by Mireille Miller
Primary Art Faculty, Lycée Français de New York
The deadline for teachers to register to join this project is May 31, 2018.
“Gender rights are human rights,” a sentiment first expressed by abolitionists in the 1830s, has become a rallying cry echoed by leaders around the world—a goal that should be recognized and embraced by everyone starting at an early age. Educating our students to understand and value the contributions of men and women on an equal footing is essential to achieving this goal.
But how do we engage students in the struggle for gender equality? And how does understanding its struggle inform and connect them to the issues of their own time?
Back in 2009, I began a painting entitled Women Leading the Way: Suffragists & Suffragettes, which brought together 100 leading figures from the Suffrage Movement. My aim was to bridge an existing gap in representation between the two halves of humanity. The research proved inspirational, and helped me to conceive of a project that would take students back in time to explore the lives of women who made significant and lasting contributions to societies around the world.
Students would be asked to research one of the women depicted in the painting, and then write a biographical essay of that person’s life and her contribution to the advancement of women’s voting rights or human rights.
Then, using drawing techniques, collage, photomontage, sculpture, painting or digital media, students would create a portrait of the suffrage campaigner they researched.
Next, through personal interviews and documentation—such as photographs, letters, journals, oral history and artifacts—each student would research the first woman who was granted or denied the right to vote within their own family, and summarize her life story and her sentiments.
Finally, to give our extended community a chance to share, reflect and connect, we would combine the portraits and essays into posters, which would be displayed both at a school exhibition and an outside public venue.
I proposed the idea to my colleagues, who responded enthusiastically to the material. We held preliminary meetings to discuss the project’s general guidelines and its outcome, loosely determine responsibilities, and how the work might be divided. As we are a bilingual school, we decided that French teachers would handle the family story—English teachers the historical figure. Portraits would be created in my class. Throughout, we would encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
To prepare students for the project, one of the team members suggested a provocative challenge. During a general assembly for their grade, we announced that in classes where the homeroom teacher was male, only boys would be allowed to vote for their class delegates; conversely, in classes where the homeroom teacher was female, only girls would be allowed to vote. Immediately, discontent could be heard as students started to question our pronouncement.
Furthermore, students were told that if they understood the information they had been given, there was nothing more to be said, and they could go to recess. They began to foment their own little revolution. Angry boys and girls banded together. They meant to take action and were ready to petition the head of school to ask for a meeting.
We piqued their curiosity. They felt the sting of injustice. There were ready to tackle the question of voting rights for women.
Following the uprising, I visited each class to introduce the project to the students, show the painting and outline the steps of the project. They were relieved that they hadn’t lost their vote, and began to understand how the suffragettes felt.
Following my presentation, French teachers introduced their history lesson on voting rights, which they adapted to address specific themes of the project. They began with an affirmation that the right to vote seems unquestioned and evident to all of us today, but that women around the world had to fight really hard for it. They focused primarily on the French Constitution, the rights of French women and the British Suffragettes movement. English students studied the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation and the anti-slavery movement. From there, they smoothly segued to the suffrage movement.
Click here for a more detailed model of their approach.
The students took to the project immediately, and most found it to be a tremendous learning experience. They grew to understand the Movement, and the difference between suffragists and their radical sisters—the suffragettes. They recognized how voting rights are human rights, and embraced their civic responsibility in a democracy. More significantly, they formed a much deeper connection to history by connecting to their own family stories.
Teachers saw students who showed little interest in writing cheerfully engaged in their drafts, and sharing their family stories with great enthusiasm. “The connection to their own family made them embrace the project.” wrote a member of our team. “Without it, their research and writing of their suffrage campaigner would just have meant another ‘task.’ With the family connection, they took ownership of the project, and wrote with interest and pleasure.”
Feedback from families was equally enthusiastic. “The absolute joy was the story-telling between generations and the sharing of information from inside and outside the family,” one parent wrote, “and for my daughter to see herself as part of a tradition of women building lives.”
“The success of this project comes from its fundamental simplicity and boldness,” wrote another parent, “re-claiming histories of women whose cultural significance has a broad appeal and relating this to one’s own family.”
Moving Forward: Join Our National Project
Our next version of Women Leading the Way has been timed to coincide with the centennial of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and ratification of the 19th Amendment, both of which will take place in 2020. In celebration of these significant events, we are inviting high schools across the nation to participate in the project—and share their research, art and story-telling experiences. We’ve created an online learning resource with an interactive version of the painting that features key biographical information and useful links to 100 of the leading figures of the Suffrage Movement, as well as vintage photographs, inspirational student videos, and a searchable archive of art and storytelling.
The deadline for registering for this project is May 31, 2018. For more information, please visit suffragettes2020.com.