Lesson Two (three activities): Tocqueville’s observations on the role of women in American society

1. Students can compare and contrast Tocqueville’s view of American women with accounts of women’s lives drawn from primary source documents of the time. Tocqueville noted numerous differences between women in France and the United States – he seems to be both impressed and perplexed by the forward behavior, restraint, lack of shyness, equality, independence, formal education, and knowledge about worldly things among American women.

Questions to consider include:

  • How accurate was the picture of women in Democracy in America?
  • What parts of women's lives did Tocqueville and Beaumont miss?
  • Were there classes of women missing entirely? (Teachers may guide students to other contemporary accounts. Tocqueville and Beaumont gave passing notice to the Shakers and women in revivals and camp meetings. Students may also notice that women in lower classes were completely left out, such as mill workers in Massachusetts, plantation mistresses and female slaves).

2. Have students work in groups to develop role-play characters based on the source readings. Boys can assume the role of husbands or fathers during the era, or they may do research for the girls to role play. Have some students play the role of European women of the time. Others may assume the roles of American women of various social classes and racial or ethnic backgrounds.

Students may have to do additional research on other European travelers who wrote their accounts of American life. (Teachers may want to direct students to the accounts of Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, among others.) (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/DETOC/FEM/education.htm )

Questions to consider include:

  • How did women of the era behave socially? What were the differences Tocqueville saw in the behavior of American women and European women?
  • What was considered to be “proper” behavior and dress, at home and in public?
  • How were women expected to interact with men? What social or religious mores guided women’s behavior and appearance?

This rubric (56K PDF) can provide a basis for evaluating these role-plays.

3. As an extension activity, have students compare the roles of women at various stages in American history. Among the possible touchstones are the abolitionist/suffrage movement (post link to the AAS, Assumption College web site http://www.assumption.edu/whw/); women’s involvement in home front effort during both World Wars (http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/homefront/index.html); and the rise of feminism in the post-war years, culminating in the equal rights amendment of the 1970s. (http://www.equalrightsamendment.org/era.htm)

Questions to consider include:

  • How have popular perceptions of women’s role changed throughout American history?
  • Do you see any similarities between the women Tocqueville observed and women today? If so, what are they? What are the differences?