Utah Women 20/20: New Curriculum Highlights Utah Suffragists

Nov 6, 2018

Teacher's gather for a conference to learn more about using the Better Days 2020 curriculum in their classrooms.
Credit Better Days 2020

In 1920, the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to women. As the 100th anniversary of the amendment approaches, one organization is creating classroom resources to help Utah students learn more about the role the state played in this historic event.

This new curriculum includes photos, journal entries and other primary source documents to give students a first-person perspective on women’s suffrage.

“Sometimes kids will see these big things like the women’s suffrage 1920, the right to vote and they’ll put it away from themselves and they’ll say, ‘Well that happened in DC or over in the East,’ and forget that in our own backyard we have these big things that affect history’s course or everything that happened in our own lives, in our own homes in a sense,” said Krista Gibbons, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at West Jordan Middle School.

Last year Gibbons piloted a new curriculum focused on the role Utah women played in the suffrage movement.

“I was really excited because the curriculum before had just a small, like just a day, where we really didn’t focus in on the women’s suffrage, but the progressive movement,” Gibbons said. “We hit it and then moved on. We didn't really get to go in depth.”

Better Days 2020 is the Utah organization behind the new curriculum. The group is working to educate Utahn’s about influential women in the state’s history.

“I hope that kids and even adults can use this history as a catalyst to thinking about their own roles and making a difference in their own lives and also in the communities around them,” said Naomi Watkins, the education director at Better Days.

“In the news a lot we hear about how Utah is at the bottom for the status of women and many different reports and studies that have come out recently and I think it’s important for not just kids, but all of us to see women pivotal roles making a difference and to remember it is their place make these changes, to be active in their communities,” Watkins said.

Utah's fourth-and seventh-grade students study state history in their social studies classes. The Better Days Curriculum is designed for these age groups.

The lesson plans are available online for anyone to use. Music, journal entries, photographs and other primary sources are ways Gibbons and other teachers can help students better understand the story of suffrage.

“The journal entries really helped the kids,” Gibbons said. “It was not just, ‘Oh here’s a textbook, somebody else’s thoughts,’ but this was that person’s thoughts, their struggles, their anger, their frustrations in that moment.”

These journal entries are what eighth-grader Joshua Ballard remembers from his Utah Studies class.

“It just makes me aware of what other people were thinking at the time, so I can relate to them,’ Ballard said. “It makes me put me in their shoes to see why they did that.”

“It opens up a lot of doors because Utah has such rich documentation and journals and primary sources maps and graphs what not, to take that and then try and really anchor it in a standard,” said Jennie LaFortune, who teaches English at Murray High School.

Her 11th grade English class focuses on American literature where she said studies of the abolition movement and the suffrage movement intersect.

“I want to really infuse the curriculum with our Utah history,” LaFortune said. “So maybe swapping out or adding primary documents by some of these women in the suffrage movement and comparing them, contrasting them with names that I think most Americans are familiar with, like Katie Stanton, Susan B. Anthony. Of course valid, important, but showing them side-by-side comparing, contrasting with our Utah players.”

“This curriculum in and of itself doesn’t just focus on Utah,” Gibbons said. “It does have a lot of Utah, but it also shows how Utah fit into the national scheme. And how we were part of the progressive movement in the women’s suffrage movement all over the United States and helped really up until the 1920s.”

Because of these national connections, Watkins said Better Days 2020 is working on curriculum for fifth-and eleventh-grade classes that examine the national movement in greater depth.

“People might be familiar with the woman who picketed the White House in the late 19-teens,” Watkins said. “They were called the silent sentinels with Alice Paul. We found Utah women who were part of that picketing line who were actually jailed and imprisoned and tortured during what is now called the night of terror.”

While uncovering overlooked events in women's history is important, LaFortune said it is also important to remember the other stories missing from classrooms and history books.

“The women’s story, while it does seem to be given a little more of a platform and what not, it still kind of echoes to the fact that there are absolute populations and groups whose story, narrative and history is very, very marginalized,” LaFortune said. “So we have to be more conscious as educators and citizens to ask questions of where those stories are, to seek information and documents that bring that to the forefront.”