Putting It All Together
In this lesson, students have examined the protests that the National Woman’s Party (NWP) carried out in Lafayette Park in front of the White House between 1917 and 1920 to secure for all American women the right to vote. These protests asserted the women’s rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and paved the way for thousands of citizens and others to present their causes to the President on his own doorstep. The following activities will help students integrate and expand on what they have learned.
Activity 1: Following in the Women’s Footsteps
The NWP was one of the first organizations to use Lafayette Park as a stage for carrying their protests about government policies to the president, but not the last. Ask the students to look at the “Citizen’s Soapbox/President’s Park: A History of Protest at the White House” website. This website, created by students, discusses a number of protests that have taken place at the White House, in addition to the women’s suffrage campaign. Divide the students into small groups and ask each group to take one of the protests and find out more about it. Ask them to compare the one they have studied to the suffrage campaign and report back to the whole class. How was it the same? How did it differ?
Activity 2: Planning for Protest
The National Park Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, has responsibility for taking care of Lafayette Park and for protecting the rights of all of the people who want to use it. This is not always an easy job. Many protests have taken place in the park since the women’s suffrage campaign of 1917 to 1920. In addition to those described on the “Citizen’s Soapbox” website, citizens and foreign nationals also demonstrate in Lafayette Park about issues or events occurring outside the United States. These demonstrations call attention to the situations, events, or issues happening around the world which the demonstrating individuals believe the United States should be aware of and become involved in solving or addressing. At other times, when foreign heads of state are visiting the White House, demonstrators on all sides of issues occurring in that nation ask for permission to demonstrate in Lafayette Park or on the White House sidewalk.
By the 1980s, some protesters were maintaining continuous vigils with elaborate semi-permanent signs and displays. Tourists complained that the large signs blocked their view of the White House. Ask the class to discuss how they would go about making decisions that would balance the rights of the protesters to free speech and the rights of citizens to enjoy a public park and see the home of their president. After the discussion, tell the students that what the Park Service eventually did was to limit each protester to two non-hand carried signs, to restrict the size of the signs to less than four feet by four feet, and to require the protester to remain with the sign(s) at all times. Ask the students whether they think that solution was a reasonable compromise.
Activity 3: First Amendment Rights
When the NWP staged its protests, there were many unanswered questions about what the First Amendment protected. Does freedom of speech protect only spoken words or does it also include actions? Should there be any limits on free speech in a democracy? Does the government have the right to set conditions on freedom of assembly in public spaces? Does the First Amendment protect people’s right to join any group they choose?
During the course of the 20th century, U.S. Supreme Court decisions gradually provided answers to these questions. The process was difficult, because people have very deep feelings about many of the issues involved and disagree strongly.
Divide the students into groups and ask each group to select one right mentioned in the First Amendment. Have them conduct research to identify important Supreme Court cases dealing with that right. They can find useful information in some of the websites and books listed in the Supplementary Resources section of this lesson. Ask each group to select one particular case and to write up the most important arguments used by both sides. Ask them to hold one or more mock trials, defending their positions in front of the whole class. Ask the class to reach a decision and then discuss why they agreed or disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision.
Activity 4: Women and Violence
The protests of the British suffragettes eventually turned violent. That was one of the reasons many men and women, including the leaders of National American Woman Suffrage Association, opposed what they saw as the radical policies of the NWP. The right of peaceable assembly is one of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the NWP protesters never resorted to violence, but they often met with violence from onlookers. Ask the students to discuss the role that violence played in the NWP suffrage campaign. What do they think would have happened if the pickets, when arrested, had simply paid their fines and gone home? What might have been different if the prison authorities had treated the prisoners well?
Some students may want to study other non-violent campaigns for political change, such as Mohandas Gandhi’s campaign for Indian independence from Great Britain in the early 20th century or the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. How did they resemble the women’s suffrage campaign? How did they differ? Were the efforts of the authorities to suppress freedom of expression successful in any of these cases?
Activity 5: First Amendment Rights in the Local Community
Have students try to identify disputes that have occurred in the local community pertaining to rights identified in the First Amendment. Maybe the community was divided over separation of church and state, laws relating to equality and justice, medical choices, or other issues. One good way to find examples is to ask their parents or long-term residents. Disputes of this kind continue to be painful and divisive for many years and it may be difficult to get people to talk about them. These difficulties themselves may help students understand how important and how controversial First Amendment rights can be. They might also want to consider alternative ways of resolving disputes.
Are there places in the community associated with these disputes? Ask the students if they think these places should be recognized or preserved. Hold a discussion about whether it is important to commemorate painful community events or whether it is better to forget about them as soon as possible.