Suffrage Debates on the Eve of the 19th Amendment's Passage

United States History Survey (11th grade)
Name/School: Colleen Kyle, Deerfield Academy
Topic: Suffrage debates on the eve of the 19th Amendment’s passage
Lesson: Analyzing the methods and messages of pro- and anti-suffrage activists, and considering how female college students may have reacted to them at the time.

Overview: Students will look at a series of broadsides on both sides of the issue of woman’s suffrage and analyze them both in the context of turn-of-the-century era advertising, which we will have discussed previously, as well as the political content of the materials.  It is what both sides say, and how they present it, which will occupy our discussion.  We will conclude by considering how educated young women of the time might have reacted to the images and ideas as they encountered them, as evidenced by coverage of the issue in the Smith College student newspaper in 1915-16.

Time: One seventy-minute period.

Materials: Textbook reading; packet of propaganda from both sides: pro and anti (some are copies, others have been transcribed); a document which has culled all mentions of suffrage from the Smith College student weekly in the 1915-16 academic year.


  • Concepts (Big idea/central theme):  Gain an understanding of the suffrage debates—and ultimately, what role voting plays in American citizenship—while honing their skills at analyzing political propaganda and newspapers as sources.
  • Content (What students should know):  Students will learn the key arguments for and against woman’s suffrage, and how sophisticated reformers (and their opponents) had become by 1915 in getting their messages across. To bring the story home to students, we will close by considering the average Smith College student in 1915-1916, and how the issue of suffrage may have affected them while at school.
  • Skills (what students should be able to do): Students should be able to see the weaknesses and strengths in both sides of the arguments as presented in the distributed propaganda; they should be able to defend a position; and they ought to figure out the efficacy of learning about a political issue through the pages of a school newspaper’s coverage of that issue. 


  • The night before: students will read the packet of broadsides and other propaganda in advance of our discussion. 
  • First 20 minutes of class: the students will divide into two groups and prepare to present either the pro- or anti-suffrage position. 
  • Next 20 minutes: debate ensues, with chances for rebuttals and final statements.
  • Next 15 minutes: The Smith College Weekly document will be distributed; students will read it in class after I explain what it is.
  • Final 25 minutes: we will discuss the document as a group and consider how the average female college woman would have about the battle for suffrage in 1915-16.  They will learn that in early November of 1915, the suffrage proposals being passionately debated by the documents they just read were voted down in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York. 
  • Students will be reminded of other issues weighing heavily on the minds of Americans at the time—most significantly, the war raging in Europe.  Many students will probably assume before reading that all Smithies were raging suffragists; I hope they will note the anti-suffrage ideas in the document as well, and in turn, attain a more nuanced view of the anti-suffragists. 

Evaluation/Assessment: Performance in the debate will be factored in to each student’s participation grade for the term.  I may also have students prepare a broadside or advertisement on a current issue of interest to them, designed to run in The Deerfield Scroll, our student paper, or distributed on campus as a pamphlet or broadside.

Tips and reflections from the author: Since serving as editor of my high school’s newspaper as a teenager, I’ve been fascinated by student publications.  I am pleased at how the Smith College Weekly of 1915-16 seems to fit with the propaganda we looked at in the Suffrage collection in the Archives, and I hope it works!  While I have culled the excerpts relevant to our class discussion, I wish students could look through all the issues, as I did. They would then learn that there was far more ink spilled that year about various campus issues as eating popcorn in class (one shouldn’t do it!), saving seats for pals at chapel (excessive!), and the problem of poor attendance at class “sings.”  Etiquette was clearly a foremost issue on the minds of these young women.  The blend of earnest, ambitious political opinion and amusingly petty everyday concerns is probably a universal characteristic of student newspapers.