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Looking Beyond the Biography in Women's History Projects

suzanne_mccorma
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Whenever I allow students in my US Women’s History classes to choose their own research topics they automatically default to biographies. In an effort to move away from the kind of history that focuses solely on the accomplishments of individuals, this semester’s research project requires each student to study a social movement in which women were significant participants, if not the leaders. Since my course covers the period 1600-1900, I’ve created a list of suggested topics that includes abolition, temperance, and voting/political rights, as well as mental health, public health, and education. My hope is that students see groups of women as significant actors in the development of our modern-day ideas and institutions, rather than singling out specific women for their individual achievements and ignoring the communities around them.

I was inspired to discourage students from writing biographies this semester in part by my spring-semester students’ desires to focus on women with whom they were already familiar. Rosa Parks, for example, immediately came to mind for students when they were assigned a research project for US Women Since 1900. Since I had not made a blanket “no biographies” rule I tried my best to steer students towards women such as Ida Wells and Ella Baker, who were significant as civil rights activists but not staples of middle-school history curriculum. Anyone who remained committed to Rosa Parks as a topic had to study her work aside from the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While at first students were unhappy about my “rules,” ultimately they seemed pleased by semester’s end to have expanded their understanding of Parks’s work or to have learned about women that were previously unknown to them.

I’m hopeful that by studying women’s participation in 19th-century social movements students will engage in deeper thought about both the motivations of these women and the challenges they faced forging a space for themselves, and others, in the public sphere. How did their families/communities respond to their desire to be publicly active? Did the women view their work as political, or were they inspired by moral or religious beliefs? Who did they lean on in their public and private lives for support?

Students will need to acknowledge the privilege that enabled upper-class white women to work for social causes while servants and enslaved women managed the heavy responsibilities of their masters’/employers’ households. Ultimately, I want the students to see that women’s social activism during this period of our history required more than the desire to make change. While some women wrote abolitionist pamphlets or toured decrepit institutions for the “insane,” the day to day toil of other women in private homes made the work of social pioneers possible. Communities of women made change possible then, as now. 

What are you doing to expand your students’ understanding of how the individual fits into the larger picture of our national history? Ideas and suggestions are welcome. 

 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.