It’s inevitable that some difficult topics will come up when teaching US history to your class, and it’s important that you navigate these issues sensitively.

This ensures your class has a complete understanding of the subject at hand, rather than a sanitized and easy-to-digest version, and also that you respect their intelligence enough to engage with them about these themes. The 19th Amendment is one such topic – especially as it may involve broaching ideas of sexism and racism. On top of this, you will also have to introduce the fact that women were once unable to vote for the legislation or lawmakers that affected them.

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What is the 19th Amendment?

Ratified on August 18th, 1920, the 19th Amendment was the culmination of first-wave feminism and served as a significant victory for the new feminist movement. This constitutional change granted women the right to vote in public elections which were previously restricted to men – and even this had multiple caveats, including Black men often being disenfranchised despite legally being allowed to vote. Though women were working to secure voting rights for a long time, we could trace the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which made women’s suffrage a priority for the feminist movement.

It would be difficult to encapsulate every significant figure and event that led to this amendment, but there are certain flashpoints and individuals that helped to sway public (and political) opinion. The version which you tell of most complicated historical events typically isn’t the full and complete story, with the particulars depending on their age, but it’s still important that you convey the important information accurately. The 19th Amendment is no exception – this sensitive topic is one which deserves a thorough discussion, and it’s especially essential not to frame this as full voting equality for every woman in the United States.

Introducing the context

The class may have no idea that women were once unable to vote – so introducing the topic in the first place could be difficult. For many pupils, this might be their first time learning that their rights were once a point of debate. You could begin the class by polling students on their knowledge of the women’s suffrage movement, as some students might already know the basics. In either case, your next step is to inform the class on voting equality before 1920, that only men could vote.

Politics was seen as a male endeavor since the foundation of America, with the right to vote usually limited to property-owning and tax-paying white men. Still, some exceptions to this existed as early as the 18th century. In many cases, Black men, Native Americans, all women, and other groups were excluded – states decided this individually. Unmarried or widowed women sometimes could vote, but Wyoming was the first state to allow all women to vote in 1869. Other states followed suit in the years after, but achieving full national suffrage would seem almost impossible.

The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 is a significant event that you might look at (and teach) as the genesis of organized women’s suffrage, but mention this wasn’t the first movement of its kind. Over 300 people attended this convention, arranged by Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to discuss, and assert, the political agency of women across the entire country. They compiled a Declaration of Sentiments, which you could compare to the Declaration of Independence. While the latter spoke of inalienable rights for ‘all men’ – with ‘voting’ being one of these rights – the former used ‘all men and women’.

Defining the different groups

Though this was arguably the birth of organized suffrage, the American Civil War soon dominated the national conversation, costing the movement some momentum. Your class might be unaware of the Civil War, and this may not be the best time to introduce another complicated chapter of American history. Still, it’s also a chance to spark their curiosity. The suffrage movement suffered an ideological divide after the Civil War, with Stanton objecting to Black men gaining the vote. Students might find it difficult to understand that a women’s suffrage leader was also racist, but avoiding this risks positioning her as a hero.

The key organizations to teach your class about are the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), which Stanton formed with Susan B. Anthony, and the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA) – established by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. The AWSA supported the 15th Amendment and aimed to secure change on a state level. The NWSA wanted Congress to institute an entire constitutional amendment granting women’s suffrage; the Senate rejected this proposal in 1886. In response to this defeat, these two organizations merged in 1890 as the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and instead pursued changes to state legislation.

Critical events in women’s suffrage

Much history is about cause and effect, with various individuals and events coming together to create change. It’s important not to attribute everything to just a small handful of individuals – especially with women’s suffrage being such a wide-ranging ideology – but we can see many notable events that led up to the 19th Amendment and its ratification. History is more complicated than a list of events or people, but they help contextualize shifts in opinion while being easy for children to remember. Notable events you could teach the class include:

State legislation victories

After Wyoming introduced women’s suffrage in 1869, other states followed, including Washington, Utah, Idaho, and others. You could research the women’s suffrage efforts in your state and use this as the basis for a lesson; contextualizing the topic in a way closer to home can make it easier to understand. Compare this progress to the eventual 19th Amendment, and ask your class how long they think it would take to get suffrage throughout the country. Some states refused to budge, so there’s no clear answer on when this would happen without an Amendment.

Susan B. Anthony’s Trial

Susan B. Anthony, a significant pioneer of women’s rights, attempted to vote in an 1872 election and asserted that the 14th Amendment gave citizens a right to vote regardless of gender. This led to her arrest and the famous trial where Judge Ward Hunt forbade jurors from discussing the case and directly instructed them to proclaim her guilty. On the trial’s final day, Hunt served Anthony a fine of $100 but informed her she wouldn’t be jailed for refusing – this meant she would be unable to take this case to the Supreme Court.

Efforts to overturn state legislation

Once state and even national legislation exist, subsequent legislators might overturn these with enough political power. While you must teach the state legislative changes as a positive for the movement, showcasing the efforts to undo this progress demonstrates that suffrage was a constant battle where victory could be temporary. In Utah, the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 disenfranchised women as a way to stop Mormons from voting. Later in the same year, the Supreme Court directly reversed Washington’s women’s suffrage laws.

The Woman’s Suffrage Procession

Alice Paul, leader of a militant NAWSA branch known as the Congressional Union, arranged a parade on March 3rd, 1913, in Washington, D.C., which is still the largest suffrage parade in history. A mob eventually attacked this group, leading to hundreds of injuries among the thousands of attendees. Exact numbers vary, but historians believe this to be between 5,000 and 10,000 protestors. The location and date were to make sure they had as much publicity as possible – as this was just a day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, who is another prominent figure in this discussion.

Woodrow Wilson’s public support

Various historians regard Woodrow Wilson’s complex relationship with suffrage as a significant factor in the 19th Amendment’s passing. He originally had a lukewarm opinion on suffrage and was appalled by militant suffragists, such as Alice Paul, who protested the White House in 1917. Non-confrontational campaigners, such as Carrie Chapman Catt, would eventually convince him to support women’s suffrage before Congress in 1918 publicly. It took time for the 19th Amendment to coalesce, but his unequivocal support, especially amid women contributing towards the First World War, did much for the suffragist movement and the Amendment itself.

Non-white suffragists

The conversations surrounding these topics primarily focus on white women. However, many of the foundational figures for the movement were white, which often erased the contributions and importance of Black activists. By splitting over the 15th Amendment, the suffrage movement struggled to regain the support of prominent anti-slavery and Black campaigners, with many white suffragists wanting to separate the movement from the topic of race. This led to the development of new organizations with a more intersectional approach – including the National Association of Colored Women Clubs, which was established by Frances Harper, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

Mabel Lee is another person worth discussing, as she encouraged America’s Chinese community to support women’s suffrage. However, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited her citizenship – she couldn’t benefit from the laws she helped to enshrine. Along similar lines, the extent to which Black women benefitted from the 19th Amendment varied, with many states taking measures, such as poll taxes and complex literary tests, to prevent Black people from voting. These measures remained until the 24th Amendment in 1964, so make sure you don’t frame the 19th Amendment as an equal victory for all; it took nearly fifty more years to achieve this.

It’s always helpful to diversify the perspectives and people that make up your history lessons. This can show how every corner of American society reacted to the rising tide of women’s suffrage. While racism is always a sensitive topic for the class, it’s unavoidable in many historical events. Teaching children about the contributions that non-white women made to suffrage is essential. American history is usually from a white perspective, and teaching about prominent figures from other backgrounds is vital to a more diverse and representative education.

Anti-suffragist organizations

To further illustrate the depth of this issue, it can help to discuss anti-suffrage groups, showing that opposition to women’s suffrage was not exclusively among legislators. Many of these groups, including the Anti-Sixteenth Amendment Society and the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, were predominantly made up of women. Children may again find this hard to reconcile, but it serves as an opportunity to show the complex and often contradictory nature of history. Even the rights many take for granted had fierce opposition in the past, sometimes from the people who would benefit.

Anti-suffragists of any gender believed that men and women should occupy separate spheres. Some even argued that women were too busy with domestic matters to stay informed about politics. Historian Joe Miller asserts that more women were in anti-suffrage movements than pro-suffrage movements until 1916, showing that these divisions were much more complex. If your students are mainly young, you might save these discussions for another couple of years and focus more on the significant political forces which opposed suffrage. However, a complete picture helps to improve your classroom’s understanding of these events.

19th Amendment teaching tips

Here are some additional tips for teaching the 19th Amendment:

  • Respect your class’s intelligence, no matter their age. Some topics or details may not be appropriate yet, but they can likely handle the important facts.
  • Use timelines to illustrate the development of the women’s suffrage movement, and how this eventually led to the 19th Amendment finally taking shape.
  • Look at suffrage movements in your state or town to make the discussion more relevant to your students, as this could make them pay more attention.
  • Represent many corners of America, and show how various groups came together to accomplish progress – even if they wouldn’t benefit.
  • Look at the various methods that different branches used, including militant protests and open dialogue, and investigate the overall success of each one.
  • Emphasize the importance of voting and how the world would not be the same if women, or anybody other than legislators, didn’t have voting rights.

There is no right way of teaching a topic, but the 19th Amendment warrants some sensitivity, and the amount you tell them may depend upon you and the pupils. For example, you wouldn’t teach the same lesson to high school and middle school students. In either setting, you must give a comprehensive and accurate exploration of the amendment and its passing. Teaching about equality and human rights is never easy, but it’s always an essential topic to discuss.