This post is from Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.
This Constitution Day, as we commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution, we also observe 100 years since the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women in the United States the right to vote. Like 2020, 1920 was an election year. We wondered how women readying themselves to cast their first ballots at that time might have prepared for the election and for civic engagement, more broadly.
We turned to the Library’s historic newspaper database Chronicling America and an article from the June 20, 1920 issue of Montana’s Great Falls Daily Tribune first caught our eye. With its headline “Better Citizens, is Aim of Women Voters’ League,” the article described a regional convention of the National League of Women Voters, and the concept of “citizenship school” was touted as a priority.
The National League of Women Voters, founded in 1920 by Carrie Chapman Catt, emerged from the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Recognizing a need for women to be more informed citizens who could effectively exercise their civic rights, including voting, various state affiliates of the National League organized citizenship schools in educational institutions and social organizations across the country. An article in one Minnesota newspaper emphasized the purpose of a citizenship school to educate women about “proper use of their new privilege.”
Various states, including Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, and Montana, hosted citizenship schools for women. In some cases, courses were held months before the 19th amendment even became part of the Constitution, and before that year’s presidential election. These efforts by the National League had influence elsewhere, as well. For example, “University to Educate Women Who Will Vote,” published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, describes a “school of citizenship…for female balloters” to be offered by the University of Virginia in late April 1920, and refers to the initiative by the National League. The program’s goal, according to the article, would be to “interest women in a more thorough knowledge of the machinery of government.” Instructors slated for the three-day event included University faculty, public officials, and the chair of the board of the National League itself. Among the planned topics were “The Legal Status of Women,” “The Significance of Political Parties,” “The New Voter in National Politics,” “How the Nation is Financed,” and “The Aims and Purposes of the League of Women Voters.”
The Chronicling America newspaper database contains numerous examples of citizenship schools for women. Invite students to explore using search terms “women citizenship schools” or “women voting schools.” Students might compare and contrast articles, and consider how these schools were advertised and described.
- Students might also reflect on the intended audiences of these citizenship schools. Who might have been excluded, and why? (The article “Women Study Citizenship” from the June 12, 1920 issue of the Tulsa Star, which describes a citizenship school led by Black women, offers one example.)
- You might also ask students to review the list of classes offered by a particular citizenship school. Are there any that surprise or confuse them? Which principles of civic education are most important to them?
- For a broader perspective, invite students to explore the Library’s collections that relate to women’s suffrage, including the online exhibition “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote”, as well as the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection and the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records.
Let us know in the comments which discoveries surprise your students!