Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000
Department of History
California State University, Los Angeles
When scholars and libraries began to digitize primary sources in the 1990s, such traditional political documents as presidential speeches began to cram the internet. Fearing that the dearth of documents by and about women would remarginalize women’s history, Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin of SUNY Binghamton created a website of U.S. women’s history documents for classroom use. Since its inception in 1997, “Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000” has become a major internet site for primary sources on U.S. women by providing tools for teaching the U.S. history survey, women and gender, other upper division history classes, and courses in other disciplines. Its success reveals the opportunities and challenges for academic uses of the internet for teaching.
With the help of three NEH grants, Sklar and Dublin arranged for U.S. women’s historians throughout the U. S. to teach courses in which each student would design a web project on women and social movements, and the faculty would edit their students’ projects. The original model gave way to projects developed by established scholars, senior graduate students, and Sklar and Dublin themselves.
Description of Projects
Each posted project poses a question, such as “How Did the Removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia Shape Women's Activism in the North, 1817-1838?” and includes a short abstract, a 5- to 20-page introduction describing the historical context of the documents, footnotes, a bibliography, 20 to 50 documents, and images of participants or locations when possible. One project contains a long prologue by a law professor on the legal history of wife beating. Documents have individual introductions, some more detailed than others, and range from letters, diaries, newspaper articles, announcements of meetings, and political art to videos. The initial collection method led to unevenness in the projects. Sometimes the student-written introductions left little for web users to interpret and the documents were repetitive. Still, the projects are generally quite good.
The website defines women’s involvement in social movements broadly, covering such traditional women’s history topics as female moral reform and dress reform, feminism, and labor, as well as subjects not necessarily associated with women’s history, like the Scottsboro case, red-baiting in the 1920s, or juvenile court law. The projects begin with the American Revolution but concentrate on the period from the nineteenth century through the 1930s. Only a handful cover the years after then, although the 1980s to 1990s’ Guerilla Girls poster project is exceptionally fun and accessible. The website is currently advertising for colonial projects.
For the major theme of reform, the various projects reveal organizational structure, fund-raising efforts and finances (e.g., anti-lynching); coalition building (e.g., factory inspection); volunteer enlisting (e.g., maternal health); and organizing strategies from prayer meetings, publicity, and investigations to lobbying for political and legislative action. The projects often disclose the interests supporting a reform, such as the evangelical and prison-reform constituencies in the ten-hour-day movement, as well as the discourses they deployed, like the dress, health, and evangelical language of female moral reformers.
Some projects illustrate conflict between conservatives and liberals or radicals, such as the red-baiting of peace activists during the Red Scare. Others reveal cross-race or cross-class cooperation and conflict on issues including anti-lynching reform, garment-work conditions, and health reform. Some of the most interesting projects show communication between opponents, like the letters between Northern abolitionists and their Southern family members debating sectional politics before, during, and after the Civil War. Clashes reveal complex relationships, such as when the Daughters of the American Revolution blackballed a member who criticized the DAR’s red-baiting. The projects also present men’s voices and involvement, such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s work in the anti-lynching movement and W.E. B. DuBois’ and Booker T. Washington’s communication about women’s suffrage. However, readers may not be able to figure out the extent of men’s engagement in some of these reforms since the projects focus on women’s central role.
Other major themes reflect Dublin’s interest in labor and Sklar’s in biography. Labor history topics include the ten-hour-day struggle and New England shoe workers’ strike in the antebellum years; the New York Shirtwaist Strike and Lawrence strikes of the early 1900s; and those of Mexican-American pecan workers, as well as Puerto Rican and Chinese garment workers, in the 1930s. Biographical projects provide windows into the activism of historically important women and men: Sarah Bagley and the ten–hour-day movement, Florence Kelley and factory inspection, Lucretia Mott, Kate Richards O’Hare, Belle La Follete, Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennett, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.
Uses in the History Classroom
The website reminds us about the centrality of women in U.S. history and their importance for history courses outside of the immediate field of women’s history. For example, courses covering the 1920s might draw on the conflict between “pacifists” and “patriots. ” I assigned the project “Illinois Factory Inspection, 1893-1893” for a course on the history of poverty to reveal how a Progressive reformer like Florence Kelley capitalized on her position as a government official to draft protective labor legislation and organize political support for it. Students appreciated how Kelley built a coalition. We compared Progressive values and solutions for poverty with Gilded Age charity reforms; we also discussed what each group brought to the coalition and how Florence Kelley shepherded the legislation.
Transferability to Other Disciplines
While the website places women everywhere in the U.S. history curriculum, it also provides materials for political science, sociology, art history, and pre-law programs. For example, methodology courses in literary studies could compare primary sources such as letters and diaries. Instructors of international relations could use the three projects on peace movements.
The riches of materials expose various challenges for academia in the digital world. When Sklar and Dublin realized that the website had taken over their lives, they decided to scale back their involvement by turning it over to professionals, Alexander Street Press. The result is that the twenty-five older projects are open to the public, while twenty-eight at the time of this writing are available only to subscribers. While prices vary depending on the institutions’ size and resources, access is still limited.
On the other hand, the professionally run website has led to improvements. The newer projects are organized by volumes, like a traditional journal, with book and website reviews as well as classroom activities. To encourage interest, Alexander Street Press has also added documents, like the proceedings of suffrage conventions; they plan to add 5000 pages per year from sources such as state commissions on the status of women.
Search Techniques and Tools
Besides the tradeoffs of commercial involvement, the overwhelming amount of information in the digital world poses a new challenge: how to narrow searches to the desired materials. When I first looked at the documents years ago, after spending too much time reading a project just to decide if I wanted to assign it, I concluded that the easiest uses for the website’s projects are student term-paper assignments. The website even provides examples of how to cite the various types of documents and articles in the collection. However, professors wanting to use the documents for in-class discussions, assigning homework or reading parts in class will need guidance, as users, to wade through the mountains of material.
The website has begun to address this concern by providing classroom activities and assignments. One section includes Document-Based Questions, which might also appeal to high school teachers preparing students for the Advanced Placement exam. These DBQs walk teachers through a project with simple and suitable prompts and essay questions at the end, although I’d prefer more interpretative queries, such as asking students to evaluate strategies for building a coalition or to explain how the strategies worked together, instead of generic “describe” and “discuss” questions. Obviously, readers can modify or create their own questions once they understand a project. Another new section provides lesson plans for U.S. survey and women’s history classes, and recommends a sequencing of documents, questions and assignments, such as essays, speeches, and debates. I especially appreciated complex assignments like one designating different documents for student groups preparing for a debate on woman’s suffrage.
The website has also tried to develop search tools to promote accessibility. Document projects are organized chronologically with separate lists of all images. A user can search for a name or term in all of the documents, download and print all or parts of a document, find links to other documents in the collection and to other websites and documents outside of the collection. Planned improvements will enable searches of the author database by time, ethnicity, group, issues, or even a word search through every document by speaker, year, and any word.
Finally, to make women’s history accessible to more students, I would like to see more visual documents like those of the Guerilla Girls art movement, useful for high schools and for lower-division students intimidated by long passages of dense texts. Suffrage and temperance cartoons would make useful additions.
Now that I’ve reviewed this website, I appreciate its uses but wish I had access to the new projects.
Posted July 29, 2005.
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