America’s First Ladies on Twentieth-Century Issues

by Tim Bailey

Unit Overview

Over the course of three to four lessons the students will analyze five primary source documents. These documents are the abridged transcripts of speeches by five of our country’s first ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, and Hillary Clinton. All of the speeches address the subject of rights: women’s rights, human rights, or both. Students will closely analyze these primary sources with the purpose of not only understanding the literal message but also inferring the more subtle messages. Students’ understanding will be determined using a graphic organizer as well as a dramatic culminating activity.

Lesson 1

Objective

In this lesson the students will carefully analyze two speeches. The first of these speeches was given by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948. The second speech was delivered by Betty Ford in 1975. A graphic organizer will be used to help facilitate, and demonstrate, their understanding of the speeches through answering a series of critical questions and summarizing parts of the speeches.

Introduction

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a vigorous champion of human rights. During her husband’s unprecedented twelve years as president, she was an advocate for many worthy causes. After her husband’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt did not back away from her commitment to those causes; in fact she pushed the new United Nations to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy despite the obstructions of the Soviet Union. These struggles for human rights and against Soviet policy signaled some of the first chilling effects of the Cold War.

In 1975 First Lady Betty Ford found herself in the middle of a controversy surrounding the proposed adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment was designed to guarantee that “equality of rights” could not be “denied or abridged” on the basis of sex. Thirty-five of the thirty-eight states needed to ratify the amendment were in place by 1979, but the deadline to pass the amendment had arrived. A shift toward a more conservative America in the late 1970s spelled the end of the amendment.

Materials

Procedures

At the teacher’s discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Hand out Eleanor Roosevelt, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” September 28, 1948 (abridged).
  2. The teacher then “share reads” with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  3. Hand out the Graphic Organizer: Analyzing the Speech. Answer Critical Question #1 as a whole class. Make sure that the students use and cite evidence from the text to answer the question. The purpose of the summary section is for students to put the answer into their own words and demonstrate understanding of both the question and the answer.
  4. Students will now answer the rest of the questions.
  5. Discuss different interpretations developed by the students or student groups.
  6. Repeat the process with Betty Ford, “Remarks to the International Women’s Year Conference,” October 25, 1975 (abridged).
  7. If the students are confident with the process you do not have to have the class answer Critical Question #1 as a whole group.
  8. Discuss different interpretations developed by the students or student groups.

Lesson 2

Objective

In this lesson the students will carefully analyze three speeches. The first of these speeches was delivered by First Lady Nancy Reagan in 1986. The second speech was delivered by First Lady Barbara Bush in 1990, and the third was given by First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1995. A graphic organizer will be used to help facilitate, and demonstrate, the students’ understanding of the speeches through answering a series of critical questions and summarizing parts of the speeches.

Introduction

On September 14, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and his wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan, appeared on national television to announce a new wide-reaching anti-drug policy. The national anti-drug campaign would be known by a phrase the First Lady herself coined: “Just Say No.” The impact of the anti-drug effort is hard to measure but is generally thought to have had some positive impact and certainly raised awareness of the issue, although at a considerable price tag.

When First Lady Barbara Bush was chosen as the commencement speaker at Wellesley, a women’s college, many thought that it was inappropriate. After all, the First Lady had dropped out of college to marry George Bush, the future president. It was felt, and actually protested by many of the college’s students, that she was not chosen for her own merits but only because she was the wife of an important man. However, the First Lady delivered a memorable speech in addressing the role of women in American society.

In 1995 First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing as the honorary chair of the US delegation. The Chinese government opposed having the conference in Beijing and strictly limited which of its citizens could attend. The site for the First Lady’s speech was limited to a small auditorium to her obvious dismay; she walked onto the stage and said, “This is humiliating. This is all they offered the women of the world? I am disgusted.” Her impassioned speech became the talk of not only the conference but much of the globe as well.

Materials

Procedures

At the teacher’s discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Hand out Nancy Reagan, “Just Say No” Speech, September 14, 1986 (abridged).
  2. The teacher then “share reads” with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English Language Learners (ELL).
  3. Hand out the Graphic Organizer Analyzing the Speech. Make sure that the students use and cite evidence from the text to answer the questions. The purpose of the summary section is for students to put the answer into their own words and demonstrate understanding of both the question and the answer.
  4. Discuss different interpretations developed by the students or student groups.
  5. Repeat the process with Barbara Bush, “Choices and Change: Commencement Address,” June 1, 1990 (abridged).
  6. After the class has had a chance to discuss different interpretations developed by the students or student groups, have the students analyze the last speech: Hillary Clinton, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights,” September 5, 1995 (abridged).
  7. Discuss different interpretations developed by the students or student groups.

Lessons 3–4

Objective

In this lesson(s) the students will demonstrate what they have learned through their analysis of the first ladies’ speeches by writing and then staging a dramatic presentation of a mock news conference. The writing of the news conference script, as well as the actual presentation to the class, will serve to reinforce the major issues raised in the speeches that the students have studied over the past two lessons.

Introduction

In this lesson the students will be divided into groups of four to six students. One of the students will play the role of first lady while the rest of the group will be reporters that will ask the “first lady” questions about her speech. This group presentation is a scripted production. All of the questions as well as the first lady’s answers will be written as a group. The answers to the questions should be taken, as much as possible, from the actual speech itself.

Materials

Procedures

  1. Divide the class into groups of four to six students.
  2. Each group is either assigned or chooses one of the five first ladies’ speeches. It is best if all five speeches are used before doubling up on any of the speeches.
  3. Students select who will portray the first lady and the rest of the group members will play reporters at the news conference.
  4. Hand out the Graphic Organizer: The News Conference. The students build both the questions and the answers to those questions using this form. The students should be careful to cite evidence from the text for the answers given by the first lady. The questions should highlight the major issues brought forth in the speech.
  5. Presentation:
  • The “first lady” delivers the speech.
  • The “reporters” raise their hands and are selected by the first lady to answer their questions. If possible have the students watch a recording of an actual presidential news conference prior to this activity.
  • This continues until all of the questions have been asked, one per reporter, or if you would like, the students could script follow-up questions, if time permits.
  1. Repeat the process with all of the groups. This may mean going into another class period to allow time for all of the presentations, as well as time to debrief the experience.
  2. Have the class debrief the presentations. Which were the most effective? What made them effective? How could the presentations have been improved?
  3. Essay Extension: The students could compare and contrast the different speeches with a common theme. For example, they could compare and contrast Betty Ford’s speech with Barbara Bush’s speech as to the role of women in American society. Another essay topic could be to analyze the rhetorical style used in the different speeches, comparing Eleanor Roosevelt’s to Nancy Reagan’s, for example.

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