At the Center for Women’s History, we like to say that “every month is women’s history month,” because this history is too vast and important to be relegated to thirty-one days in March. Our Women and the American Story (WAMS) curriculum puts women front and center throughout the US history survey, demonstrating to students that women’s contributions to the nation’s past are not addendums to a larger narrative. Still, as the new school year begins, we know that social studies teachers will face a significant time crunch as they strive to get through all of the content they are required to cover in a year. Time and again, we have heard from teachers that adding something new to their already overflowing plate is a daunting feat. We understand! The challenge, then, becomes how to incorporate narratives that address women’s experiences into a given lesson’s topic. Our solution: plug and play.
WAMS provides teachers with the tools they need to seamlessly “plug” primary resources into their lessons and “play” with how they use those resources to advance a particular topic or theme. Are you teaching a lesson on colonial agriculture? Why not use Sybilla Masters’ patent for cleaning and curing corn from our Early Encounters, 1492-1734 unit—the first patent issued to an English colonist. While you’re explaining to students that Sybilla created a corn gin to ease the human burden of pounding corn with a mortar and pestle, you can also discuss the fact that the patent was filed under her husband’s name because women were not legally recognized as individuals. It was Sybilla Masters’ ingenuity that led to the early mechanization of agriculture in America, and yet she received no credit for her contribution to technological advancement. As a bonus, you can pull out the fact that Masters received this patent about eighty years before the invention of the cotton gin the next time Eli Whitney comes up at trivia.
Sybilla and Thomas Masters, Illustrations of Sybilla Masters’ patented inventions for cleaning and curing indian corn, 1715. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Or perhaps you’re teaching a lesson on Indian Removal. While talking about Cherokee resistance to land seizure in the early republic, you can have students read the life story of Nanyehi, known as Nancy Ward following her marriage to an English trader, from our New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848 unit. Nanyehi was a Beloved Woman—also referred to as a War Woman—the only title of honor a Cherokee woman could receive. As such, she had political influence and was present when the Cherokee met with U.S. officials in 1781 advocating for peace and unity between the two groups.
Henry Timberlake, A Draught of the Cherokee Country, 1765. Ink on Paper. Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 5549.
In the same lesson you can also teach your students about Catherine Beecher, an educator at the Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut, who worked with her colleague Lydia Sigourney to circulate an 1829 petition in opposition to the impending Indian Removal Act. Beecher and Sigourney organized a nationwide effort, leveraging their contacts in education and benevolent societies and venturing into a public political sphere that women of the early 19th century were expected to eschew. In folding both of these resources into your lesson, you will be teaching your students about the various ways that women engaged with politics and advocated for their beliefs while educating them about westward expansion and its impact on the Cherokee.
Attributed to W & F Langenheim, Catharine Beecher, 1848. Daguerreotype. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Augustus Washington, Lydia Sigourney, 1852. Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.
You might also be teaching a unit about the rise of American business. Consider incorporating more than the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the Gilded Age into your lessons by using the life story of Madame C.J. Walker from our WAMS unit Modernizing America, 1889-1920. Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the first member of her family to be born into freedom. At the age of twenty, following a series of personal tragedies, Sarah moved to St. Louis with her young daughter and worked as a laundress for $1.50 a day while attending night school whenever she was able. She married Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker and took a job selling beauty products for black women. At a time when most new technology in the beauty industry was designed for and sold to white women, Sarah experimented with formulas at home and worked to create new products to soften her hair and ease her irritated scalp. She established a business, renaming herself Madam C.J. Walker and selling her products in black publications through a mail-order system. When her business began to boom, she set up beauty training schools and employed hundreds of black women across the country to serve as the face of her brand. She also donated money to scholarships, homes for the elderly, anti-lynching efforts, and other initiatives within the local and national black community. At the time of her death in 1919, it was estimated that her estate was worth $1 to $2 million—$14 to $30 million in 2018’s terms.
Addison N. Scurlock, Madam C.J. Walker, c. 1914. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of A’Lelia Bundles/ Walker Family
Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co., Shampoo tin and original box, ca. 1910-1920. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Lisa Kugelman in memory of Thomas P. Kugelman
Or maybe you’re looking for new ways to illustrate change over time to your students. Good news: plug and play is not the only way to incorporate WAMS resources into your classroom! Each resource and life story in the curriculum will come equipped with discussion questions and suggested activities designed to make connections by theme, connections across era, and connections to a wide array of other New-York Historical curriculum materials. In recent professional development workshops piloting materials from our upcoming WAMS units — Early Encounters, 1492-1734 and Modernizing America, 1889-1920 — teachers had the opportunity to test materials and activities, and provided feedback on both. One teacher felt that comparing the experiences of women in colonies by reading primary source documents from Dutch, English, Spanish, and French colonies was extremely effective and “allowed me to encounter and analyze different perspectives.” Another teacher commented that “combining image primary sources with articles and life stories, to tell a complete story from multiple perspectives” was the most effective element of the workshop dedicated to the progressive era. We take this feedback about resources and activities seriously, and encourage you to provide us with your own by taking our survey.
Or maybe you’re not a teacher at all. Perhaps you’re a history buff, a parent, a friend. Whoever you are, we’re glad you’re with us. Because when we relegate important narratives to a particular moment in the year or part of a curriculum survey, we encourage students to see those stories as marginal. In this new school year, we hope you will join us in teaching a new generation that women’s history is American history and that the nation’s past is more than a single story.
*Note: The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848 unit is currently available on our website. Early Encounters, 1492-1734 and Modernizing America, 1889-1920 will launch on Election Day 2018. If you’re interested in learning more about the project and the ways you can get involved, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
– Lee Boomer, Education Division
Top image credits: Linda Kerber and Alice Kessler-Harris examine a letter from Rebecca Blodgett to Aaron Burr in the New-York Historical Society Library as part of our online course, “Women Have Always Worked.”