The materials in this two week unit planned for eleventh graders focus on the lives of ordinary working women in the United States as a whole, and specifically in Connecticut, and how they responded to the changing industrial world. Traditional high school U.S. history texts skim lightly over the real world of most people in our past by focusing on military, political, and diplomatic history. That history, which deals with official actions and institutional behavior, necessarily omits ordinary women, for they never played a meaningful part in any of these areas. Thus women have been systematically excluded from the history our students learn. Use of the primary and secondary resources included here will allow you to integrate into your unit on industrialization ordinary workers’ reactions to this complicated process with a focus on the relationship between women workers and economic and technological change, 1880 to 1920.
It is important for students to realize that though women and men have lived in the same country, they have not experienced history in the same way. They should know that, according to the best contemporary scholarship, this different historical experience is based on socially constructed inequalities rather than divinely or naturally ordained roles. The case for social or natural origins will develop from study of the past. Such study will also lead to the discovery of the wide individual variation in what have become stereotyped roles. History should portray the limiting constructs which have impeded women’s power and autonomy and point the way toward equality.
This unit attempts to pose a balance between emphasizing the strengths and accomplishments of women in the past, and the disabilities and constraints suffered by them. Through this analysis, it will become clear that women’s individual and collective ability to act has been successful in certain areas, but has been stymied in others by the constructs of the larger society.
A focus on the years between 1880 and 1920 in the United States and Connecticut gives us a time when women’s roles were changing not only in the labor force, but in other realms as well: in politics in the fight for suffrage, and in the family in the struggle for access to birth control. Most importantly, it provides a way to integrate women into the U.S. history curriculum in a subject area that most teachers teach.