Almost every day, we see images in the media of individuals and groups protesting in front of the White House. Most of us think little about the significance of our fellow Americans exercising their rights of assembly and free speech. Yet, have you ever stopped to wonder which group was the first to stand at the gates of our President’s home and protest?Several years ago on my first project at my first full-time job, I stumbled upon the story of the women who pushed that envelope and became the first group to protest in front of the White House. This bold group was the National Woman’s Party (NWP), and they were fighting for women’s suffrage. As I learned more about Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the numerous other women who dedicated themselves to securing a national amendment to extend voting rights for women, I was struck by their courage, dedication, and political savvy. I was also amazed that I had never learned about these women in any of my history classes.
When I started working with the Teaching with Primary Sources program and familiarizing myself with the wonderful online collections available from the Library of Congress Web site, I was thrilled to find the Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party collection. Using this collection and newspapers from the Chronicling America project, I have since developed a multi-day lesson plan, “Civil Disobedience and the National Woman’s Party,” geared to fifth grade and high school Social Studies and English/Language Arts classes. The lesson plan asks students to think about how the NWP used civil disobedience as a tactic to gain the right to vote for women. The lesson plan then prompts students to consider how effective they think the NWP’s strategy was.
Since most students will be unfamiliar with this history, the first day seeks to introduce the concept of civil disobedience, the NWP women, their actions, and the reaction to their protests. This is done by analyzing a series of photographs showing the women protesting and having students pay particular attention to the banners that the suffragists carried. Background readings from the Library of Congress are included to give students a bit more context for understanding the images they will analyze. Students also view a short clip from the HBO film Iron Jawed Angels that depicts the pickets. For homework, fifth grade students answer two questions centered on one banner that reads, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Students also create their own suffrage banner slogans. High schools students take a closer look at this banner and answer questions that place it in the context of America’s involvement in World War I.For day two, the lesson focuses on how the women responded to being jailed for the protests, including their appeal for political prisoner status and their decision to go on hunger strikes. Background readings provide the context for students to understand how events unfolded. Students also analyze this photograph and Lucy Burns’s account of her time in jail that was published in the New York Tribune. At the conclusion of the lesson, students are challenged with explaining why the women waged hunger strikes and how effective these were to persuading others to support their cause. Finally, students are asked to reflect on how civil disobedience was used by these women and to make a case for its effectiveness.
The story of the National Woman’s Party is one that will interest many students and is a great opportunity to help students draw connections to various other social and political movements, both past and present. This story is also a great way to talk about civic engagement and how important voting is to a healthy democracy.