Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Women's Suffrage: Why the West First?


The Lesson


Why the West?

Women's Suffrage Cartoon = personification of Votes for Women

Credit: 1915 cartoon by Hy Mayer Public domain image, originally published in Puck, February 20, 1915 - courtesy Library of Congress

Women's suffrage succeeded in the West for reasons as diverse as the people and places of the West itself.
—From This Shall Be the Land for Women on the EDSITEment resource Women of the West Museum

The 19th Amendment, granting suffrage to women, was approved by Congress in 1920. It was over fifty years previously, however, that Wyoming had entered the Union as the first state to grant women full voting rights. The next eight states to grant full suffrage to women were also Western states: Colorado (1893); Utah and Idaho (1896); Washington (1910); California (1911); and Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona (1912). Why was the West first? Can students explain with a unified theory why Western states anticipated the rest of the nation by so many years on this issue? Or did "women's suffrage succeed… in the West for reasons as diverse as the people and places of the West itself?"

Focused on efforts in support of women's suffrage in Western states, this lesson can be used either as a stand-alone unit or as a more specialized sequel to the EDSITEment lesson, Voting Rights for Women: Pro- and Anti-Suffrage, which covers the suffrage movement in general. The latter lesson also contains activities and resources for learning how the movement to gain the vote for women fits into the larger struggle for women's rights in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Guiding Questions

Why were the Western states the first in the nation to grant full voting rights for women?

Learning Objectives

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

  • Discuss the particulars in the granting of full voting rights to women in several Western states
  • List some women especially involved in the Western suffrage movement and supply some important facts from their biographies
  • Take a stand, supported by historical evidence, as to whether or not a single theory can explain why the Western states were the first to grant full voting rights to women.

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 Worksheet: Why the West First?, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Voting Rights for Women: Pro- and Anti-Suffrage: You can use this complementary EDSITEment lesson, which describes the overall women's suffrage movement, to help students understand how the Western suffrage movement fits within the larger struggle for women's voting rights. This lesson also contains resources and activities illustrating how the movement to gain the vote for women fits into the larger struggle for women's rights in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • 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.
  • For background on suffrage in the West, consult the following resources:
  • The interactive Map: Woman Suffrage (on Women in American History, an online exhibit of Britannica.com, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library), an option in Part 3 requires the Shockwave plug-in. If you plan to use the map, take a moment to see how it works.
  • For further reading, consult the Recommended Reading List provided here as a PDF.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Why Suffrage Started in the West: What Made the Difference?

Establish an anticipatory set by sharing with the class the list Suffrage Firsts, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women of the West Museum. If possible, allow students to view the online interactive map Map: Woman Suffrage on Women in American History, an online exhibit of Britannica.com, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. It demonstrates quite dramatically the progress of full voting rights for women. Another option is to share the timeline Voting Rights in America on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women of the West Museum.

Do students have any theories about why women would achieve the vote in the West first? Distribute to students the poll "How the West Was First: Why Did Suffrage Succeed?", on page 1 of the PDF which lists a number of possible hypotheses. Students can complete the poll independently or the teacher can lead the class through it. Which reasons were most frequently cited by students as the most likely theories?

Activity 2. East Meets West

Share with your students the following texts illustrating connections between suffrage movements in the West and those in the Northeast:

Susan B. Anthony campaigned vigorously in the West, giving many lectures. The following excerpt from Albina L. Washburne, "Annual Meeting, American Woman Suffrage Association: Colorado Report," Woman's Journal, 7 (October 7, 1876), pp. 327, 328, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women and Social Movements in the United States, indicates some of the cooperation that took place. The introduction to the excerpt explains:

The Colorado Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1876, gave organizational shape to suffrage sentiment in the state. The state association affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), one of two national organizations dedicated to achieving votes for women. The AWSA, which began in November 1869, sought to pass state laws granting women the right to vote, making it the logical affiliation for the Colorado Woman Suffrage Association.

The essay The History of the Suffrage Movement, from PBS's Not For Ourselves Alone, a link from the EDSITEment resource New Perspectives on the West, offers this additional background information:

American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was led by Lucy Stone with the aid of her husband Henry Blackwell, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Ward Beecher, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and others; it endorsed the Fifteenth Amendment while working for woman suffrage as well.

You may also wish to share this excerpt from Washburne's 1876 report with students:

Previous to last year there had been very little agitation on the subject of Woman Suffrage in Colorado, and a few of us waiting ones were glad to receive a visit from Mrs. Margaret W. Campbell, of Massachusetts, a tried friend and worker in the Suffrage cause, who arrived in Colorado about the middle of November, 1875. Anxious to avail ourselves of her valuable assistance we Suffragists, then scattered and unknown to each other, gave her a warm welcome and proceeded to agitate a little, and feel the public pulse. Mrs. Campbell lectured in nearly all the principle towns of Colorado, finding many interested, and devoting herself untiringly to presenting the claims of Woman to legal rights, to the popular comprehension, when a call was made for a Convention of the friends to be held at Denver, January 10th, 1876, which was responded to by a few from a distance, and others more numerous from the city. Four sessions were held, an organization effected of the Colorado Woman Suffrage Association…

How did the movement in Colorado benefit from this contact with an activist from the Northeast?

Activity 3. Did the Land Make the Difference?

Share with the class the Introduction to the West on the EDSITEment-reviewed PBS website New Perspectives on the West. It introduces the landscape, myth, and history of the West. What attracted people to the American West? What experiences of the West do your students have (from watching Western movies or visiting the Grand Canyon, for example)? What values have become associated with the exploration and settlement of the vast landscapes of the West? Does the myth of the West, as discussed in "Introduction to the West," help explain why women achieved full voting rights there first?

To help students explore this question, briefly share some or all of the following images from the EDSITEment resource American Memory that exemplify the myth of the West. As you show the images, ask students to jot down one to three words they associate with each. Discuss each image briefly and allow students to add a word or two:

Ask students, now working in small groups, to share their lists and then attempt to come up with a statement describing the myth of the West that uses some of the list words, and especially those that were repeated. Reconvene in a whole-class setting and share descriptions. If desired, choose one group's definition (or use ideas from various groups) to stand as a class statement on the nature of the myth. Are there aspects of this myth that help explain why women got full voting rights in the West first? On the other hand, are there aspects of the myth that seem to contradict the fact that women's suffrage came to the West first?

Activity 4. Did the Settlers Make the Difference?

Who came to the West and why? In this activity, students explore the various motivations of those who migrated to the American West. Might the motivations of those who migrated to the West help us to understand the region's early granting of voting rights to women?

As you share the following with the class, ask students to invent a character (who, for example, could be in a realistic historical fiction work about the settling of the West) inspired by the materials presented. Every character should have a name, age, reason for coming West, a home place, and a brief story to tell about him or herself:

When you are finished reviewing the material, have each student—in character—share the basic information about him or herself. Then ask the "character" to state an opinion about voting rights for women. Students should be ready, if asked, to provide evidence--either details from a character's story or reasoning and inference--supporting the likelihood that their character would hold such an opinion. As a class, discuss and collate the results of presentations of individual characters. Discuss the central question of whether women won voting rights in the West because of the nature of those who wanted to migrate to that region. (Be alert not only to details that seem to support the region's openness to women's suffrage, but also to details that make the early granting of the vote to women seem surprising.)

Activity 5. Did the Women of the West Make the Difference?

Is the answer connected to the nature and experiences and characters of the women who came to the West?

In this activity, students—working individually or in pairs—will learn about a pioneer woman and compose a free verse poem that highlights the details of her life. As a model, share with students the poem "Lucinda Matlock" by Edgar Lee Masters, available on the EDSITEment resource The Academy of American Poets. Though not about a pioneer woman of the West, this poem gives the details of an entire life history in a few lines.

Read the poem aloud in class. After the first reading, ask students what "jumped out at them" from the poem. Now distribute copies of the poem to students and have a volunteer give a second reading. After the reading, ask students to point out concrete details from the life of Lucinda Matlock. Point out to students that the poem does not rhyme—a key characteristic of free verse.

Now assign subjects to students from the following list or other sources:

Students should compose poems from what they learn about their subject. When students have finished writing, conduct a classroom reading of the poems. Having heard all of them, students should identify any commonalities that exist among these women. Can their personalities and experiences explain why women in the West were the first to be granted full voting rights?

Activity 6. Did the Western States have Unique Situations that Promoted Suffrage?

Share the following graphics regarding suffrage movements in three states, available on the EDSITEment resource Women of the West Museum:

Do these graphics give the impression that the motivations behind the various suffrage movements were similar or different? Students will explore this question working in small groups to research eight of the first nine suffrage states.

Divide the class into eight groups. Students should use the following articles and graphics from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women of the West Museum, as well as other available classroom and/or library resources, to research eight Western states. (NOTE: Click on the state name for a summary article. Additional links to graphics and biographies are provided in each article.)

Once students have completed their research, each group should present its findings to the class. If desired, have students fill in the table "Is It Something Particular for Each State?", on page 2 of the PDF as groups present their information.

Activity 7. Developing a Theory

After all groups have made their presentations, reconsider the poll results from Activity 1. Would students' answers change now? Should other hypotheses be added to the poll? Which hypothesis would be most frequently chosen now as the most likely?

Is there a unified theory for why the West gave women full voting rights first?

The Basics

Time Required

6-8 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Developing a hypothesis
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Persuasive writing and speaking
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets