There are times when reading a historically based picture book that I cannot help but make comparisons to today. Primary sources can help me focus that comparison. This was the case when reading the picture book A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights and looking at related historical sources. I found the story written by Kate Hannigan and illustrated by Alison Jay a fascinating look at an inspiring leader in the late 19th and early 20th century and a woman with a number of firsts, including the first woman to run for president of the United States. As our upcoming presidential election already seems to be ramping up and with a number of women running, I couldn’t help but look to Lockwood’s run in 1884.
Introducing a Historical Figure with a Primary Source
While I often use a picture book to introduce a historical figure or event with students, bringing a primary source in to play that role can immediately engage students with a piece of history. In the case of Belva Lockwood, a column in the September 26, 1884, issue of The Easley Messenger not only presents her as a presidential candidate but also provides visual descriptions of her bicycling through Washington, D.C.
Another benefit of using a primary source to introduce a person or event in history is that students are left with questions. After reading this brief article, students may want to know if she was the first woman to run for president. Others, while knowing she did not win, may wonder how many votes she received. Some may simply wonder if it was unusual for women to ride bicycles in 1884. All of these can bring students to the accompanying picture book for answers.
Using a Picture Book as a Secondary Source
While sharing the story, ask students to focus on how others react to Lockwood and why they react that way. Encourage them not to only read through that lens, but view Jay’s illustrations with the same wondering. In the story, students will find a variety of reactions, both positive and negative, to Lockwood. One description and illustration that they may find surprising and memorable shows men in gowns parading in the street to make fun of Lockwood.
Comparing Secondary Source Accounts to Primary Source Findings
After discussing reactions to Lockwood from the picture book, ask students how they think people reacted to Lockwood’s presidential campaign. To check their ideas, students can visit Chronicling America and search for references to Belva Lockwood from 1884. I also have a curated set of sources if students do not have time to find articles.
Students may struggle with what is being implied in the messages in some newspapers. Take the October 16 The Daily Morning Astorian’s quote of the Norristown Herald as an example. “Many persons of good sense are now predicting that Mrs. Belva Lockwood will have a majority in Pennsylvania at the coming election. The reason for this is that Mrs. L. has promised, if elected, to abolish the female bang.”
What is the female bang? Students may discuss and search to determine the quote is referring to women’s hairstyles of the time. They may also quickly find this to be a negative representation of Lockwood’s candidacy. Encourage students to use a close reading strategy to identify text that explains why it is negative. Students may cite portions that show that it is dismissive of Lockwood, shows her only being able to impact something such as hairstyles, and negative towards women of the time to imply that men would dislike a women’s hairstyle enough to impact political decisions.
Bringing Findings From a Past Event to Events Today
Other quotes about Lockwood are equally dismissive while others are positive or informative. Encourage a wide look at how newspapers depicted the candidate, especially compared to other presidential candidates.
With the largest number of women running for president of the United States, it can be an opportune time to look at how they are shown in media today. Students may explore evening news, cable news, online news, and social media to explore how women today are represented. Comparison to news reports of male counterparts may also provide a perspective that students will connect with. While the news coverage of today will undoubtedly be more positive than Lockwood’s treatment, the news about Lockwood from 1884 will impact how students view the news coverage of female candidates of today.
Author: Tom Bober
Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.