A Vital Resource for Women’s History Month: Women and the American Story

When you think of Women’s Rights, what are the terms that come to mind? What events? What individuals? I think most educators and students would have similar responses. And if you think of those responses, what do they indicate about how much we know and understand Women’s Rights in America?

This past year, I was lucky to be the recipient of an NEH grant that allowed me to study a portion of the Women and the American Story Curriculum (WAMS) created by the New York Historical Society (NHS). The focus of this grant was American Women, American Citizens, 1920-1948. The WAMS Curriculum begins in 1492 and will end in 2018 after the latest units arrive in 2021 and 2022.

Each curriculum unit covers a particular historical event (Settler Colonialism, Reconstruction, World War II) with key ideas, a contextual introduction, essential questions, resources, and life stories. WAMS is both comprehensive and inclusive.

Provoking Inquiry

Imagine having students study the Progressive Era through fashion. Presented with three images of women’s clothing designed for exercise, they make observations about the pictures and inferences about how new freedoms conflicted with societal expectations. Or instead of learning about the Great Depression only through Wall Street, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal, students read about a bootlegging mother or “unattached” single women supported by government assistance. Think of the connections to today’s hardships: what kinds of work are people doing today to survive? What supports should the government provide to the unemployed? How is it different or not different for single women in the 1930s versus today?

Life Stories

We examine history chronologically or thematically. But what about through lived experiences? Each WAMS unit includes multiple profiles of exemplary individuals whose lives personalize history, build understanding and empathy, and encourage critical thinking and reflection. Some highlights include:

  • Maggie Walker, who challenges stereotypes about African Americans and women
  • Mary Kawena Pukui, the story of a woman whose Hawaiian heritage inspired her to resist Americanization and dedicate her career to cultural preservation.
  • Harriet Robinson Scott, the story of the enslaved woman who challenged slavery in the highest court in the United States.
  • Marsha P. Johnson, the story of a transgender activist who participated in the Stonewall Uprising and fought for equal rights.
  • Toypurina, the story of a Tongva wise woman who led a rebellion against a Spanish mission in Alta California.
  • Jovita Idar Juarez, the story of a newspaper reporter and publisher who advocated for the preservation of Hispanic heritage through education and social services.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu, the story of a Chinese American physicist who contributed to the development of the atomic bomb and overcame many racial and gender barriers to achieve recognition.

Social Change

What better way to tap into today’s inspiring activist climate than to study the history and impact of women who fought for social change on several fronts? Every WAMS unit grounds itself in activism and struggle because women who gained prominence fought to improve their lives and the lives of others.

Video Clips to Spark: Did You Know?

As a starting point, share some of these short video clips to engage and intrigue students and teachers by learning something new about Women’s History they did not know: https://wams.nyhistory.org/video-library/. There are ten videos. Post 2-3 each week to build interest and curiosity in WAMS. Think of ways to integrate these fabulous resources across the content areas.

Information Literacy

The WAMS Resources lend themselves to teaching information literacy skills as the learning objective: primary versus secondary sources, evaluating information, multiple perspectives, fact versus opinion. Here is a link to three lesson plans I created as part of the NEH grant. Feel free to review how I adapted lessons from our Empire State Information Fluency Lesson Plans with the resources of WAMS.

More than a Month

Of course, Women’s History is history and should not be noted in March and forgotten the rest of the year. Same for all thematic months. Celebrate everyone all year, and maybe at some point, we won’t need months to remind us of our diversity.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

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