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Social Movements and Constitutional Change: Women's Suffrage

In this activity, students analyze documents to arrange events on a timeline of women's suffrage. The timeline and documents will help students understand the intersection of social movements and constitutional change. This activity can be modified by reducing the number of documents. An optional Smartboard Notebook file is included to facilitate the activity.


  • Students will construct a timeline of the women's suffrage movement.

  • Students will analyze primary sources in order to determine the significance of social movements in creating constitutional change. 

  • Students will be able to describe the goals and tactics of the women's suffrage movement.  


Note: This activity requires some preparation of materials ahead of time. The teacher should print out and cut apart the event cards and date cards, making enough sets for each group. The teacher should keep the date and event cards separate, so that the date cards can be passed out as "rewards" when the students finish analyzing each document. It is recommended to print cards on cardstock and laminate them, if possible, to improve sturdiness. In a professional development workshop for teachers, ASHP used sentence strips to create timelines and affixed the cards with velcro to the timelines.

The attached Smartboard Notebook file contains slides for each of the steps in the activity, as well as a completed timeline for reference. The Tic-Tac-Toe board numbered 1-9 allows students to pick at random a document to analyze, if the teacher wishes to introduce a more game-like element to the activity. 

Step 1: Divide students into small groups of 3-5. Ask students to put their desks together to create a table and to clear it completely. All students will need for the activity is a writing utensil, but they will need lots of space to arrange their timelines.

Step 2: (Optional) Review the process for ratifying an amendment. Ask students to think about the role of activists and social movements in pressuring Congressional and state leaders to pass and ratify amendments. 

Step 3: Project or write on the board the four steps of social movements and change (in random order):

  • DEMAND a change

  • ORGANIZE a movement

  • PERSUADE the public/officials

  • ACHIEVE the goal

Ask students to decide what the correct order for achieving a social change is. Why do they think some things have to happen before others?

Step 4: (Note: The teacher can modify the following steps by changing the number of documents in the activity.) Give each group a set of event cards and ask them to put them in the order they think they go, based on their prior knowledge or the logic of the DEMAND-ORGANIZE-PERSUADE-ACHIEVE rubric. After students have arranged their timelines, tell them they will use primary sources to determine the correct order of events.

Step 5: Lead students through analysis of some or all of the documents. Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may want to lead students through all documents or allow students to be self-directed. 

If students are working at a self-directed pace:

For each document, the group should read the document together, then answer the questions on the "document understanding check" worksheet. When the group has answered the questions, they should send a "runner" to the teacher. The teacher should check the answers and give them a "date card" to add to the event card if they are correct. (If students are incorrect, they should try again.) When the student retrieves the date card, he or she should also pick up a new document and worksheet. Allow students to pick which document they would like to work on next, though they should complete all documents by the end of the activity.

Step 6: As groups finish, have them work independently to answer the following synthesis question:

Review the four steps of social movements and change: DEMAND a change, ORGANIZE a movement, PERSUADE the public/officials, ACHIEVE the goal. Write 1-2 paragraphs describing how the women's suffrage movement resulted in the 19th Amendment. Cite at least FOUR of the documents in the activity. 

Allow students to work on the synthesis question as other groups finish the documents. Any students who don't complete the synthesis question in class should complete it for homework. 

Historical Context

In the early republic, despite a few scattered pleas and a short period of suffrage in New Jersey, women were excluded from the franchise and from civic life generally. In the antebellum period, though, women significantly participated in many reform movements, testing the boundaries of socially and politically acceptable behavior for their gender. In 1848, a small group of women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to call for full civic rights for women. After the Civil War, when the national discourse centered around constitutional change and expanding voting and civil rights to former slaves, suffragists were hopeful that their enfranchisement might also be accomplished. Republican leaders, as well as some suffrage activists who had previously been active in the abolition movement, however, worried that including "sex" as a provision of the 15th Amendment would weaken its chances of passage, scuttled the proposal. Although the first call for a women's suffrage amendment was introduced into Congress in 1878, it would not be until 1920 that the nation ratified the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women's right to vote. 

Throughout this long period, suffrage activists adopted many different tactics, including circulating petitions, holding parades, and acts of civil disobedience. They made their case in the courts, in newspapers and magazines, and in the public sphere. They organized supporters at the local and state levels to put pressure on politicians to enfranchise women locally and to ratify an amendment should the opportunity arise. They also maintained a headquarters in Washington, D.C. to pressure Congressional leaders, as well as to demonstrate in front of the White House for their basic civic rights.  

Source | American Social History Projects/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
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 , “Social Movements and Constitutional Change: Women's Suffrage,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 22, 2023,

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