Closer Readings Commentary

Teaching Women’s History through Great Speeches

Suffragette Mrs. Sophia Loebinger speaking before City Hall, New York
Photo caption

Suffragette Mrs. Sophia Loebinger speaking before City Hall, New York

Michael Steudeman worked as a secondary school English teacher in New Orleans through Teach for America, then as a TFA trainer for the Mississippi Delta Area. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Political Culture in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here’s a timely post on incorporating the voices of women who have argued for equal rights into your weekly lessons. We’ll be drawing from a terrific NEH-funded resource, Voices of Democracy, sponsored by the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania State University, which provides authenticated speeches, background essays, discussion questions, and assignment ideas for teaching great political speechmaking.

In this post, I provide advice for connecting VOD units focusing on the actual words of historical figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Watkins Harper, and Gloria Steinem speaking publicly about women’s suffrage and women’s civil rights. These valuable resources align directly to the Common Core Speaking and Listening standard:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3 Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used.

To help students achieve the standards, here are some ideas for teaching two VOD units:

I’ll also include interactive strategies targeted to high school students.

Put the Student in the Speakers’ Shoes

Help students appreciate a speaker’s point of view by taking them back in time in order to understand the orator’s circumstances. For Susan B. Anthony’s speech, have students explore this timeline of Susan B. Anthony and the suffrage movement and, drawing from the first two pages of Richards’s interpretive essay, the context surrounding Anthony’s attempt to vote and her subsequent arrest for doing so.

Ask students to identify Anthony’s opportunities and challenges. As the only woman required standing trial for an “offense” that she considers her right as a citizen, Anthony faces the burden of making a strong argument!

Before reading the speech, have students author the speech they would give. Ask students: If you were Susan B. Anthony, how would you defend your actions? How would you overcome the challenges other suffragists faced? This question requires that students synthesize the context for the speech before reading it. More importantly, it gives students a perspective for evaluating what Anthony actually says in her speech and helps them consider her point of view.

Capture the Style and Tone of the Speech through Performance

A disadvantage of reading suffrage and progressive era texts is the challenge of transporting students back to a previous era. As a former theater teacher, I recommend a performance-based way to overcome this challenge.

The Mother Jones speech features her trying to provoke a group of miners to challenge the governor of West Virginia. First, I’d have students read the first two paragraphs of Haman’s analysis of Jones’s style to help students appreciate her character as a “feisty, offensive, even threatening” 100-pound, 80-year-old woman.

While reading the speech, different students can take turns “playing” the part of Jones. Because the speech provided by VOD provides both the speaker’s words and her audience’s reactions, the other students can chime in, “They are traitors, moral cowards!” at relevant moments. By making the reading interactive and theatrical, students can appreciate the speaker’s tone and the tenor of the early labor movement.

Consider How the Circumstances Shape the Speaker’s Reasoning

Susan B. Anthony and Mother Jones vary dramatically in their argumentation. While Anthony adopts a legalistic style, Jones spouts curse words and tries to rile up her audience. Different types of reasoning work in different situations, and the contrast of these speeches helps highlight that point. They are a great way to introduce students to real-world applications of the basic forms of reasoning. For instance:

  • Reasoning by analogy: Drawing a comparison between two unlike situations;
  • Reasoning from induction: Starting from a few specific examples to reach a general conclusion;
  • Reasoning from deduction: Starting from a shared belief/value and reaching a specific conclusion;
  • Reasoning by ad hominem fallacy: Attacking a person, rather than their position.

Provide students some concrete instances of these types of reasoning and have them generate their own examples. (The website provides excellent descriptions and examples of types of reasoning and fallacies.) Then, have students evaluate the speakers’ use of these reasoning types in their speeches.

For example, Anthony reasons from an analogy to the American Revolution and invokes the idea of “no taxation without representation” to contend that women should not be forced to pay taxes if they cannot vote. Urge students to identify this as an analogy to the past, and then prompt them to consider how this analogy would appeal to her audience.

Students can contrast Anthony’s use of reasoning with Mother Jones’s reasoning style. Jones uses ad hominem attacks throughout her speech, calling the abusive mine guards “contemptible, damnable blood-hounds.” What is it about Mother Jones’s circumstances—speaking to a group of unruly, underpaid miners—that makes ad hominem more acceptable, even effective? Would ad hominem have been effective for Anthony? Why or why not? This exercise can help students differentiate between the different styles of reasoning that the two speakers adopted for their different rhetorical situations.

There are many more examples from which to choose on VOD and it’s easy to find more women’s speeches by using either the alphabetical or chronological listings, or search under the deliberative topics tab in the toolbar.

If you are interested in learning more about oratory, reach out to me directly at