Investigative Question

Why did women want the right to vote, and how did they convince men to grant it to them?

Because progressivism called for an expanded government to protect individuals, it is only natural that expanding voting rights were deemed equally important. In California, women received the right to vote in 1911; on the national level, it took several more years. Students read about leading suffragists and their organizations, especially the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Women’s Party (NWP). This question can frame students’ exploration of the woman’s suffrage movement: Why did women want the right to vote, and how did they convince men to grant it to them? Progressive impulses also challenged big-city bosses and government corruption; rallied public indignation against trusts; pushed for greater urban policing, social work, and institutionalization related to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and played a major role in national politics in the pre-World War I era.

Moreover, labor and social justice movements also called for education reform, better living conditions, wage equality, more social freedom for women, and sometimes acceptance of, or at least tolerance for, women and men living outside of traditional heterosexual roles and relationships. Excerpts from the works of muckrakers, reformers, and racial thinkers such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, Helen Hunt Jackson, Joseph Mayer Rice, Emma Goldman, and Jane Addams and novels by writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Frank Norris will help set the scene for students.

This inquiry set is designed to provide context for students to be able to address the question, Why did women want the right to vote, and how did they with nuance and perspective convince men to grant it to them?. Women in California won the right to vote in the 1911 election, nearly a decade before the national suffrage amendment passed. Whether suffrage appears in your classroom as a topic that is woven into multiple units that stretch from the Reconstruction Era through the 1920s, or whether women’s suffrage operates as a stand-alone topic, this inquiry set can be useful for both pedagogical approaches.

All of the documents in this set address the “why did women want the right to vote?” part of the question. Students explore documents that suffragists created to convince others of the value of the vote. These documents spread across time and space, beginning with the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848, though they focus more heavily on suffrage in the West. The documents are united in that they all reveal variations of arguments that women made to one another and to men to convince them of the value of allowing women to vote. Have your students pay attention to natural rights arguments and also to the “maternalist” reasons that women advocated suffrage. An important change occurred in the suffrage movement when feminists moved away from arguing that suffrage should be a fundamental human right, and because women shared common humanity with men that they should vote. Instead, some suffragists in the twentieth century argued that the state should allow women to vote precisely because of their differences from men; their motherhood in particular would make their votes more moral and more interested in reform than men, for example.

In addition to noting changes in the arguments that suffragists put forth, your students should note the significance of race and labor in promoting suffrage. Some suffragists argued that white women in particular needed the vote to counter the influence of nonwhite male voters. Other suffragists argued that working women — whether they spoke only Spanish or belonged to labor unions — needed the vote more than other people. The women’s suffrage movement of course did not happen in a vacuum, and the historical context of Jim Crow segregation, alongside mass immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and progressivism, all inform the arguments presented in these diverse documents.

Most of the documents also address the “how did women convince men” part of the question. In this section, students learn about different strategies that women used to appeal to the sensibility of men (whether rooted in racist rhetoric or strategies to get men’s attention). These sources relate more to the methods that suffragists employed. Students should come away with a sense of the diversity of strategies, and also radical versus more moderate style of activism. The medium by which suffragists attempted to draw attention to their cause also reveals several important factors about the campaign. It is as important to chart the methods of activism and understand them in context as it is to understand the changing arguments for the vote.

This inquiry set contains an extended literacy activity in which students compare the foundational women’s rights text, the Declaration of Sentiments from 1848, with the Declaration of Independence. Analyzing these documents side by side will help students address both parts of the question. The activity helps students navigate the arguments that women’s rights advocates adopted and the ways in which they attempted to persuade men of the value of suffrage.

This literacy strategy is designed to help students briefly review the structure and content of the Declaration of Independence to help support a close examination of parts of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions of the Seneca Falls Convention. It asks students to consider why and how the authors of the Declaration of Sentiments chose to model their text after the Declaration of Independence and what effect their choices might have had on audiences of men and women. The lesson will not only add depth to student understanding of the question guiding the unit (Why did women want the right to vote, and how did they convince men to grant it to them?), but it will also support student literacy more generally by providing opportunities for close reading, speaking, collaborative meaning-making, and writing.


1. Provide context.

Explain that the Declaration of Sentiments was an important women’s rights document that was modeled after the Declaration of Independence, and that the purpose of this lesson is to help students understand why and how this was done.

Remind students about the purpose, content, and structure of the Declaration of Independence.

Project the text for the class and do a quick read-aloud of the introduction, stopping to highlight some difficult vocabulary that will come up again in the Declaration of Sentiments (“inalienable,” “usurpations,” “tyranny”). Ask the class to help paraphrase this introduction.

Read and paraphrase a few examples of the grievances, and ask students to summarize the types of grievances the leaders of the American Revolution raised.

Read and paraphrase the concluding paragraph of the document, emphasizing that this is the place where the authors “declared” how things should be moving forward.

Tell students to be alert for ways the Declaration of Sentiments and the Resolutions of the Seneca Falls Convention draw on similar language, content, and structure.

2. Interpret and discuss text.

Distribute the Student Handout and guide students through sections 1 and 2 with a process of whole-class modeling, collaborative group work, and whole-class debriefing. (The collaborative group work is an important step in the process to maximize student participation and engagement while still allowing for the co-construction of meaning around a difficult text. It also provides opportunities for informal speaking practice.)

Section 1 asks students to compare the language of the introductions to the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Sentiments and talk about the effect that the language changes have on the document.

Section 2 asks students to try to paraphrase as many of the grievances of the Declaration of Sentiments as they can, while also underlining ideas that seem especially reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence.

Direct students to talk in their small groups about the questions in Section 3. After having groups share out ideas with the whole class, have each student independently write a paragraph about the ideas that most resonate with them.

3. Extend the learning.

For more formal speaking practice, show students the two-minute video “Women and Girls at Seneca Falls Recite Declaration of Sentiments” and record the class’s own recitation.


11.2 Womens Suffrage Student Handout

11.2 Womens Suffrage Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.


  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.