Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Voting Rights for Women: Pro- and Anti-Suffrage


The Lesson


Suffragists voting in New York, 1917.

Suffragists voting in New York, 1917.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.

An article originally published in the 1991 Session Weekly of the Minnesota House of Representatives recalls the arguments put forth in objection to the Minnesota Equal Suffrage Association's decision, early in the 20th century, to push for the right of women to vote in presidential elections. One lawmaker declared that all-male voting was "designed by our forefathers." Later, Rep. Thomas Girling argued that "women shouldn't be dragged into the dirty pool of politics." Approving such a measure, he said, would "cause irreparable damage at great expense to the state."

When the Senate took up the bill, one member asserted that "disaster and ruin would overtake the nation." Suffrage would lead inevitably to "government by females" because "men could never resist the blandishments of women." Instead, he recommended that women "attach themselves to some man who will represent them in public affairs."

Though such arguments may now sound rather ridiculous to some, they are closely related to entrenched views of women that took more than a century to overcome (assuming one agrees they have been overcome). Understanding the positions of the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements—as expressed in archival broadsides, speeches, pamphlets, and political cartoons—will help your students better appreciate the struggle for women's rights and the vestiges of the anti-suffrage positions that lasted at least through the 1960s and, perhaps, to the present day.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lessons Women's Suffrage: Why the West First, Who were the Foremothers of Women's Equality?, and Women's Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs.

Guiding Questions

  • What attitudes about women and their relationships with men had to be overcome before women could take their rightful place in American society?
  • What were the arguments for and against suffrage?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

  • State arguments for and against suffrage for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries
  • Give examples of how those arguments were expressed in a variety of media
  • Analyze a political cartoon from the 19th or early 20th centuries on the subject of suffrage

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Pro- and Anti-Suffrage Worksheet, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Because of the importance and scope of the Women's Rights Movement, EDSITEment offers three companion lessons designed to supplement your classroom curriculum through organized access to archival materials:
    • Who Were the Foremothers of Women's Equality?: Students encounter major figures in the woman's rights movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries in important documents and other primary and secondary materials. The first activity in particular familiarizes students with the formative goals of the movement as voiced in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1848 "Declaration of Sentiments."
    • Women's Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs: Students analyze archival cartoons, posters, magazine humor, newspaper articles and poems that reflect the deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs the early crusaders for women's rights had to overcome.
    • Women's Suffrage: Why the West First?: Students compile information to examine hypotheses explaining why the first nine states to grant full voting rights for women were located in the West.
  • Depending on your students' level of preparation, you may wish to discuss how the movement for Women's Suffrage fits into the larger nineteenth-century struggle for Women's Rights. It may surprise your students to know, for example, that only a slim majority of those attending the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention approved the suffrage initiative and then only after Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass insisted it was essential. Demanding the vote was regarded by many as too extreme. Why did Stanton consider suffrage central to the advancement of women? To understand that Stanton felt suffrage should have a major place in the overall movement for women's rights, share with your students the first four grievances recorded in her 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, the formative document of the Women's Rights Movement, available via a link from the EDSITEment resource New Perspectives on the West. (Like The Declaration of Independence, which it mirrors, Stanton's text lists a "history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman):
  1. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
  2. He has compelled her to submit to law in the formation of which she had no voice.
  3. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men, both natives and foreigners.
  4. Having deprived her of this first right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
  • All four initial grievances relate to the exclusion of women from the voting process, the overt subject of the first grievance. The second grievance echoes a familiar cry from the American Revolution, "No taxation without representation." The third grievance is a precursor to the argument used in the courts starting in the 1870s, that if women are citizens, they cannot be deprived of rights accorded to other citizens (and even, in some instances, non-citizens). The fourth grievance explains why the early proponents of the Women's Rights Movement chose suffrage as their central goal. Depriving women "of the elective franchise" made "oppressions… on all sides" possible. Stanton continues by listing many such oppressions.
  • (NOTE: A more in-depth discussion of the grievances may be found in the first activity of the EDSITEment lesson Who Were the Foremothers of Women's Equality? For more on the deeply engrained beliefs the early movement was working against, consult the EDSITEment lesson Women's Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs.)
  • For further background on the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements, consult Not For Ourselves Alone, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website New Perspectives on the West.
  • The Currier and Ives lithograph The Age of Brass/or the Triumphs of Women's Rights (from the Library of Congress), used in Activity 1, is from 1869. According to Roland Marchand, it is a picture of various types of dangerous feminists. It includes the following words and phrases: "Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer / Susan Sharp Tongue"; "Rights for Women … for Sheriff Miss Hang Man …" It also features two women smoking cigars and, to the side, a man with a baby.
  • An additional EDSITEment lesson, Cultural Change, explains how women won the vote and explores the relationship between political ideas and cultural attitudes. 
  • For further reading, consult the Recommended Reading List provided here as a PDF.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Triumph of Women's Rights?

To establish an anticipatory set, begin by sharing with students the Currier and Ives lithograph The Age of Brass/or the Triumphs of Women's Rights, available from the Library of Congress. Before giving any background or guidance, encourage students to report what they notice in the lithograph. Then, in a whole-class setting, use this Cartoon Analysis Worksheet (offered by the Educator Resources section of National Archives) to analyze the illustration. Tell students they will be much better equipped to do such analyses when they have completed the other activities in this lesson.

Activity 2. The Constitutional/Legal Argument

Share with students the first paragraph of the Introduction, above. Was the legislator correct when he said that all-male voting was "designed by our forefathers?" As a class, read the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified 1920), available in a Transcript of Amendments 11-27 from the National Archives. What does the amendment say? Now have students scan the text of the Constitution. (A Transcription of the U.S. Constitution is also available from the National Archives.) Are women expressly forbidden from voting? Why was the 19th Amendment necessary? Women did vote in some states in the early days of our republic.

Share with students the document 1797, An Act to regulate the election of members of the legislative council and general assembly, sheriffs and coroners, in this State, available courtesy of Rutgers University Libraries via New Jersey Women's History. What does the document indicate about voting in the state of New Jersey? (Women did vote.) Nevertheless, later acts rescinded the right of suffrage for women in every state—share with students the document Who Shall Not Vote 1807, also available courtesy of Rutgers University Libraries via New Jersey Women's History.

What about the post-Civil War Constitutional amendments? Didn't they grant universal suffrage? Read the 14th and 15th Amendments. (Note that the 14th Amendment specifically uses the word "male." The 15th does not, leaving open the possibility for a state to grant women the right to vote.)

Though passed in hopes of enforcing the rights of freed slaves to vote, a less well-known act of Congress—the Enforcement Act of 1870—was used to convict Elizabeth Cady Stanton of voting illegally. Download, copy and distribute to students the "Enforcement Act of 1870" on page 1 of the Pro-and Anti-Suffrage Worksheet, available here as a PDF. Can students find the clause that was used against Stanton?

The Founding Fathers never specifically banned women from voting, but the states did have that power and used it. What we might call a technicality in the Federal law was also used to enforce the ban.

If desired, students can now fill in the first section of the chart "Pro- and Anti-Suffrage Arguments" on page 2 of the PDF.

Activity 3. Suffrage and Anti-Suffrage Arguments

Share with the class the document A Petition for Universal Suffrage (circa 1865), an early plea to Congress, available from the National Archives. What are some of the issues Stanton, Anthony, Blackwell, Stone, and others included in the petition?

If you have not already done so, pass out the chart "Pro- and Anti-Suffrage Arguments," on page 2 of the PDF (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson), for students to use during the following activity.

Divide the class into eight groups. The archival documents listed below will allow the groups to explore specific issues. The selected documents have a common theme or themes, but are not necessarily limited to any particular theme. If possible, create overheads or multiple copies of documents as requested by groups.

Following their research, student groups should present their documents in a point/counterpoint fashion, having at least two speakers—each of whom represents a position as expressed in a particular document—speak in turn when possible.

Activity 4. Cartoons: A Check for Understanding

Once again, show students The Age of Brass/or the Triumphs of Women's Rights (from the Library of Congress). Would students analyze it differently now than they did when this lesson began?

Students can use the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet, available via the Educator Resources section of the National Archives website, for guidance.

Extending The Lesson

  • Abolition and the Early Women’s Rights Movement
    Many of the early activists for women's rights became politicized through their interest in abolition. In an 1837 letter to Catherine E. Beecher, Angelina Emily Grimke, an early leader in the movement, explained how her interests expanded from antislavery to women's rights.

From the abolition movement grew the women's movement. For an online documentary movie about the formative years of the movement with an emphasis on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (based on Ken Burns' television documentary), click on the image on the left-hand side of the home page of PBS's Not For Ourselves Alone (a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website New Perspectives on the West) to access audio and video. Note the connections the documentary makes between the Women's Rights Movement and temperance and abolition movements. The first 12 online episodes are especially relevant for providing background on the formative years of the movement. (NOTE: Each episode is a brief loop; click on the next number to continue.)

  • When Did Women Overcome?
    If desired, you can bring the discussion of the issues in Part 3 and Part 4, above, into more contemporary times. Share with the class the speech by Shirley Chisholm: "Equal Rights for Women" (available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website African-American Women: Online Archival Collection), presented in the House of Representatives on May 21, 1969. Which issues from the previous discussion did she raise? What new issues did she raise?

Share the first four pages of the illustrated satirical poem from the 1960s "There Was a Young Woman Who Swallowed a Lie" by Meridith Tax, also available on the EDSITEment resource African-American Women: Online Archival Collection.

Which issues from the previous discussion did she raise? What new issues did she raise?

Both of these documents were from the 1960s. Are any of the issues from the early suffrage movement still issues today? Students could create a poll to try to gauge the answer. If students in the class disagree, a debate could be conducted. (The topic of women's rights is still contentious: monitor the debate closely.)

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • MMS (AL)