Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Informal reflection on women's rights

This is more of a rambling reflection than a properly composed piece, but I wanted to share something that blew my mind the other day -- even though it really shouldn't have.  The information wasn't anything new; I'd known for years, and yet: you know how sometimes knowledge you already possessed can suddenly hit you with particular and even personal force?  This was one of those moments.  I was talking with my 6-year-old daughter about voting.  I can't even remember specifically how the subject arose -- probably something to do with the election and her interest in the "olden days" -- when I commented that women couldn't vote in national elections until 1920.


My grandmother -- who, I'm blessed to say, is still living -- was four years old.  My daughter, whose personality resembles her great-grandmother's so strongly it would force one to believe in reincarnation were the elder representative not still with us, is only two years older than that.  The time when she would not have grown up with a right to vote... when I, the political historian (not that I would've been one then) would not have the right to vote... is in living memory.

Ninety-two years.  That's not very long ago.  I've taught many students about suffrage, but somehow it hadn't struck me so personally before now.  My daughter's presence in this conversation probably had a lot to do with that.  It was one of those moments when the professional becomes personal and for a moment I could glimpse just how important it was -- it is -- to protect, to defend and to advocate women's rights... and just how important it is to teach these things.

My students read several excerpts of documents written by women's rights advocates during the antebellum period in preparation for class last week.  In one of them, Sarah Grimk√© spoke of "the disproportionate value set on the time and labor of men and of women"* -- in other words, of wage inequality.  In 1837.  The work continues.

* Sarah M. Grimk√©, Letter VIII, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), in Isaac Kramnick and Theodore J. Lowi, American Political Thought (W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 520.


Jason said...

Thanks for sharing that. I'm teaching the second half of the U.S. survey and need to keep in mind that just because the 1920s may seem like a long time ago to my students (most of whom don't really remember life before a "war on terror") they really aren't.

Laura Gifford said...

Thanks, Jason! I know what you mean. As hard as I find it to remember personally just how recent these changes occurred, it can be even harder to impress that upon even younger students (Freshmen born in 1994! Yikes!).

I struck upon a tactic last spring that seemed useful and that I plan to do again of putting things in more personal terms -- not in the sense of family history, but by explaining, for example, that if I'd been 33 (as I am now) in 1955, I would have been 23 when WWII ended... my husband would be a veteran... I would have been just reaching my teenage years during the midst of the Great Depression... so in the end, is it all that surprising that 33-year-old 1955 me would want a house in the suburbs and a sense of stability? I noticed some mental light bulbs switching on. It's a thought exercise that could be applied more broadly to help students (and me) make that leap to a fuzzy "past," and I'm curious to use it in other contexts and see how it works.

nwrowergirl said...


I enjoyed your post - it is a good reminder and nice to put things in perspective. As I read your comment about your teaching tactic, I am (as always) impressed by your intelligence and your commitment to your students. I am sure you are a great teacher. I hope you know it, too. :)