Bass Otis, Mrs. James Madison, ca. 1817. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, 1867.308.
Asher Brown Durand, James Madison, 1835. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.10.
Center for Women's History
Women’s history is American history. Bring it into your classroom with our new curriculum!
Leadership support for Women and the American Story provided by
Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation
The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790–1860
The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790–1860 will be Unit 3 of the completed Women and the American Story survey curriculum, but is the first to be published. Like the exhibition from which it is drawn, this unit presents two important narratives, each presented as a module within the unit. The modules consist of primary resources that include text, images, and artifacts along with life stories that place important themes and developments within the context of individual lives. Could and Should is a collection of quotations that capture the often conflicting messages women received about their rights and behavior. All of these materials are written for students. Teachers’ materials include a background essay, scholar Carol Berkin’s reflection on the history of women’s history, and the Classroom Notes for Module 1 and Module 2, which provide suggested activities and discussion questions.
Module 1, Unofficial Politician: Dolley Madison in Early Washington, explores the tenuousness of early American democracy in the years between the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Recasting the traditional Founding Fathers narrative, it focuses on the contributions of women whose efforts helped develop the young nation and realize the Constitution “on the ground.” During this critical period in American history, women of all social and economic classes sought various avenues for empowerment and activism. At the center of this story is Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison. Often remembered only for her rescue of the White House portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, she was, in fact, the most influential woman in America during this country’s formative years. A national, almost mythic figure, she was a political force at a time when women were excluded from affairs of state.
Module 2 carries the story of American women forward into the decades before the Civil War. Breaking the Rules: Women Reformers, 1800–1860 examines a volatile time, when a surprising number of women ignored strict rules about female behavior to lead and energize the era’s reform movements, especially abolition and women’s rights. The social norms they balked are referred to by historians as the cult of true womanhood, or the cult of domesticity. These norms idealized a submissive woman who stayed well out of public life and focused on home, family, and religion. Challenging these conservative cultural attitudes was far from easy, and often not safe. This module explores the stories of women who did so anyway, in several different arenas and with differing degrees of success.