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A collaborative teaching resource on the history of women and voting in America

This #SuffrageSyllabus explores the tangled history of gender and United States citizenship. It was created by a group of scholars working together with Harvard College students and Schlesinger Library staff as part of the Library’s Long 19th Amendment Project. We’ve organized the semester-long course of readings and assignments around turning points in the history of American voting rights and female citizenship, from 1776 to the present day. We hope teachers working in a wide variety of classrooms will adapt this content to enrich their teaching.

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Introduction About the #SuffrageSyllabus

Learn more about the #SuffrageSyllabus and meet the syllabus team

Black and yellow striped pin reading "Give Women the Vote"
Suffrage Pin, c1910s, Memorabilia Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Unit 1 1776 and 1848: Origins

By Lisa Tetrault

In 1776, the leaders of 13 of Britain’s American colonies launched a novel form of government: a republic, in which leaders would derive their authority from the consent of “the People,” exercised via the suffrage, or the vote. In the ensuing years, this founding idea, that the citizens of a republic could govern themselves, spread far beyond those the signers of the Declaration of Independence or those who ratified the U.S. constitution envisioned as “the People,” with all sorts of Americans, women included, insisting that they too could rule themselves.

Hand-colored engraving depicting three wealthy white women turning in their ballots as a group of men look on
Howard Pyle engraving, “Women at the Polls in New Jersey in the Good Old Times,” Harper’s Weekly, 1880. From the collection Ann Lewis and Mike Sponder

Unit 2 1870: Gender and the Reconstruction of American Democracy

By Manisha Sinha

The 1870 moment marked an important turning point in the history of women’s suffrage in the United States. With the passage of the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments that enfranchised adult black men, women’s suffragists divided into two groups: those who retained their commitment to abolitionist feminism and those who sought to fight for women’s rights by any means necessary, including an expedient repudiation of the abolitionist commitment to racial equality.

Black and white photograph depicting members of the International Council of Women in 1888
International Council of Women, Washington DC, 1888, Seneca Falls Historical Site

Unit 3 1920: Redrawing the Boundaries of Citizenship

By Corinne T. Field

Was 1920 the turning point in American women’s political history, the moment when women won the right to vote? Or, was passage of the 19th Amendment one phase in an ongoing struggle that began before 1830 and continues today? How you answer this question depends in large part on where you look and whom you center in your sights.

Photo is a black and white seated portrait of Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, Harris & Ewing, [1920-1940], Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress

Unit 4 1920s: Colonialism, Anti-Colonialism, and the Question of Women's Suffrage

By Durba Mitra

When American women achieved the vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment, most of the people in the world were colonized with little to no access to political rights. American and European women’s movements had complex and often contradictory relationships to the imperial project.

Black and white photo of Indian suffragists marching with banners reading "India" and "Crown Colonies and Protectorates"
Indian suffragists in the Women's Coronation Procession, London, June 17, 1911 [Museum of London/Heritage Images].

Unit 5 1965: From Women's Suffrage to Women's Liberation

By Liette Gidlow

Despite the ratification of the 19th Amendment, many women in the U.S. still could not vote. White primaries, erstwhile “literacy tests,” and threats of violence blocked hundreds of thousands of southern Black women from casting ballots.

Black and white photo of Flo Kennedy and LaDonna Harris
Flo Kennedy and LaDonna Harris, Jan. 31, 1976, Bettye Lane photo, Harvard University, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America.

Unit 6 1982: Contesting Equal Rights

By Katherine Turk

Two landmark events recast the trajectory of American citizenship in June 1982, and they pointed in opposite directions. The first, a major victory for social justice advocates, was led by some of the same figures and adopted the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. The second revealed how gender equality had become a wedge that cleaved the nation’s culture and politics, portending a hostile future for the democratic movements born in the 1960s.

Black and white photo. Billie Jean King, Susan B. Anthony, Jr., and Bella Abzug march arm-in-arm against a backdrop of American flags
Billie Jean King, Susan B. Anthony, Jr., and Bella Abzug during the walk to convention center at International Women's Year conference in Houston,

Unit 7 2020 and Beyond: The Unfinished Business of the 19th Amendment

By Ciara Hervas, Patricia Liu, Fariba Mahmud, Jessica Morandi, and Toluwalope Moses

This year, 2020, marks a century since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which expanded the American electorate to include women. The unfinished business of the 19th Amendment lies in addressing the many ways in which the United States continues to fall short of ensuring voting equality for all.

Color photo of mixed race group of protestors. In the foreground, a Black woman holds a sign reading "Voter suppression is violence"
Poor People’s Campaign, DC 2018. Photo by Susan Melkisethian. Source: Flickr

#SuffrageSyllabus Resources

Downloadable PDFs of every unit and the complete syllabus, plus a Zotero library of suggested further reading