Social History for Every Classroom


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The Pay Envelope: A Role Play

In this activity students perform a role play of immigrant mothers and daughters arguing over who should get to keep the daughter's wages. This activity is used to teach with the film Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl, but can be completed without the film.  


  • Students will analyze how earning wages created opportunities and challenges for young immigrant women. 

  • Students will dramatize the conflict between immigrant parents and children over working children's wages.   

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

This activity also supports the following Common Core Speaking and Listening Standard for grades 6-8:

  • SL.7.4. Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

  • SL.6.3. Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.


Step 1: Divide the group into two equal groups: one group to play mothers and one group to play daughters. Pass out copies of the Pay Envelope worksheet describing the situation and go over the parts of the role play carefully. 

Step 2: Pass out copies of the character planning worksheets to every student, as well as the primary and secondary documents and accompanying worksheet. (For some students, it may be more appropriate to use the Background Essay and Worksheet on Immigrant Working Women, which is a shorter, more scaffolded version of the Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars reading.) In each group, either daughters or mothers work together to prepare for the role play, which will develop as follows: 

  • The daughter arrives home from work with her pay envelope and speaks first, telling her mother she will no longer turn over her entire paycheck.  The mother then responds, and give-and-take follows.  

In preparing for the role play, students should review the readings and select evidence and information they wish to include in this exchange. Students should consider the arguments and evidence the character would use, and how she would counter the arguments of the opposing family member.  

Step 4: The groups of mothers and daughters should each choose one member to play the role for the group.  The designated mother and daughter present the role play to the class. Pass out the Scene Assessment Rubric and go over directions for completing it as they actively listen to the role play; as students watch the role play, they should take notes about the main points of each character and the sources the actors used to create their dialogue.  

Step 5: After concluding the role play, members of the group should be prepared to comment to the class on the mother's and daughter's perspectives. (These questions are also on the Scene Assessment Rubric, which may be completed prior, during, or after the class discussion.)  

  • How did they see the issues differently, and why?  

  • How did the perspectives of individual group members vary, depending on what role they played and how they interpreted the role and readings?  

Historical Context

Between 1900 and 1920, more than 20% of women in the United States, the majority of them unmarried, worked for wages. One major employer of working-class women in New York City was the garment industry, where a workforce that was almost exclusively immigrant, heavily female, and largely Jewish and Italian worked in small shops to create ready-made clothing. The young unmarried immigrant women who worked in the garment industry did so both to help support their families and to gain a measure of security and independence for themselves. Many working-class immigrant families in New York City's Lower East Side experienced conflict over whether daughters should hand over their wage envelopes unopened to their mothers.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2009.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “The Pay Envelope: A Role Play,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 26, 2023,

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