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Poem asking are women people
Are women people? : a book of rhymes for suffrage times, image 6

Launching Student Learning About Women’s Suffrage with a Suffragist’s Poetry

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In the May/June 2023 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses Alice Duer Miller’s incisive poetry advocating for women’s suffrage.

The article notes that while students might not think of poetry as a tool of protest and social change, much of Miller’s work was in response to publications and speeches. It highlights and lampoons inconsistencies and shines a light on how opponents’ very own statements support the cause of voting rights for women.

The title question, for example, likely responds to presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 speech “The New Freedom,” which concludes by declaring: “Bring the government back to the people.” The introductory poem imagines an exchange between a father and son, in which the son twice asks the title question and each time the father answers differently: When it comes to voting rights, “criminals, lunatics and women are not people;” however, in response to a question about paying taxes, women are people “just as much as men are.”

Miller initially published her poetry in the New York Tribune newspaper, but many of the poems were published in two books: Are Women People? and Women are People! Students might browse the books or search the newspapers as part of their research.

A proximity search (within five words) for “are women people duer,” of the New York Tribune, narrowed to the years of her column, 1914–1917, yields more than 100 results. Reading the newspaper columns provides an understanding of arguments for and against suffrage. Browsing surrounding articles, images, and advertisements can offer broad context for situating the women’s suffrage movement in time and place, thus helping students better understand Miller’s work and how her readers responded.

Woman Suffrage. Bonfire on sidewalk before White House, 1918.

The article suggests that students might browse “Treacherous Texts” in either book, select a poem that quotes a speech or published writing, and try to learn more about the original text, the person who created it, and the circumstances to which the person was reacting. For example, a student looking for connections to “To President Wilson” might discover, or be reminded, that many suffragists picketed the White House while Wilson was in office. That might spur further research into photographs or newspaper articles for more information about Wilson’s reactions to suffragists and their tactics.

Whether your students begin with the books or the newspapers, take a moment and leave a comment about their discoveries!

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  1. It would be worthwhile raising with students who else wasn’t a person at the time – including both female and male Black and Native Americans citizens, as well as legal and undocumented immigrants, all of whom, like women, paid taxes.

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