Political developments leave a clear trace in the life of a nation, usually marked by legislative mileposts like the Fourteenth Amendment, which dictates equal protection for all, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. But such developments have a cultural dimension as well, often evident in the attitudes and assumptions implicit in political arguments.
Begin by having students read the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others at the first American women's rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, one of the many documents in the "Votes for Women" collection at the American Memory website. Ask students first why this powerful polemic is modeled on the Declaration of Independence (available at the National Archives website). To what extent is it a rewriting of the Declaration of Independence that aims to challenge its authority? To what extent does the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments" aim to cloak itself in the authority of its model? Investigate next what the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments" seeks to achieve. Is it a declaration of independence for women? a demand for equality? a call to revolt against the tyranny of men? Explore the degree to which each of these motives finds expression in the argument.
Have students cite passages in the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments to illustrate how it characterizes both men and women. Based on this document, how might an anthropologist describe the relationship between men and women in mid-nineteenth century American society? To what extent are the tone and rhetorical posture of the document itself consistent with the picture it paints? To what extent is this picture consistent with the representation of women in mid-nineteenth century American literature?
Finally, ask students to consider the intended audience for the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. How would men of the time be likely to react to it? women? opponents of women's suffrage? Have students write two newspaper editorials responding to the argument of the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments," one rejecting it and the other applauding it.
Encourage students with Internet access to browse through some of the documents in the "Votes for Women" collection, noting how the tone and tactics of suffragist arguments changed over the more than seventy years it took to win the Nineteenth Amendment. To help students recognize the trajectory of this gradual process, direct them to The Blue Book (1917) in the "Votes for Women" collection, which was a combination history and handbook that gathered together important facts about the woman suffrage movement. Look at the section on pages 144-194 of the The Blue Book, titled "Objections Answered," where Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the movement's key periodical, "The Woman's Journal," rebuts a variety of the arguments against giving women the vote. If Internet access is limited among your students, provide them with copies of some extracts from this section, such as this passage on page 145:
Women are represented already by their husbands, fathers and brothers.
This so-called representation bears no proportion to numbers. Here is a man who has a wife, widowed mother, four or five unmarried sisters, and half a dozen unmarried daughters. His vote represents himself and all these women, and it counts one; while the vote of his bachelor neighbor next door, without a female relative in the world, counts for just as much. Since the object of taking a vote is to get at the wish of the majority, it is clear that the only fair and accurate way is for each grown person to have one vote, and cast it to represent himself or herself.
American men are the best in the world, and if it were possible for any men to represent women, through kindness and good will to them, American men would do it. But a man is by nature too different from a woman to be able to represent her. The two creatures are unlike. Whatever his good will, he cannot fully put himself in a woman's place, and look at things exactly from her point of view. To say this is no more a reflection upon his mental or moral ability than it would be a reflection upon his musical ability to say that he cannot sing both soprano and bass. Unless men and women should ever become alike (which would be regrettable and monotonous), women must either go unrepresented or represent themselves.
Another proof that women's opinions are not now fully represented is the lack in many states of humane and protective legislation and the poor enforcement of such legislation where it exists; the inadequate appropriations for schools; the permission of child labor in factories; and in general the imperfect legal safe-guarding of the moral, educational and humanitarian interests that women have most at heart. In many of our states, the property laws are more or less unequal as between men and women. A hundred years ago, before the equal rights movement began, they were almost incredibly unequal. Yet our grandfathers loved their wives and daughters as much as men do to-day.
Ask students how this mode of argument differs from that of the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments." Have them compare the tone of the two arguments and the self-image projected by the two authors, as well as the kinds of evidence each presents. Then focus on Blackwell's implicit characterization of men and women. What is the relationship between men and women in her society? What is the status of women? How will the right to vote affect that status? To sharpen the comparison, have students rewrite Blackwell's argument in the manner of the Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments."
Encourage speculation on some ways the women's movement and American culture may have changed in the seventy years since Stanton's call to action that would account for Blackwell's very different handling of the issue. Ask students what kinds of historical evidence they might search for to test the hypotheses drawn from this comparison of the two documents. To enrich this discussion, have students read the timeline "One Hundred Years toward Suffrage: An Overview," by E. Susan Barber on the American Memory website.
For added perspective on the evolving role of women in American life, have students compare statements by two African American women who were early and late leaders in the suffrage movement: Sojourner Truth (see her address on page 76 of Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Convention 1853 in the "Votes for Women" collection at the American Memory website) and Mary Church Terrell (see her 1898 speech, "The Progress of Colored Women," in the African American Perspectives collection at the American Memory website).
To close the lesson, ask students what conclusions they might draw about the relationship between political ideas and cultural attitudes. To what extent, for example, did the Seneca Falls Declaration set off a movement that grew into a cultural revolution? To what extent were the ideas expounded at Seneca Falls dependent on a change in the cultural climate for their success? Have students write position statements and debate this question in the context of contemporary American society.
The American Memory website holds extensive resources for investigating the role of American women in many contexts. Direct interested students to: "California As I Saw It" for memoirs by pioneer women; "American Life Histories" for autobiographical interviews with women conducted during the Great Depression; and "The American Variety Stage" for examples of women in the image-conscious world of entertainment during the turn of the century. Students can also gain firsthand information by asking their parents and grandparents how attitudes toward women have changed during their lifetimes. You might also extend this lesson by looking at the heroines of two works of American literature that are nearly contemporary with Stanton's and Blackwell's suffragist statements: Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900).