Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Who Were the Foremothers of Women's Equality?


The Lesson


Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony.

Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.

The website America's Library, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, asserts that "just as George Washington is considered a 'Forefather' of American democracy, [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and [Susan B.] Anthony are 'Foremothers' of the struggle for women's equality." Yet, while Stanton and Anthony are arguably the best known suffragists, most young people know little about them or the women who fought alongside them, "activists whose names and accomplishments should become as familiar to Americans as those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr." (see A History of the Movement, a resource from the National Women's History Project), a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000). Who were the activists whose names deserve to be remembered alongside such iconic figures as Jefferson, Lincoln, and King?

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to any or all of the complementary EDSITEment lessons Women's Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs, Voting Rights for Women: Pro- and Anti-Suffrage, and Women's Suffrage: Why the West First?.

Guiding Questions

  • What sources are useful for uncovering the names of the women who contributed to the early Women's Rights Movement in the U.S.?
  • Which contributions and individuals were particularly significant?

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction: What Did the Foremothers of Women's Equality Accomplish?

Share with the class the following quote from A History of the Movement from National Women's History Project, a link from the EDSITEment resource Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000:

Among these women are several activists whose names and accomplishments should become as familiar to Americans as those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This quote raises many questions that will be explored in the exercises below. Who are the "several activists" of the women's movement whose names ought to be remembered alongside those of Jefferson, Lincoln, and King? What were their accomplishments and why were these accomplishments so significant in American history? The Forefathers of democracy transformed a loosely connected set of colonies into one country attempting a great political experiment; is it legitimate, based on the changes they brought about in American society, to speak of these "several activists" as the Foremothers of women's equality? Why or why not? How well represented in our history books and textbooks are the activists of the Women's Movement in the nineteenth century?

Students can begin to explore these questions by considering the obstacles that activists for women's equality faced in the nineteenth century. What exactly were these women trying to change? What obstacles did they face?

First, share with your students some examples of attitudes toward women that were widely held early in the nineteenth century. Show them Your Valentine: An Anti-Suffrage Postcard, available on Western New York Suffragists, a link from the EDSITEment resource Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775–2000. What entrenched attitudes about women are revealed in the postcard? (Please note that a much fuller exploration of contemporary attitudes towards Women's Rights is available in the companion piece to this lesson, Women's Equality in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs.)

Women had more to overcome than attitudes, however. Inequities were built into the legal system. Elizabeth Cady Stanton listed many of the various hardships women faced in the complaints section of her seminal "Declaration of Sentiments," endorsed at the Women's Rights Convention of 1848. Download, copy and distribute to students the worksheet "Complaints in the Declaration of Sentiments" on pages 1–3 of the PDF. In the exercise, students will first match summary versions of the complaints—written in contemporary language—with Stanton's own; this is a way of making the complaints accessible as students become familiar with them. Then students will select specific complaints in answer to five questions as they hink about the reality of life for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

After students have had time to complete the exercise, discuss their answers (and tally their selections, if desired), keeping in mind that the worksheet features open-ended questions with no specific right answers. (NOTE: "Complaints in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Original Order," a matched set of the original complaints and the reworded versions, is available on pages 4–5 of the PDF.

Any student with an interest in reading the complete Declaration of Sentiments, can view versions of the Declaration of Sentiments and the Declaration of Independence Side by Side at the site Liberty Rhetoric and Nineteenth Century Women, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters.

Activity 2. Group Work: Desperately Seeking Foremothers ...

Ask students to quickly name some of our country's Forefathers; they can probably name a few with little trouble. What made them Forefathers? Explain that we generally consider the Forefathers—or Founding Fathers—to be those men who were present at the birth of our nation and who signed any one of the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the U.S. Constitution. Briefly look at the list of Founding Fathers on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. (Be aware that some figures are conspicuously absent from this list, most notably Thomas Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention.)

In this exercise, students will scan the following documents to collect and compile names of potential Foremothers. The documents have been divided into six groups. Feel free to rearrange the documents and groupings as desired to fit your class. (In Activity 4, students will address the question of just how many names should be on the list of Foremothers. The list of Founding Fathers above, for example, contains 55 names: if women have achieved equality, should there be at least 55 Foremothers?)

Group 1: Looking for Foremothers in the Keystone Documents of the Women's Movement

We find the Forefathers in key documents they helped create and/or to which they affixed their signatures. What are some corresponding documents for the Women's Rights Movement? (NOTE: You could use this set of documents in a whole-class setting to allow you to provide students more guidance about the documents themselves.)

Group 2: Looking for Foremothers in More Keystone Documents of the Women's Movement

We find the Forefathers in key documents they helped create and/or to which they affixed their signatures. What are some corresponding documents for the Women's Rights Movement?

Group 3: Looking for Foremothers in Images
Group 4: Looking for Foremothers in Creative Writing
Group 5: Looking for Foremothers in Essays by Scholars
Group 6: Looking for Foremothers in the Histories
Activity 3. A Pool of Candidates

Collect the names from the student groups and compile a master list. Some of the women (and perhaps men) on the list will certainly be icons of the Women's Rights Movement. Others will be worthy, but less well-known; still others will have faded into obscurity. Allow students to add any additional candidates to the list who were not part of this research but with whom students are familiar.

Activity 4. Arriving at a Process

Before commencing their research to determine who on the list deserves to be named a Foremother, students should work together as a class to develop a pool of candidates and determine the process for sorting through those possibilities. To help them do so, student groups should respond to the following questions:

  • About how many names will be included in your class's final list of Foremothers?
  • What are the ground rules for candidates?
  • What are the guidelines for group work?
  • How many candidates for inclusion on the list should each group research?
  • Can there be overlap from one group to the next? Should you simply divide the class's list of potential candidates among the groups, or should each group choose its own candidates?
  • From the lengthy list compiled, how will students determine who to research?
  • What will be the criteria for admission into the pantheon of Foremothers?
  • Any guidelines for presentations?

Based on students' answers, develop clear guidelines as to how the class will select Foremothers from the master list.

Activity 5. The Search for Foremothers

If you have not done so already, break up the class into small groups to research candidates for admission to your pantheon of Foremothers. Students should use the websites listed in bold-face type under Selected EDSITEment Websites, to conduct their research.

Activity 6. And the Foremothers of Women's Equality Are...

Students will present their findings to the class arguing in favor of admission of their candidate(s) into the "pantheon" of Foremothers. "Choosing the Foremothers," a graphic organizer on page 6 of the PDF will help students take notes as presentations are made.

Activity 7. Suggestions for Optional Culminating Activities

To culminate the activity, the class could create a Foremothers' Museum as a bulletin board, slide show, or online presentation. Technically savvy students could set up an online gallery of photos with links to information, similar to the online exhibit Signers of the Constitution on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom.

Extending The Lesson


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

4-5 class periods

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


Activity Worksheets