Examining Women’s Roles through Primary Sources and Literature

Essential Question:

How were the ever-changing roles of women in American society chronicled?


Joseph Heller writes in his book The Feminization of Quest-Romance that "American Literature equates the very essence of what it means to be American with the essence of what it means to be male. [Thus] women’s roles are identified only in relation to the male heroes whose identities they strengthen." It can be argued that throughout much of American history, American women had few rights or opportunities to invent themselves at all. Their roles in society were virtually dictated to them, and legal and cultural forces limited the scope women had to "reinvent" themselves.

Typically deprived of the advantages of education, role models, equal rights under the law, or social freedoms, American women still managed to explore their identities and to express themselves. While historical documents chronicle their struggle for freedom and self-identity, literature and art reflect the emerging and ever-changing roles of women in American society.


  • Students will examine primary documents in order to understand the timeline of events associated with the women’s suffrage movement.
  • Students will use a variety of technological and informational resources such as libraries, databases, computer networks, and videos to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • Students will comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
  • Students will read a wide range of print and non-print texts, including fiction and nonfiction and both classic and contemporary works, to build an understanding of the many dimensions of women’s experience in America.


Homework Assignment #1

Students will read two primary sources and respond to instructions and questions about them.

Read the Declaration of Independence, National Archives

  • Summarize the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.
  • What are the "abuses and usurpations" that the colonies attribute to the King of England?
  • What do the colonists conclude in the last three paragraphs?

Read the Seneca Falls Declaration, Fordham University

  • Why would the suffragettes use the Declaration of Independence as their model?
  • In what specific ways does this document differ from the Declaration of Independence?
  • What do the suffragettes conclude in their Declaration?
  • Using the dates of the two documents as a guide, what conclusion can you draw about the advancement of women’s rights in the time that intervened between the signing of the two Declarations?

Day 1

Class Activity: Historical Document Study

a. Would you agree or disagree that women’s rights have increased significantly since 1776? Explain.
b. Would you agree or disagree that attitudes toward women have changed significantly since 1776? Explain.
Distribute and read the poem "Barbie Doll" by Marge Piercy (Poem Hunter).

  1. Divide the class into three groups. Distribute one of the documents listed below to each group. Students should read and discuss the document and then write a group response to it. They should then exchange documents and repeat the exercise until each group has discussed each document.
  1. Ask each group to share its observations and responses with the class.
  2. Then ask the class: Based on the documents and your knowledge of American history, discuss how this poem reflects any themes or ideas that were expressed in the class discussions.

Homework Assignment #2

Choose three quotes from three different people that address the roles and/or struggles of women in America. Be able to discuss your choices and respond to the theme of the quote. You may find quotes about women at: https://www.thoughtco.com/finding-womens-quotations-3528877

Day 2

Class Activities: Literature and Fine Arts Study

  1. Separate the class into groups of four to five students and have students share one of their quotes with the other group members. After a short discussion, each group should choose one quote that reflects the previous day’s lesson.
  2. Return to whole-class setting and have each group present its selected quote.
  3. The class will then determine which quotes most accurately reflect the role of women in the past and the role of women today.
  4. Distribute the (very) short story "Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin (Virginia Commonwealth University). This story can also be read for homework.
  5. Ask students to answer the following questions:
    • What evidence can you find in the setting of the story that Mrs. Mallard feels more than just grief?
    • What lines suggest Mrs. Mallard’s thoughts on her future?
    • Discuss the irony in the last line.
  6. Discuss the way in which art (literature, music, film and video, poetry, dance, and visual art) reflects emotional experiences, while documents reflect historical and legal experiences.


Recently, two women of importance, Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan, passed away. Choose either woman and show how she made a lasting contribution to women’s rights.

Extension Activities

  • Essay: Defend your position that American women have or have not gained equality over the years.
  • Research paper: Choose one woman and show how she has made an impact in her own way on women’s rights.
  • Read a novel that reflects the struggles and triumphs of women.

Optional Readings

  • Kate Chopin, The Awakening (novel)
  • Kate Chopin, "A Pair of Silk Stockings" (short story)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (short story)
  • Marge Piercy, "A Work of Artifice" (poem)
  • Adrienne Rich, "Women" (poem)