Beyond Add Women and Stir: Ideas for Teaching about Women, Gender, and Reconstruction

Beyond Add Women and Stir: Ideas for Teaching about Women, Gender, and Reconstruction

“The Fifteenth Amendment, Celebrated May 19th, 1870.” James C. Beard (designer), Thomas Kelly (publisher), 1870. Courtesy of the Winterthur Library.

For most folks teaching the U.S. survey, just getting to Reconstruction can feel like an accomplishment. The convention of dividing U.S. history surveys at the Civil War often means the postwar period ends up wedged into the last distracted days of the term. Calls to integrate women more fully into how we teach Reconstruction to undergraduates can sound like an invitation to add complexity and scope at precisely the moment in the term when it is least welcome. Even in courses dedicated to the Civil War era, Reconstruction’s messiness can feel like a frustrating sequel to the narrative coherence of the war’s progress and resolution.

Despite the constraints, I want to suggest that it is both vital and possible to help students explore women’s roles in the era’s redefinition of citizenship and sovereignty. As my historiographical survey in the March 2018 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era demonstrates, putting women at the center of our study of this period doesn’t just enrich the narrative; it reveals different registers of political action and raises important questions about we understand historical change.[1] What follows are two suggestions for how teachers might introduce students to some of these insights, even with limited time.

If you have twenty minutes: Suffrage, Citizenship, and Contests over Inclusion

1. Reading and looking: In class, ask students to read the text of the Fifteenth Amendment and examine Thomas Kelley’s lithograph, “The Fifteenth Amendment, Celebrated May 19th 1870,” which depicts celebrations of the amendment that took place in Baltimore, Maryland.[2] (~5 minutes)

2. Think/pair/share: What do these two sources reveal about what the Fifteenth Amendment meant for African American men and African American women? What do they suggest about the relationship between suffrage and African Americans’ expectations regarding citizenship? Ask students to reflect on the materials individually for 2 minutes and discuss with another student for 3 minutes. If helpful, ask them to describe how men and women are depicted in the lithograph and what these depictions suggest about contemporary ideas about how gender inflected citizenship. Gather their contributions as a class (on the board, in a GoogleDoc, etc). (~5 minutes)

3. Gather and contextualize: Use students’ reflections as the foundation for presenting the conflict around women’s exclusion from suffrage and tensions among abolitionists and women’s rights activists, centering on Frances Harper’s response.[3] For students who already have the language of intersectionality this episode often resonates with contemporary concerns. For those who do not, it is an opportunity to introduce the concept in a historical context that illustrates the challenges of sustaining political coalitions and implementing reformist visions, even in a context of political transformation. (10 minutes)

4. Going further: For more ideas on teaching feminists’ New Departure that followed this controversy, consult Kathi Kern and Lina Levstik’s 2012 Journal of the Civil War Era article, “Teaching the New Departure: The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony.”[4]

If you have an hour: Freedom, Citizenship, and Gender

Students are usually quick to appreciate the relationship between African American men’s military service and their postwar claims to full rights as citizens. This creates a useful opening for discussing what those ideas meant for women. Thavolia Glymph’s article “Rose’s Civil War,” from the December 2013 issue of the JCWE, illuminates how those connections constrained but did not dictate enslaved women’s wartime strategies. The article provides a compelling examination of one enslaved woman’s participation in the perilous process of self-emancipation that also sheds light on the archival challenges of uncovering women’s actions. Having students put Glymph’s article in conversation with select primary sources (such as Frederick Douglass’s July 6, 1863 speech promoting black enlistment and brief documents from the Freedmen and Southern Society Project) facilitates students’ explorations of how military exigency shaped men and women’s wartime experiences in ways that also influenced postwar citizenship. Discussing these texts together provides an opportunity to share with students how historians of women and gender continue to expand our understanding of where politics happened, who participated, and how.

1. Before the class meeting, have students prepare two readings: Thavolia Glymph, “Rose’s War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War” and Frederick Douglass, Address at a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, Philadelphia.[5] While Douglass’s speech is often quoted (“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U. S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”) read in its entirety, it suggests the complex political stakes of military service, including for African American women. (“Do I hear you say still that you are a son, and want your mother provided for in your absence?–a husband, and want your wife care for?—a brother, and want your sister secured against want? I honor you for your solicitude. Your mothers, your wives and your sisters ought to be cared for . . .”)

Questions to invite students to consider:

– Union policy shaped the composition of Union forces, but so did other factors. How did geography determine the ways African Americans could participate in the war? How did gender?

– Glymph asserts that enslaved women’s roles in the Civil War have been overlooked. What does she suggest accounts for this oversight?

– Addressing his 1863 audience Douglass stated “we are American citizens.” Glymph, writing in 2013, notes of enslaved women in the war that “they were not citizens.” What’s going on in these different claims? Is there a gap between these assertions? What accounts for it if so?

2. In class, in small groups, assign students one of the documents below. In their small groups ask students to read the documents and discuss what their document reveals about African American women’s expectations in the wake of emancipation. (~15 minutes) Have each group give a two-minute report summarizing their document and the expectations or demands it seems to convey. (10 minutes)

– Patsy Leach’s 25 March 1865 affidavit. (Her affidavit highlights the risks of military service, including for family members who remained on plantations.)

– Harriet Hill’s 5 February 1866 petition. (Hill was seeking the return of her children and compensation for their labor. She cast her demands as a right.)

– Anna Irwin’s 27 February 1866 statement. (Irwin and other women provided an accounting of their work as washerwomen for the Union and made demands for compensation.)

– Hucksters’ petition, 21 May 1866. (In an appeal that emphasized their loyalty to the U.S., women working as hucksters sought relief from local policies undermining their ability to earn a living.)

– Proceedings in Loucy Jane Boyd vs. L.W. Willis, 24 May 1866. (Boyd sought remedy from the courts after having been raped by Willis.)

3. Invite entire class to put all the readings into conversation with each other. Questions you might consider raising include:

– While Frederick Douglass’s speech is relatively well known, the individual documents you read are not, and indeed it took a massive scholarly project of archival review and publication to make them available to us today. What accounts for the relative visibility of one source and the relative invisibility of others generated at the same time?

– We often think about citizenship as a category defined in law, most famously through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Yet in recent years historians have drawn attention to how women and men shaped the meaning of citizenship through popular political action and by making demands on the state. Using these documents as a guide, what do you think were key features of citizenship for their authors?

– Rose of Pineville did not survive the Civil War. What kinds of demands and actions might she have engaged in after the war if she had?

Women’s history is American history. While demographics alone seem to dictate that we integrate women more fully into how we teach about the past, they do not resolve the challenges that attend actually doing so. Reconstruction is a particularly fruitful context for thinking about how to approach these challenges because it is a period that shapes the boundaries of our contemporary political debates in so many ways: our understandings of citizenship and equality, our expectations regarding the power and the limitations of the state, and our sense of the persistence of violence, racism, and political exclusion.

Inviting students to think about how women participated in Reconstruction provides an opportunity for connecting the past and the present by encouraging them to see the seams in historical narratives—how the questions we ask and where we look in trying to answer them can fundamentally change the narrative. It also invites students and teachers to reflect on continuities than can feel like anomalies: the messiness of politics and the precariousness of coalitions. For women, Reconstruction, even at its height, was an incomplete revolution that nevertheless held enormous potential, not least by virtue of the dialogic relationship between popular politics and state actions it laid bare.


[1] Catherine A. Jones, “Women, Gender, and the Boundaries of Reconstruction” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 1 (March 2018): 111-131, accessed April 17, 2018,

[2] For additional information on the lithograph, visit Amanda Hinckle, “Celebrating a Milestone: A Lithograph Honoring the Fifteenth Amendment,” Unreserved, the Winterthur Museum and Library Blog,

[3] “Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association,” The Revolution, May 27, 1869, Internet Archive, accessed April 17, 2018,; C.C. O’Brien, “‘The White Women All Go for Sex’: Frances Harper on Suffrage, Citizenship, and the Reconstruction South” African American Review 43, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 605–20; Faye E. Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[4] Kathi Kern and Linda Levstik, “Teaching the New Departure: The United States vs. Susan B. Anthony,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 1 (March 2012): 127-141, accessed April 14, 2018, See also Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

[5] Thavolia Glymph, “Rose’s War and the Gendered Politics of a Slave Insurgency in the Civil War,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 4 (December 2013): 501–32, accessed April 14, 2018,; W. D. Kelley, Anna E. Dickinson, and Frederick Douglass, Address at a Meeting for the Promotion of Colored Enlistments, Philadelphia, July 6, 1863, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, accessed April 17, 2018, Douglass’s speech is also available in excerpted form in Christian G. Samito, ed., Changes in Law and Society during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 115-119.

Catherine Jones

Catherine Jones is associate professor of History at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia (Charlottesville, 2015). She is currently working on a book about the incarceration of children in the post-Civil War era.

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