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Bringing Women’s History into the Classroom: The 2016 George Washington Teacher Institute

by Jackie Jecha, Manager of Library Education Programs, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon on

Since 1999, the George Washington Teacher Institute at Mount Vernon provides teachers across the country with historical thinking skills and in-depth content about George Washington and the 18th century. The Teacher Institute is comprised of six different residential weeks, each with a lead scholar, teacher facilitator, and a Mount Vernon expert. This year, based on feedback from program alumni, each of the summer teacher programs were revamped to focus on a different thematic approach. We found that in classrooms across the country, teachers are looking for new and interesting ways to teach history, including the incorporation of more women’s history. And, while teachers want to include more women’s history, they weren’t always confident with the content or sources to present it to their students. It was this need that encouraged us to create a week devoted to women’s history entitled Martha Washington and the Women of the 18th Century. [1]

 

Teachers received an in-depth tour of the kitchen at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Interpretive Staff. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

Teachers received an in-depth tour of the kitchen at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Interpretive Staff. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

The Mount Vernon estate is uniquely positioned to offer a women’s week. While Mount Vernon centers around life and legacy of George Washington, if it wasn’t for a group of ambitious women led by Ann Pamela Cunningham called the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) in the 1850s and 1860s purchasing and preserving the historic estate, much of the story of George Washington could have been lost. Though the estate itself may be focused on telling the story of Washington, his story cannot be told without the inclusion of women, including his wife, Martha Washington, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. [2]

 

Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.

Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.

We began our Martha Washington and the Women of the 18th Century week with a planning session featuring the Mount Vernon Education staff, our lead scholar, Dr. Carol Berkin (Presidential Professor of History, Emerita, City University of New York), a teacher facilitator, and a Mount Vernon expert. During the planning meeting, we concluded that we would use the week to tell the story of all women-including the enslaved population and American Indians-using Martha Washington’s biography as a chronological guide. The ultimate goal of the institute was to create a solid foundation of women’s 18th century history and provide classroom strategies that teachers can immediately implement in their classrooms.

The four-day, four-night institute began by examining women’s history methodology to explain the evolution of the current historiography, specifically acknowledging the sources and scholarship that have given a voice and agency to women of the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we started to see the emergence of colonial women’s history through scholars such as Mary Beth Norton, Carol Berkin, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. We know that the voices of women are not always as easy to find as men, but we can locate them in both written sources and material culture. Throughout the week, we highlighted those sources – including diaries, probate records, and cloth samples – and provided strategies for using them in the classroom.

 

Members of the Piscataway Tribe outlined their matrilineal society and discussed the role of women in their modern-day society. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

Members of the Piscataway Tribe outlined their matrilineal society and discussed the role of women in their modern-day society. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

It was important to all of us involved in the planning session that the week did not solely focus on Martha Washington; while she is a big part of the story, the story of women in the 18th century goes beyond Martha’s experience. The story includes the enslaved population that worked and lived at Mount Vernon and throughout the colonies. And, the larger story also includes the American Indians who inhabited the land that Mount Vernon is located upon. On the final full day of the institute, the teachers were joined by members of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians who discussed their history and highlighted their matrilineal society.

During the institute, teachers also received VIP tours of the historic estate. The estate experiences were curated to provide the women’s perspective of specific places on the property. The mansion tour highlighted objects and spaces used by women within the home, both by family members and enslaved workers, while the garden tour examined the private and public lives of women on the estate. Participants received an in-depth tour of the kitchen outbuilding, while the Pioneer Farm tour looked at the experience of women who worked the land, emphasizing that it was women who primarily worked the fields at Mount Vernon.

 

In the Greenhouse, Caroline Brannum (portrayed by Brenda Parker) met with the teachers and discussed life as an enslaved woman at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

On the final day, we looked at the legacy of Martha Washington and the role of 18th century women in revolutionary America. Even though women were committed to the new nation and participated in the revolutionary cause, they still gained no legal or civil rights in the process. Teachers also learned about the leadership and legacy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the governing board that continues to preserve and manage the estate of George Washington in order to use his example of character and leadership to inform and inspire future generations. Since 1858, when the house was first purchased by the MVLA, the Ladies have continued to preserve the mansion, the land surrounding it, and even the land across the Potomac River to keep Washington’s 18th century view intact. The ongoing commitment of the MVLA to preserve and explore Washington’s legacy is also evident in the 2013 opening of the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to encourage additional scholarship and education about Washington through academic fellowships, leadership programs, and teacher professional development.

Our goal by the end of the week was that teachers would have the confidence to bring more women’s history into the classroom through primary sources, including material culture. Over the course of four days, teachers were immersed in women’s history and primary sources to illustrate that Mount Vernon and the late 18th century isn’t just the story of George Washington and the other Founding Fathers, but rather, a holistic story that includes the women who sacrificed just as much – or more – as their male counterparts during the 18th century.

To learn more about the educational programs and resources at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, visit us at http://www.mountvernon.org/education/.

Endnotes:

[1]  Other Teacher Institute themes include George Washington and the Founding of the U.S. Government and Slavery in George Washington’s World.

[2]  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) continues to govern and oversee George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It was the first national historic preservation organization and is the oldest women’s patriotic society in the United States. Today, the Board of Regents consists of twenty-seven women, each one representing a different state.

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