New England Women of the Early Republic: 1890-1820

Name/School:  Joan O’Brien, The MacDuffie School

Course/Grade Level: U.S. History, Grades 11 & 12

Topic: New England Women of the Early Republic

Lesson: 'A Woman’s Pocket'

Overview:  Student will undertake a brief research project in order to understand the variety of women’s experience during this historical period and demonstrate their understanding by suggesting the contents of their subject’s pocket.  The teacher will provide them with some resources and they will be responsible for locating a couple of additional sources, secondary or primary, in order to complete the assignment.  The students will be assigned different women (either individual women or women representative of a particular background) to research and have to report back to the class on the assigned day.  They will conclude with an essay comparing their subject with the other women.

Time: 4-5 days


  • Visual image or reproduction of pocket (HD 2000.20.5).
  • Secondary article (“The Ways of Her Household” in Laurel Ulrich’s Good Wives; Epilogue in Carol Berkin’s First Generations: Women in Colonial America or pp. 187-195 from Michael Gregory “Breaking New Ground” in No Small Courage, ed. Nancy Cott)
  • Optional: Assorted primary and secondary sources: (Eliz. Porter Phelps, Abigail Adams, and Martha Ballard diary entries)


  • Concepts:  New England Women in the Early Republic
  • Content:  Women’s experiences took a variety of forms in the of the new nation depending on their class, race, region, and occupation.
  • Skills:  Research, documentation, organization of information, inference, application of knowledge

Procedures: Introduce unit with nursery rhyme (“Lucy Lockett”) and image of or actual pocket and have students try to determine what it is, how used, etc.  Give some background on pockets in general, then explain assignment and assign groups; give each group an individual (or type) for which they are responsible. Possibilities include: Elizabeth Porter Phelps (wife of gentry farmer/dairy farmer?), Abigail Adams, Rebecca Dickinson (seamstress), Martha Ballard (midwife), Elizabeth Freeman (servant/former slave). Provide Ulrich article and supporting documents on above-named women. Students will have a couple of nights to research their topic and develop their conclusions. Interim class time might be spent asking and answering quesitons, working in library and/or in groups in the classroom, viewing segments of A Midwife’s Tale, or all of the above. After a few days of research, student groups should present their character and attempt to describe the contents of her pocket and to justify their choices. They write their essay only after hearing all of the other presentations.

Evaluation/Assessment:  Students will describe the pocket contents of the woman or type they have researched and justify the items they have selected. (They will hand in the write-up of their presentations with a short bibliography and a list of questions they have not been able to answer in their research.) After having heard the other group presentations, students will write a short essay comparing and contrasting the women’s lives, and attempt to explain the reasons for both. They should also hypothesize about how these women’s lives may have overlapped or intersected (e.g. Rebecca Dickinson did some sewing for Elizabeth Porter Phelps, etc.). 

Integration possibilities: Students may return to this work when they begin their unit on 19th century women writers in their American Literature class (although these women pre-date the women they will read).

Tips/reflections from the author: The time frame could be expanded, depending on the length of class periods and the ability of the students.  The teacher could also provide examples of the kinds of things that women carried in their pockets if confusion reigns.  Further, the teacher might need to provide the supporting secondary materials by placing them on reserve in the library, depending on the school library’s facilities.