The Record - May 1998

Hill History

Richard Hunt, Editor

Our Mothers Before Us: A New Teaching Resource

By Richard Hunt

Jayne Karsten, teacher at the Key School in 

Annapolis, Maryland, speaks at U.S. Capitol

Jayne Karsten, teacher at the Key School in Annapolis, Maryland, speaks at U.S. Capitol. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich holds publication.

A four-year project at NARA's Center for Legislative Archives has unearthed twelve thousand documents written by women to Congress. Project directors Lucinda Robb, Martha Grove, and Alysha Black, with the assistance of seventy interns and volunteers, combed through twenty thousand cubic feet of records searching for women's writings from the beginning of the federal government in 1789 to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. A selection of these historic documents has been published by the Foundation for the National Archives in an educational resource for high school students. Funded by private-sector support, Our Mothers Before Us: Women and Democracy, 1789-1920 will be distributed initially to high schools in Texas, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Special ceremonies and press conferences announced the publication of Our Mothers Before Us during Women's History Month. A March 26, 1998, program at the Capitol was hosted by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who presented copies of the publication to the women members of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Speaker also presented the first copy for District of Columbia schools to General Julius Becton, the CEO of the Washington school system. First Lady of Texas Laura Bush and Our Mothers Before Us project director Lucinda Robb were the featured speakers at an April 3, 1998, program at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas, where the Texas Education Agency received the first copy for Texas schools. A similar event is planned for Nashville in June.

Our Mothers Before Us features a unique collection of facsimile petitions to illustrate the important role women played in the civic life of the nation long before they won the right to vote. The petitions are from famous women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and from ordinary women who joined together to make their voices heard in the halls of Congress. These historic materials chronicle the vital role women played in shaping the course of American democracy through women's involvement in the antislavery movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction, Progressive Era reforms, and woman suffrage.

Our Mothers Before Us provides students with a unique opportunity to study and interpret never-before-published documents from the historical records of the U.S. Congress. Period paintings grace the covers of individual units within Our Mothers Before Us and set the stage for the historical content. Each unit includes historical overviews, document essays, teaching strategies, and instructional materials. Our Mothers Before Us also includes a glossary, a list of suggested readings, and an impressive fold-out time-line that situates women and their civic activities within the scope of American history.

The Center's staff worked closely with leading historians and history teachers around the country to develop a resource that complements standard high school curricula. Master teacher Charlie Flanagan, from the Key School in Maryland, has tested the materials with his students and predicts that it will be "a tremendously valuable document package for teachers." University of Maryland Professor Robyn Muncy calls the publication "an impressive resource for middle school and high school teachers" that helps "to teach students how historians reconstruct the past, how historians DO history."

The Our Mothers Before Us publication is the result of public-private partnerships funded through the Foundation for the National Archives, a public charity. The Fannie Mae Foundation and Southwest Airlines generously provided national support for the project. Additional support was provided by AT&T, the LBJ Family Foundation, the Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication, Inc., Nestlé USA, Inc., and the Oracle Corporation. The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston, provided funding for the distribution of Our Mothers Before Us to high schools in Texas, and Mrs. Jeanette Cantrell Rudy provided for the distribution to Tennessee high schools. The donor for Washington, D.C., was The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital has underwritten distribution in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The Foundation for the National Archives continues to seek private funding for distribution in additional states. Individual copies of Our Mothers Before Us may be purchased from the National Archives Book Store (1-866-272-6272) for $59.95 plus an additional $5.00 for shipping and handling.

Our Mothers Before Us is the second in a series of educational resources produced by the Center for Legislative Archives and the Foundation for the National Archives. The first, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, has been distributed through the foundation with private-sector funding to schools in eight states and is also available for purchase.

Our Mothers Before Us publications

Richard Hunt is an archivist with NARA's Center for Legislative Archives.