Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000: An Ever-Evolving Digital Resource
Rebecca Jo Plant and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
We gladly welcome this opportunity to introduce readers to Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (WASM), because it is a difficult resource to describe in just a sentence or two. Organized around the history of women in social movements and spanning the years from the colonial era to the present day, WASM seeks to advance scholarly debates and understanding of U.S. women’s history while also making those insights accessible to teachers and students at universities, colleges, and high schools. It is one of the most frequently utilized pedagogical tools among those who teach U.S. women’s history.
Both a database and an electronic journal, WASM is published by Alexander Street Press biannually, with new editions appearing in the fall and spring. Each edition includes two new teaching resources called document projects. These are substantial, peer-reviewed publications that include curated primary sources, accompanied by an article introducing the project and shorter blurbs that briefly describe each individual document. New editions also include a selection of book reviews on recent works in U.S. women’s history, primary sources that contribute to existing collections in our database, and special features that range from video interviews with our document project authors to roundtables on issues of contemporary interest, such as the historical significance of Kamala Harris’s elections as vice president, or historians’ assessments of the Hulu series Mrs. America. In short, WASM has something for everyone—teachers, academic researchers, students, or really anyone with an interest in U.S. women’s history and U.S. history more broadly.
History of WASM
WASM grew up with the internet and has evolved significantly over time. The project began in 1997 in a senior seminar taught by Kathryn Kish Sklar that sought to introduce advanced undergraduates to the process of discovering, editing, and analyzing historical documents related to women and social movements in U.S. history. Thomas Dublin subsequently joined Sklar to create an innovative website with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and later from Houghton Mifflin and ProQuest Information and Learning. Collaborating with a national network of historians, by 2002 Sklar and Dublin had produced a website that included 43 documentary projects. At this juncture, they forged a relationship with Alexander Street Press, which has facilitated WASM’s expansion and evolution, including a new search engine, keyword indexing, and improved design. In 2018, after pioneering and developing this remarkable resource over the course of two decades, Sklar and Dublin stepped down as acting editors and passed the baton to us.
At the center of WASM are its document projects. To offer a concrete example, our Fall 2021 edition features Dr. Alina R. Méndez’s, “Gendered Invisibility: Ethnic Mexican Women and the Bracero Program.” This project will be extraordinarily useful for teachers seeking to integrate more material on the experiences of Mexican Americans into their classes. It focuses on the effects of the Bracero program, which brought thousands of Mexicans to the United States as contract laborers between 1942 and 1964. Though well-known among teachers of U.S. history, the Bracero program tends to get short shrift in women’s history courses, because the majority of braceros were men. Yet as Méndez shows, it dramatically impacted women, including wives who were left behind in Mexico, those who accompanied their husbands, and women already in the U.S., who interacted with the new arrivals in a variety of capacities—for example, as food vendors, employers, or romantic partners.
Drawn from both U.S. and Mexican archives, the documents that Méndez has curated include oral histories and photographs from the Bracero History Archive, as well as letters that women sent to the Mexican president and newspaper articles that suggest how the dominant Anglo society regarded and depicted ethnic Mexican women. These sources equip students to engage with a series of questions included with the project. (All document projects include a set of questions that can help guide students’ reading and serve as the basis for discussion.) How do former braceros’ wives and daughters remember the Bracero program? Why and how did the Bracero program generate tensions between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants? How did the Bracero program influence Mexican women’s migration to the United States? As a whole, Mendez’s document project demonstrates how a program that was rigidly constructed along gendered lines also produced powerfully gendered effects, shaping women’s lives in myriad and enduring ways.
The other document projects, now numbering 135, cover an impressive array of topics, ranging from Illinois Indian women who converted to Catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to northern abolitionists who moved to Kansas in hopes of banning slavery in that future state, to the transnational campaign in the early 1970s to liberate Angela Davis. Indeed, one could easily construct an entire U.S. women’s history syllabus based on WASM document projects.
While the majority of our document projects focus on women who sought to challenge gender restrictions or otherwise pushed for progressive change, one that I (Rebecca) have used in class is Kim E. Nielsen’s “How Did Women Antifeminists Shape and Limit the Social Reform Movements of the 1920s?” At the time it was published (2004), there was an immense literature on middle-class women’s engagement in Progressive era reform movements—including their support for the mothers’ pensions, a constitutional amendment outlawing child labor, and the Sheppard-Towner Act, which designated federal funds to support efforts to improve maternal and infant health—but comparatively few historical works on right-wing women. To help my students understand the importance of the conservative and reactionary movement that coalesced in the 1920s, which effectively slowed progressive women’s momentum and reversed some of their gains, I assigned Nielsen’s helpful introduction and a selection of documents. A cartoon of teenagers lounging on the farm, refusing to assist their beleaguered parents, illustrates how such women attacked the proposed amendment to ban child labor by claiming that it would erode traditional parental authority. Congressional testimony shows how self-described “Woman Patriots” portrayed the Sheppard-Towner Act as “Bolshevik” in nature. And finally, an excerpt of a memoir by Mary Anderson, who headed the Woman’s Bureau during this time, shows how the women targeted as communists struggled to come up with an effective response. Here again, a historical phenomenon that is typically taught without reference to gender—the post-World War I Red Scare—gains new meaning when students understand its gendered components and see how it fostered deep divisions among American women.
Teaching Strategies and Primary Source Collections
While most instructors use WASM by assigning parts of individual document projects to illuminate certain topics or themes, the database can be used in other ways as well. For busy teachers who have little time to read through all the primary sources in a given document project, we have a wonderful collection of 56 proposed course lessons associated with on selected documents. Located under Teaching Strategies, these resources can be adopted wholesale or tweaked to fit the needs of a particular class. They touch on a wide range of topics, such as women’s efforts to aid freedmen and women during Reconstruction, women’s participation in specific strikes and labor campaigns, and women’s contributions to the interwar peace movement, to name just a few.
Each teaching strategy document includes objectives, proposed readings, and discussion questions. Many also include classroom activities and potential paper assignments. For example, the stated objective of a teaching strategy on the birth control movement is: “To understand the resistance to legalizing contraception; to compare and contrast arguments for and against birth control; to examine the social agendas of birth controllers and their Catholic opponents.” Students read a series of primary sources that articulate the range of views that people held on this topic in the early twentieth century. Then, should the instructor choose to adopt the lesson plan, they participate in a classroom debate, taking on the role of a particular advocate or opponent of birth control.
WASM is also an excellent resource for teachers who are leading a research-based seminar or methodology courses. Instructors can direct students to our large library of primary source sets, which makes the prospect of completing a research paper based on primary research somewhat less daunting. (Here in California, where most of us are on the quarter system, it is generally unrealistic to expect students to conduct their own research and complete an in-depth research paper during a single course.) Among other resources, our collection includes a full run of the suffrage journal Equal Rights, papers of the League of Women Voters and the National Consumers’ Leagues, and reports on the Commissions on the Status of Women from all fifty states. We also have an extensive collection of Writings of Black Women Suffragists that Tom Dublin has compiled. So, for instance, a student could compare and contrast the writings of certain Black women suffragists with the ideas set forth in Equal Rights, the journal associated with the National Woman’s Party. In short, WASM allows scholars and students the ability to digitally access treasure troves of primary sources from wherever they are located. This has proven especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to travel restrictions and archival closures.
Empire Suffrage Syllabus
Finally, we also would like to call readers’ attention to #EmpireSuffrageSyllabus, a resource that is freely available on the WASM site. This collective endeavor emerged from discussions within the University of California’s Consortium on Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Histories in the Americas on how to best recognize the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. We hoped to honor this decades-in-the-making achievement while also calling attention to its limitations. At the same time, we wanted to bring the insights of historical research on U.S. empire and imperialism to bear on discussions of women’s access to the ballot and political power. This approach reflects our Consortium’s cross-Americas perspective, as well as our experiences as professors and graduate students in the University of California system. Because the forces of U.S. empire have shaped our region and the lives of our students so profoundly and in so many different ways, we believe it critical to foreground this history in our pedagogy.
The results of our efforts are now accessible in the online syllabus, which is divided into four modules. These modules are essentially starter toolkits that identify conceptual questions and key themes and provide instructors with annotated secondary readings and suggested primary sources (both textual and visual) to use in the classroom. Placing the issue of U.S. women’s suffrage into a much broader temporal and geographic context than traditionally conceived, the first module begins in the late eighteenth century. We show how the emergence of the nation-state and the classic liberal idea of the voting citizen were bound up with the rise of imperial projects that aimed to extend national power through conquest and expropriation. Subsequent modules urge teachers and students to rethink the struggle for women’s suffrage as more than a simple story of liberation. Nor is it sufficient to acknowledge that many African American and Native American women, as well as women in the colonies and territories, did not gain access to the ballot in 1920. To help students grasp the full complexity of these issues, each of the four modules is accompanied by a StoryMap that will help students understand the fight for women’s suffrage and political power in spatial as well as chronological terms.
Ultimately, the syllabus highlights how different groups of women had complex, ambivalent, and antagonistic relationships to the suffrage movement based on their own people’s distinctive and historically determined relationship to the U.S. state and U.S. citizenship. For some, the acquisition of suffrage represented an extension of power, but for others, it seemed a wholly inadequate tool and one that could not be disentangled from the legacies of colonial oppression.
Democratization and Collaboration
WASM is unique among academic journals for its focus on publishing primary sources. Whereas other journals tend to present the finished analysis, WASM invites scholars and students into the process of constructing arguments. Users gain access to primary sources as well as the interpretative framework and historical contextualization to consider how to analyze these materials. In essence, WASM offers the possibility of democratizing historical research by offering a behind-the-scenes understanding of the historian’s craft.
The journal and website also emphasize the spirit of collaboration. Each project and pedagogical resource share the intellectual labor and insights of other researchers and teachers. In some cases, such as the Black Suffragists and Empire and Suffrage syllabus, these projects were completed through collaboration. This seems particularly fitting for a journal focused on understanding the power and impact of collective action.
Rebecca Jo Plant is a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America and co-editor of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600 to 2000. A forthcoming book, cowritten with Frances M. Clarke, Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in Civil War America, will be published by Oxford University Press.
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine and the director of the Humanities Center. Her forthcoming book, Fierce and Fearless: Patsy Takemoto Mink, First Woman of Color in Congress ( 2022), is a collaboration with political scientist Gwendolyn Mink. She is a co-editor of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 and editor for Amerasia Journal. She also serves as co-president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.