Teacher's Guide

Women’s History in the United States

"Rosie the Riveter" working on an A-31 "Vengeance" dive bomber in 1943.
Photo caption

"Rosie the Riveter" working on an A-31 "Vengeance" dive bomber in 1943.

International Women's Day has been commemorated across the world on March 8th since 1911 and every U.S. President has marked March as Women's History Month since 1995. While the right to vote is a common topic of study in classrooms when examining women's history, there are many more issues, perspectives, and accomplishments that require investigation across history, literature, and the arts to more fully appreciate and understand what women's history in the U.S. encompasses. Our Teacher's Guide provides compelling questions, lesson activities, resources for teaching about the intersection of place and history, and multimedia resources to integrate women's perspectives and experiences throughout the school year. 

Guiding Questions

How have debates over women’s rights shaped U.S. politics and culture?

What role does media play in the ongoing debate over gender roles?

Who’s missing from the popular stories included within women’s history?

How have major events in U.S. history transformed the status and rights of women in society?

How have women contributed to U.S. cultural institutions and practices?

Women's History Month

In March 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring Women’s History Week to align with International Women’s Day (March 8th) which has been recognized across the world since March 1911. The following year, on August 4, 1981, the U.S. Congress established Women’s History Week as a federally recognized commemoration of the accomplishments, perspectives, and experiences of women in the United States with a Joint Resolution, Public Law 97-28.  This week became a month-long celebration in 1987 when Congress passed Public Law 100-9 and then passed subsequent resolutions requesting that the U.S. President make an annual declaration. Since 1995, each U.S. President has declared March to be Women’s History Month.

The above video from the National Women's History Museum provides an overview of how International Women's Day became a week and then an entire month in the United States.

The Right to Vote

The movement to expand the franchise to women built momentum during the 19th century, achieved part of its goal with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and continues to press on to ensure protection of voting rights for all. This section provides compelling questions for teaching about the long road to women's suffrage rights and activity ideas for teaching about this topic across U.S. history. A collection of lesson plans can be found at the bottom of the page. 

Compelling Questions

  • To what extent did the strategies of the Suffrage Movement change between Seneca Falls (1848) and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920?
  • Why was there resistance to granting women the right to vote?
  • What role did race or other factors play in the fight for women's suffrage?
  • To what extent was passage of the 19th Amendment a turning point in U.S. history?
  • Why were suffragists finally successful in achieving the right to vote?
  • How have women participated in elections since 1920?
  • To what extent do issues raised by 19th and 20th century suffragists remain?

Student Activities

In the interest of fostering inquiry-based teaching and learning that utilizes primary source materials and offers students space for creative application, consider the following strategies when engaging students in research on the 19th Amendment and women’s history across your curriculum:

  • Construct a digital timeline that centers on women’s writings, speeches, publications, artistic creations, and performances to avoid limiting discussion to an era or topic of study. Combined with storyboard software, students can record voice overs and use images to construct a response to a compelling question while addressing change over time analysis.

  • Create a digital or hard copy commonplace book when reading biographies, literature, poetry, reviewing art, films, or other multimedia produced by women across U.S. history. From time to time students can be asked to synthesize what they record around themes, concepts, topics of study, and the inquiry questions they have designed. 
  • Use digital mapping software in combination with EDSITEment’s Chronicling America to plot stories and connections within and across time and place on topics chosen by students (i.e. suffragists' meetings, women’s organizations, education, sports, fashion, entertainment, the travels of characters in a novel or short story, historic homes, etc.). 
  • Create a short documentary film using storyboard software and primary sources, including audio-visual resources, on a theme or concept that spans beyond a single unit or era. 
Women in Literature and the Arts

This section is dedicated to authors, poets, playwrights, and other literary icons. Lesson plans, resources, videos of readings and performances, and other materials are included. 

Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: In tribute to Hurston's fusion of social science and authorial craft, this lesson plan focuses on the way Hurston incorporates, adapts, transforms, and comments on black folklife in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman: Our Teacher's Guide provides some of Dr. Angelou's works, along with commentary and other classroom ready materials to study this great American poet, orator, actress, activist, professor, writer, and singer. 

The Letters and Poems of Emily Dickinson: In this curriculum unit, students will explore Dickinson's poetry as well as her letters to Higginson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson.

Sor Juana the Nun and Writer: Las Redondillas and The Reply: This lesson (also available in Spanish) looks at the life and literary contributions of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the first great Latin American poet, who is considered to be one of the most important literary figures of the American Hemisphere, and one of the first feminist writers.

Introducing Jane Eyre: An Unlikely Victorian Heroine: Contemplating Brontë's position and desire for literary achievement in that context, students will compare Jane Eyre to other literary heroines and discuss her social class in relation to other characters.

Toni Morrison's Beloved: For Sixty Million and More: The close reading and reflective activities included in this lesson are intended to guide thoughtful inquiry into the novel and its major themes, while also providing teachers and students with creative outlets for making connections with one of the great novels of the twentieth century.

"Remember" by Joy Harjo: In her poem “Remember,” Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, reminds us to pay attention to who we are and how we’re connected to the world around us.

"A Raisin in the Sun": Whose American Dream?: This interdisciplinary lesson includes a critical reading and analysis of Lorraine Hansberry's play, along with close examination of biographical and historical documents produced at different times during the long civil rights movement.

Women and the Revolution: In the Time of the Butterflies: In this lesson, students undertake a careful analysis of the main characters to see how each individually demonstrates courage in the course of her family’s turbulent life events. 

Esperanza Rising: Learning Not to Be Afraid to Start Over: In this lesson (also available in Spanish), students will look behind the story at the historical, social, and cultural circumstances that shape the narrative throughout Esperanza Rising.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” & the “New Woman”: With this lesson plan, the first part of a two-part lesson, students will examine primary source documents to gain an understanding of the roles of American middle-class women in the mid- to late-1800s.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: In this curriculum unit, students will explore how Chopin stages the possible roles for women in Edna's time and culture through the examples of other characters in the novella.

Women, Landmarks, and History

The nation’s commemorative landscape is ladened with over 5,000 public statues honoring historic figures and their accomplishments. However, recent estimates suggest that fewer than 400 of these public works of art recognize women from lived history. This disparity is evident in major cities such as Washington, D.C. and New York City. In Washington, D.C. there are only seven public statues, outside of the National Statuary Hall Collection, honoring specific women from history: Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella I of Castille, Olive Risley Seward, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jane A. Delano, Crown Princess Märtha of Sweden, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Until the addition of the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument on August 26, 2020, New York City had only five statues of female historical figures: Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harriet Tubman.

Many of the memorials and monuments erected during the 19th and 20th century that include women depict them as nameless fictional, mythical or emblematic figures and use them as a vehicle to honor a man, abstract idea, or historical theme. The representations of women solely in an artistic and often objectified nature removes them from contemporary conversations about the past. Commemorative sites continue to influence and shape our perception of history and the absence of public statues dedicated to female historic figures promulgates a narrow historical narrative that elevates the experiences and accomplishments of white men. Our Landmarks of American History and Culture Teacher’s Guide includes more information on the power of commemorative spaces.

Compelling Questions

  • What emotions do statues of a historical figure evoke for you?
  • To what extent does representation in the form of public art matter?
  • What are the long-term consequences of the gender disparity in public statues?
  • Are there any public statues dedicated to female historical figures women in your community?
  • What historical or contemporary women should be honored with a public statue and why?
  • How can a public statue be used to address contemporary issues?

A few examples of memorials, monuments, or statues dedicated to historic women include:

Using EDSITEment’s Investigating Local History Teacher’s Guide and the links above, students can make connections between the accomplishments of women at the national level with local history. Additionally, using the above questions and those they design on their own, students can investigate who has been honored with monuments and memorials in their town, city, and state, while also considering who has not and why, perhaps, others should be similarly honored.

Media Resources for Women's History

This collection of NEH-funded media projects includes podcasts, films, and databases for researching and learning about Women's history in the United States. 

Shattering the Glass Ceiling: This BackStory podcast highlights female achievement in American history, including working women, women in journalism, political leaders, and civil rights activists. Analysis questions, classroom connections, and a full transcript are included. 

Women at Work: This BackStory podcast on the history of women in the workplace includes several segments. Stories include the lives of nineteenth century domestic workers, myths related to "Rosie the Riveter" during WWII, and changes and challenges in the twenty-first century.

Hidden Figures: The People Behind the Story You Know: This episode of BackStory features an interview with Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book on which the movie Hidden Figures is based. Shetterly's book, and the movie, recount the lives and work of the African American women who worked for NASA and played critical roles in the U.S. space program despite facing constant racism.

Making the Team: Sports and Equality in American History: The BackStory podcast recounts important moments in the history of sports and they ways they have intersected with fights for equality both on and off the playing field.

Picturing America: Cassatt and Sargent: This video from the Picturing America project includes discussion of Mary Cassatt, an artist noted for her paintings of mothers and children that echo traditional Madonna and child paintings but with a new, feminist edge.

Picturing America: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother": This Picturing America video focuses on the famous picture taken by Dorothea Lange, as well as the less well-known woman in it: Florence Owens Thompson, a Cherokee woman active in labor struggles in the 1930s.

NEH Connections & Related Resources

Though March is designated as Women’s History Month, the perspectives and accomplishments of women are part of curricula all year long. The EDSITEment lessons, NEH Connections, and additional resources included below can be incorporated across K-12 humanities education.

Women in World History: This collection of primary sources created by the Center for History and New Media opens students to the roles women have played in the world across time. 

"How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect: Hallie Quinn Brown and Other "Homespun Heroines"" by Martha S. Jones, HUMANITIES, Summer 2019, Volume 40, Number 3.

"Winning the Vote: A divided movement brought about the Nineteenth Amendment" by Lisa Tetrault, HUMANITIES, Summer 2019, Volume 40, Number 3.

"The Forgotten Suffragists: How the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment is being remembered and how, for decades, it was not" by Kimberly A. Hamlin, May 31, 2019.

"Old Friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Made History Together: In their last days, the suffragist pioneers look back" by Katy June-Friesen, HUMANITIES, July/August 2014, Volume 35, Number 4.

Additional Resources

The Library of Congress provides access to a Women’s History Month site that includes a collection of resources created by the LOC, NEH, National Archive and Records Administration, the National Gallery of Art, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Library of Congress also provides access to Shall Not Be Denied, a digital exhibit on the suffrage movement. 

Monumental Women provides a collection of biographies on suffragists and templates for students to create their own statues of historic women. 

The National Park Service provides a variety of digital resources, articles, videos, and lesson plans about the suffrage movement. 

The National Women’s History Museum provides access to digital classroom resources, biographies, oral histories, and articles about women in American history. 

The New York Historical Society offers a collection of ten units, organized thematically and chronologically, that explore the lives and experiences of women throughout American history. 

Unladylike 2020: This collection of 26 short films and a one-hour documentary, created by PBS American Masters with support from the NEH, highlights the lives of little-known women in American history.