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Lesson Plan Nineteenth Century Women: Struggle and Triumph

In this lesson plan, powerful stories of brave women who helped shape the history of the United States are revealed to students through journals, letters, narratives and other primary sources. Synthesizing information from the various sources, students write their impressions of women in the Northeast, Southeast, or the West during the nineteenth century.


Students will be able to:

  • draw conclusions by analyzing primary source materials;
  • write a persuasive letter.

Lesson Preparation

Preparation: Teacher planning (one - two planning periods)

Each group of students is provided a packet of primary source information.

Search or browse the collections to select primary sources to represent different types of women's experiences in the nineteenth century United States. When dealing with a long document, be selective with the text you choose to include in the packet rather than just printing the entire document. Represent various regions, diverse communities, and socioeconomic levels in the categories chosen. In putting the packets together, journal entries should be balanced with those that are easy to read and some that are challenging either because of content or dialect. Photographs and maps may also be included.


Lesson Procedure

What can primary sources teach us about the lives of American women in the nineteenth century?

Introduction (one class period)

Teacher models analysis of a primary source packet including looking at:

  1. Area of residence/geographical region
  2. Family life
  3. Employment
  4. Education
  5. Ethnic Background

Several different women are used in each packet to represent a category. The students' job is to create a common set of attributes for the category. Conclusions will be drawn regarding the category of woman and what the primary sources reveal about her life in the United States.

Taking Notes and Assigning Packets (two-three 45 minute class periods)

Step One: Begin class by modeling how to analyze a primary source, recording thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before beginning, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.

Step Two: Small student groups are assigned their packets, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Primary Sources to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. Students read, highlight and take notes, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Draw conclusions about the life of the woman.

Step Three: Students begin their research by using the resources from this lesson. If necessary, review and model searching in the Library of Congress online collections.

Teacher Led Discussion (One 45 minute class period)

Draw conclusions about a nineteenth century woman in America (students will use the group notes to participate in this class discussion).

  1. Generalities about a woman in each region (Northeast, Southeast and West)
  2. Analysis of family life, employment, education and ethnic background.

Possible questions:

  • Describe the daily life of the woman you studied in her region.
  • How did the environment of the region affect the life of the woman you studied
  • Put the life of the woman you studied in a different region. How would her life change?
  • How did education affect the life of the woman you studied?
  • How did the events of the time affect the woman you studied?
  • Compare and contrast the woman you studied to a woman in a different region.
  • What outside forces affected the life of the woman you studied?
  • How much control did the woman you studied have over daily life decisions?

Written Letter

Students will write a letter (in the voice of one of the women they researched) to a person of their choice. The letter should include:

  1. Short reiteration of their profiled woman
  2. Discussion of an important issue in her life and
  3. Personal opinion regarding the issue.

Sample Student Response #1

January 3, 1845

Dearest Family,

I hope this letter finds you in good health. Today I want to alert you to something of the greatest importance. It is with great distress that I must tell you of the awful conditions found at the mills. Please do not think of sending my dear sisters to this wretched place. The mill owners pay us very little for the many hours of hard work we do every day.

As you know my work hours are long. I work 13 hours every day, except for the Sabbath, for this I am paid just one dollar a week. It is true that my breakfast is provided on workdays otherwise I would have nothing to eat.

The working conditions are very unsafe, few days pass without a horrible accident of some sort. Even with all the accidents the mills have increased the rate at which we must work, daily more and more girls are severly injured. I fear for the health of those whi have no access to fresh air, luckily I am near a window and my health remains strong since I breath fresh air.

The mill is an awful place; no one should have to work in these conditions. Please dear sisters do not be tempted to work at these mills. Tell everyone you see just how wretched the mills are and they should do anything else to earn a living. I shall be quitting my job after I receive my week's pay.

With my deepest love,
Lucy Larcom

Sample Student Response #2

June 22, 1856

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dear Mr. President Pierce, I would just like to say first of all that I think that you are doing a fine job as president of our great nation. I am presently a student in Phildelphia. the opportunity for all to be educated is an important part of our society and I hold this close to my heart. I am against slavery in all forms and in my life I work toward its end.

It is in this vein that I ask for a change in how things are in the United States I believe that we should educate all people regardless of race. This is why I am petitioning you to change the law about educating black people. I really believe that slavery should be abolished, but that wish is for another day.

Educating all the races will sooner lead to an equality that can only strengthen our great nation. I know that you are a busy man, but I would be grateful if you could put your attention to this matter. I know that telling individual states what to do might be against your political beliefs, but I do believe that an example must be set for the humanity of our nation. An educated nation is a civilized one and a civilized nation is one of power.

Thank you for your time.

Anna Dickinson


Using primary sources, students will create a presentation about a nineteenth century woman.

Presentation Preparation (Five 45 minute class periods)

Lesson Evaluation

Assess student work according to criteria specified by the teacher or generated in conversation with the students.

  • Oral Presentation
  • Letter
  • Research
  • Analysis


Karen Josten & Mary Pat Phillips