Women’s Suffrage: 140 Years of Struggle


Today’s students have an acute sense of fairness, and they dislike inequality in their lives. As they learn about our country’s history, they want to know why people have been treated unfairly. Why was slavery allowed? Why were Native Americans forced off their land? Why couldn’t women vote? The answers to the first two questions are rooted in economic and political forces of institutionalized racism and greed. This lesson focuses on answering the third question and addressing institutionalized gender discrimination.

The United States Constitution originally identified the electorate as white men. It took more than 140 years from the time that document was signed to the point when American women gained equal suffrage rights with men. During those first 140 years of our nation, women’s roles, with increasing exceptions, were restricted to "the cult of domesticity." Yet generations of women persevered through wars, industrialization, and political opposition to bring about a dramatic shift of power in our government.

Since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, American women have experienced a significant increase in political voice and opportunity. Elementary school students can examine the struggle to reach this turning point in American history through primary documents such as political cartoons, photographs, and newspaper accounts from the time before the amendment passed. Secondary sources, including timelines and biographical sketches, indicate the breadth of the struggle as well as identify some of the countless individual efforts that contributed to the cause of fairness. Students can use these documents to identify the institutional discrimination practiced against American women before 1920, and to understand what some Americans did to bring about full citizenship for women in the United States.



  • Students will interpret primary and secondary sources in an effort to understand the struggle for woman suffrage in the United States.
  • Students will demonstrate their understanding of historical events by creating PowerPoint presentations or writing individual essays.

Aim/Essential Question

  • Why couldn’t women vote before 1920 and what changes brought about women’s suffrage in the United States?


Distribute the broadside that reports that hundreds of woman marchers were injured by a large crowd of bystanders at the March on Washington in 1913. Discuss how people may have reacted to the news at the time.

Day 1

  1. Students will examine and explain the significance of the political cartoons and photos concerning woman suffrage.
  2. Using the timeline that identifies important events associated with woman suffrage from 1776 to 1920, students will highlight selected events and explain how they contributed to the success of the woman suffrage movement.
  3. Ask students to discuss woman suffrage in light of the following questions, which will provide background for Day 2 activities:
    A. Why couldn’t women vote in the United States until 1920?
    B. Who opposed women’s right to vote?
    C. Who were some of the women who worked to get women the right to vote?
    D. What activities were used to help promote woman suffrage?
    E. What government action finally gave women the right to vote?
    F. How has that right to vote affected the American political system?

Day 2

  1. Divide students into groups of two. If the technology is available, each pair should create a PowerPoint storyboard that responds to the questions above. Ask students to incorporate photos, graphics, and/or cartoons into the storyboards. An alternative is to have students write individual, well-developed essays that respond to the questions.
  2. Have student pairs present PowerPoint presentations (or critical essays) to the class.

The teacher will evaluate the PowerPoint presentations (or essays) by determining whether the questions have been answered accurately.


The class will discuss the political and other reasons why women were barred from the political process until 1920. Students should be able to understand that both traditional cultural mores and institutionalized gender discrimination have historically prevented women from exercising equal economic, political, and social decision-making power in our country.


Using library resources and the electronic media, students will research individual women who made significant contributions to the woman suffrage movement. These could include: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Helen Keller.


The teacher will distribute the Nineteenth Amendment (available online at: http://www.ourdocuments.gov) and discuss how the decision to enact it changed women’s roles in the United States.