: Round I
President Wilson's team should present a position paper in which they set forth the President's political agenda as he assumes office in 1913, with special focus on issues as they pertain to women. (3 minutes)

Each of the five groups should present a three-minute position paper, addressed to President Wilson in which they try to set forth the agenda they will pursue and the means with which they will try to pursue it. (15 minutes)

Allow a five-to-ten minute break for teams to meet together and decide how they want to respond to comments made by the other teams. Divide the remaining class time such that each of the six groups has an equal amount of time to speak to the position papers of the other groups. Give the Wilson team the last word. Has Wilson's position on any of the issues changed in response to the pressure, criticism and persuasive arguments presented by the other groups?

Round 2 of Symposium: 1917
To prepare for the 1917 symposium, ask students to review the Timeline and the Wilson - A Portrait section on this Web site, and/or to review the years from 1913 to 1917 in their textbooks.

You may also wish to show the following segments from episode two of the Woodrow Wilson documentary:

… Five-minute section on America's neutrality beginning at approximately 9 minutes and 42 seconds and ending at 15 minutes and 1 second. (On the DVD, access the second part of chapter 9, titled "Neutrality.")
… Four-minute section on Wilson's re-election beginning at approximately 19 minutes and 45 seconds and ending at 23 minutes and 43 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 10, titled "Re-Election.")
Next, assign teams to write position papers on the following issues for a symposium set in 1917:

… At this time, is the suffragist cause gaining momentum or losing it?
… If it is gaining ground, why? If it is losing ground, why?
… Should all suffragist groups adopt Catt's "Winning Plan"?
… Should the effort to win Southern states to the suffrage cause be pressed or abandoned?
… Has Wilson changed his mind about how much support he as president should give to woman's suffrage at this time?
… If the U.S. enters the war in Europe, should women - previously pledged to pacifism - support the war effort? Why or why not?
… What will most persuade President Wilson and his advisors to support your team's interests - whether the issues be labor, states' rights, African American women, anti-suffrage or suffrage at this time?

For Round 2 of the symposium, follow the same sequence of presentations as outlined above in Round 1.

Activity 3: Debriefing

After the two-day symposium, ask students to discuss "The Fight for Ratification," the last part of the essay by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler at
Ask students to consider the following questions in discussion:

… How effective was Catt's "Winning Plan"?
… How effective were the strategies of Paul and the NWP?
… In order to win the vote for women, whose interests did national suffrage organizations put by the wayside (i.e. pacifists, African American women, etc.)? Was this a wise strategy or a sell-out?
… Did the suffrage movement ever make significant headway in the South? Why or why not?
… Did President Wilson change his policy and his role towards helping women win the vote? If so, why?
… How important was his support, in the end, towards helping women win suffrage? What is your evidence?

Additional Resources A Web site produced by the Ohio Historical Society and Ohio State University, 1912:Competing Visions for America, includes a section that sets forth the arguments, pro and con, for woman suffrage and provides a wealth of political cartoons and other visuals.

Additional sources of information include:

The National Archives

American Memory at the Library of Congress

For primary sources written by suffragists, visit the Suffragists Oral History Project site at Berkeley University.

Assessment Recommendations

… Students can be assessed for the effectiveness of the visual materials they prepared for the symposium, the effectiveness in presenting their position papers and arguing their team's case.
… Students can be asked to write an essay in which they address any one of the issues raised in the de-briefing session.
… Students can be asked to keep a diary throughout their preparation for and participation in the symposium in which they reflect on what they have learned.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

… Compare the life of Ellen Axson to that of Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt. In what ways is she more of a modern woman than her predecessor? Show the following segments from episode two of the documentary, Woodrow Wilson. A 14-minute section on Wilson's relationship with Edith Bolling Galt begins at approximately 5 minutes and 28 seconds and ends at 19 minutes and 45 seconds. (On the DVD, access chapter 9, titled "Neutrality.") Also, a 21-minute segment dealing with Edith Bolling Galt's role after Wilson's stroke begins at approximately 1 hour, 12 minutes and 39 seconds and runs to the end of the documentary. (On the DVD, access chapter 16, titled "Final Battle.")
… Ask students to write a research paper on one of the female leaders of the suffrage movement.
… Ask students to research the failed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and compare the struggle over its adoption to that of the Nineteenth Amendment. For more information, visit the National Council of Women's Organizations' Web site on the ERA at
… Ask students to assess the political gains women have made since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Have they won an equal share of power in Congress? What role does the "woman's vote" play in shaping the political agenda in America today? For more information, visit the League of Women Voters' Web site at

Relevant National Standards

History Standards Established by the National Center for History in the Schools

… Era 7: Standard 1B (Grades 5-12)
Evaluate the presidential leadership ofΦWoodrow Wilson in terms of his effectiveness in obtaining passage of reform measures. Describe how theΦ 19th Amendment reflected the ideals and goals of Progressivism and the continuing attempt to adapt the founding ideals to a modernized society.
… Era 7: Standard 1C (Grades 9-12)
Specify the issues raised by various women and how mainstream Progressives responded to them.
… Era 7: Standard 3A (Grades 9-12) Analyze how the emergence of the "New Woman" challenged Victorian values.

Civics Standards Established by the Center for Civic Education

… Standard I. C. 2 (Grades 5-8)
Describe historical and contemporary examples of how constitutions have been used to protect individual rights and promote the common good, e.g. the Nineteenth Amendment.
… Standard II. C.2 (Grades 9-12)
Describe political conflict in the United States both historically and at present, such as conflict aboutΦextending the franchise.
… Standard III. A. 2 (Grades 9-12)
Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the distribution of powers and responsibilities within the federal system.
… Standard V. E. 1
Explain the relationship of individual participation in the political process to the realization of the fundamental values of American constitutional democracy.

About the Author Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Over the years, she has written articles about her work in the classroom for Social Education. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at

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