Analyzing Different Perspectives in Historical Narratives

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson explores ways to ask questions about primary source documents. We will learn about the nineteenth-century women's rights movement. Then we will analyze three representative documents by looking at how each author presents the topic from a unique perspective.

Primary and Secondary Sources

It can be frustrating having to learn about historical figures and events from second hand sources, but until somebody invents a time machine, the best resources we have are documents penned by the people who witnessed these important events, called primary sources. An advantage of primary over secondary source materials, like history books and encyclopedias, is that we can learn about history from those who were there. But at the same time, we have to admit that the stories people tell aren't always completely true, and two people can have completely different perspectives regarding how events occurred. Without a historian to mediate, it falls on the reader to be able to identify bias and to tell the difference between opinion and fact.

Perspectives on Women's Rights

Upon encountering primary sources, one of the first steps is contextualizing the document in its broader historical framework. Next, identify the author and his or her purpose for writing. Asking questions like 'when was this document written?' and 'why did the author write the document?' will get you started on the path to answering the question of what perspective the document presents. Lastly, we seek to interpret the meaning of the document. Ask yourself, 'what does the document say?' and how does the perspective in this document differ from the prevailing view?

This lesson explores four important documents from American history that present different perspectives on the women's rights and suffrage movement. We will interpret historical views about gender by analyzing differing perspectives in three documents: The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments (1848), Sojourner Truth's speech Ain't I a Woman? (1851), and John Stuart Mills' The Subjection of Women (1869).

Founding Documents of Women's Rights

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Stanton and Anthony

The nineteenth-century women's rights movement attracted members of American society who disagreed with the prevailing assumptions about gender roles. Society taught that women were physically inferior and less intelligent than men and were best suited for raising children and domestic work. Historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth were vocal in the debate over the woman's place in society, called the woman question.

Historians recognize the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering of like-minded reformers organized by Mott and Stanton in upstate New York, as the groundbreaking event that launched the women's rights movement. The convention concluded with the signing of a treatise. Written in the style of the Declaration of Independence, it outlined the foundational ideas of the movement.

'The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.'

Outlining rights that the suffragettes wanted to have, the Declaration of Sentiments frames them as accusations directed to the patriarchal powers that ran the American government and society. This document was clearly written by women. The authors were as angry at the men in power as the American colonists were of the British who governed them.

Contrasting Perspectives

Sojourner Truth, a figure in the abolition movement, spoke out against gender inequality in an 1851 speech entitled 'Ain't I a Woman?:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman?

Truth brings the perspective of a black woman the fight for women's rights, unique since most reformers in the movement were wealthy white women. In order to combat the rhetoric of anti-feminists, Truth presented herself as an example of women's strength, courage, and intelligence.

Sojourner Truth
sojourner truth

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