Expanding Rights in American Democracy — Coalitions, Conflict, & Controversy

byMark A. Hartung


In his book Unfinished Business Michael Klarman illustrates the idea that the expansion of rights is not a steady or even progression. It is characterized instead by fits and starts, steps forward and steps backwards. Although Klarman writes about the African American Civil Rights movement, the same phenomenon can be seen in other movements as well. Regardless of the specific issue or struggle the expansion of rights in the United States has not been a straight line. Why? Because American democracy is difficult and messy. People need to form and maintain coalitions that work together to achieve goals, and people can also be difficult and messy. (1)

This unit will focus on the struggle to seek justice and expand rights within a democratic society including the reasons for and challenges of working together with other people and groups. My students will be investigating both 19th Century and present day issues about the expansion of rights in the United States. This will help them see the challenges and difficulties in accomplishing progress. In order to strengthen their critical and historical thinking ability students will be asked to make connections between past and present events using multiple historical thinking skills such as the ability to determine historical significance, ideas about change and continuity, and how the study of history helps one to operate in and understand the present.  Students will interact with both primary and secondary sources, take part in collaborative activities and participate in direct instruction as well.

I currently teach at Hoover Middle School in San Jose, California. Students from the downtown area make up a diverse student body of approximately 1,100.  Roughly 67% of our students are from low-income families and  approximately 30% are identified as English Language Learners. The majority are students of color with Hispanic students making up roughly 80% of the total and ~10% are other students of color. Although this unit is written with my students in mind it is broad enough to be adapted for other classrooms looking at issues of civics and government.

Because many of my students identify as belonging to a minority group that is affected by injustice, studying the struggle to expand rights in a democracy will be relevant and engaging to them. Eighth graders are typically very sensitive to things they think are unfair, so this study about injustice will be relatable. Making connections between a present day issue and the historical context will reinforce and increase that relevance. Students will be examining the struggle toward equality of the Transgender community and comparing that with the struggle for the abolition of slavery and expansion of women’s rights in the early and mid 1800s. Students will be asked to think about how groups work together to expand rights. What brings groups together and what issues drive them apart?

Content Matter Discussion

Content Matter Introduction

The structure that students will use to engage with this unit is a progression starting with the present, to the past, and then back to the present. Having already learned about the creation and structure of the U.S. Constitution when they begin this unit,  students will share at least a beginning knowledge of the disparity in the enjoyment of rights by different groups. Furthermore many of my own students will already have an internal knowledge of this based on their own or their family’s experiences.

First they will study contemporary issues surrounding the struggle to expand rights for those that identify as a part of the Transgender community. Using this relevant contemporary issue as a backdrop, students will examine the idea of factions and coalitions, elements of the political process, and the idea of government institutions being biased towards the status quo. A framework for thinking about how factions form coalitions and can be successful will be presented to students.

Next students will learn about historical examples of two different reform movements interacting, the Abolition movement and the Women’s Rights movement. The interplay between these groups will illustrate how coalitions can come together and then break apart to show students how difficult it is to make changes in a democracy when groups have different goals and priorities. Students will see what the internal struggles were, then examine what areas of concern they shared, where they differed, and what outside forces worked to pull them apart after a period of cooperation.

The third step in my students’ journey will be to compare the experiences of the Abolition/Women’s Rights movements of the 19th Century with the struggle for Transgender rights in the 20th and 21st Century. Are they similar, and if so in what ways? Are the different and if so in what ways? What conclusions can be drawn from the answers to these questions using the historical thinking skills as a framework?

The final step in this progression is for students to wrap up this unit by doing research on a contemporary struggle for rights that they select and review what is happening through the lens of this new learning. Are groups working together in spite of or because of their different goals, viewpoints and priorities? What strategies or solutions could my students propose that may come out of their experiences with this unit, can they apply what they have learned to a present day reform movement or struggle and discuss possible solutions?

The Struggle for Transgender Rights

Students will begin this unit looking at a contemporary issue that illustrates the difficulties in the struggle for justice. Expanding rights to people and groups that do not have them is difficult because people do not think with one mind. Many voices can be powerful when combined but deciding on the message is not necessarily a simple process. This is as true with the struggle for Transgender rights as it is with any other equal rights movement.

To illustrate Klarman’s point, some efforts to broaden protections for the Transgender community were begun under the Obama administration which sought to interpret the phrase ‘on the basis of sex’ to include gender identity. Under this broad interpretation trans people were assumed to be protected by and included in the many provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 (sometimes referred to as “Obamacare”). Many would interpret this as a win for trans rights and equality. According to the New York Times, however, the Trump administration is working to reverse this broad interpretation and will no longer include gender identity as a basis for sex discrimination complaints. (2)

Those who are working towards equality for transgender people worry that this new interpretation would allow and/or encourage health care workers to deny treatment to transgender people. They warn that it tilts the “civil rights landscape away from patients who may be subject to discrimination and towards clinicians who have objections to treating them…” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality states in the Times article that transgender people are already discriminated against when they “are turned away from E.R.s, dismissed by insurers and mocked by untrained hospital staff, all while trying to seek the care every American deserves.” (3)

Based on this and other issues (trans participation in the military, for example) one can see why the transgender community would want to advance the struggle for an expansion of rights and equal treatment. One can easily find evidence, however, that although many voices can be united for change finding one unified voice or message can be a challenge.

One example is the tension in 2012 between the LGBT community at large and its political arm the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). According to the Huffington Post the two groups were at odds over what strategy to pursue even as they both worked towards equal rights. Many of the grassroots members and supporters were pushing for what has been called a “one-bill” strategy - creating, pushing for, and passing one piece of legislation that would prohibit discrimination against transgender people (similar to a the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 or the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s). The HRC instead wanted to focus on multiple smaller issues such as employment-nondiscrimination, pay equity, anti-bullying and safe-schools laws; rather than push for a comprehensive discrimination bill. (4)

The Huffington Post reported that large dollar donors had set up the HRC and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force as privately held corporations without shareholders or voting members. Because of this structure the organizations that were mainly responsible for managing and organizing the fight for equal rights were also being accused of being non-responsive to the needs of the very people that they were set up for fight for. In addition to the issues with HRC it was reported that the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus also refused to follow a one-bill strategy and instead filed, in the words of the author, a “disorganized array” of legislation. (5)

The 2012 article is not the only source that reports disunity in the push for increasing rights for transgender people. An article that ran in The Advocate referred to the HRC as a “white man’s club” based on an internal diversity report that criticized the group for having leadership that was primarily gay, white, and male. In addition the report noted that the trans staff of the HRC routinely felt ‘tokenized’ and that female and lesbian workers had reported more than one instance of sexual harassment at the hands of male workers. (6)

A 2007 article in the Daily Emerald notes that a 2007 bill calling for equality specifically left out Trans people altogether, while an article published in The Blade notes that the legal challenge to Proposition 8 (the California referendum on same sex marriage) was filed by the HRC over the protests of other LGBT groups because they thought it was too risky and would likely fail. (7), (8)

These examples and others that teachers can find will show that even when there is a long term goal, in this case social and legal equality for people that identity as Transgender, the strategy required and/or the steps to take towards that goal can cause conflict and controversy. These examples also show that a group or people working towards that goal and not necessarily a monolithic entity. As mentioned above, if one can say that democracy is difficult and messy, one can also note that people are difficult and messy as well.

Difficulties in Working Together – Simulations and Framework for Analysis

So if reaching consensus for action is not a given, then how do rights expand? What does the struggle look like in American democracy and how does one know when success has been reached? How and why can different groups or coalitions successfully make progress? Graetz and Shapiro have outlined a theory about distributive politics that can be used to enlighten and explain. At this point in the unit students will look at those components (appropriately scaffolded for Middle School) to create context and background. With this information students can evaluate both the Transgender rights struggle that they have just learned about and the Abolition and Suffrage Movement knowledge that is yet to come.

A good first step here would be to illustrate the messiness of majority rule and give students some experience about what happens when people have different ideas about priorities and goals. There are a number of simulations that could be brought into the classroom and adapted for the middle school or other level student. Because the point is to demonstrate the fragility of the majority students at this point would need to be grouped in such as way as to produce majorities.

In one simulation students are told that they have a cake and asked how they would divide that cake. Will they decide that everyone should get an equal piece? Are some stronger personalities going to advocate for themselves while more introverted students do not? Take note of what you see and hear and debrief with a whole class discussion. Let the students know that the cake can symbolize any good or service or idea (lower taxes, better housing, racial or gender equality) and that in a democracy where people can vote, everyone that votes has a say in how that cake gets distributed, usually with the majority having the power to decide.

Another simulation, which could follow or even take the place of the cake cutting, would be the “divide a dollar” game. This game can be used in class to demonstrate that any agreement between multiple parties to work towards a goal can be upset when the majority rules. Students should be in groups of three and each group given a dollar (or some amount of money easily divisible by three, tell them you get the extra penny!). Students must create a way to divide the dollar amongst themselves that they approve of with a majority vote. At this point students could decide that they each get $.33 and donate a penny back to the teacher. This arrangement, however, could be easily upset by majority rule. If students A and B wish to, they can join together to form a majority that cuts out student C. A and B would each get $.50 and C would get nothing. However, C could incentivize A to reconsider by offering to take only $.40 and giving the A $.60. In this manner, the deal stuck by A and B would be undone with C creating a new majority that cuts out B altogether. And so on…

Giving students time to work through these multiple arrangements will help them see that even when groups come together to try and accomplish a goal those arrangements tend to be temporary because other arrangements could easily be made instead and new majorities created multiple times and in multiple ways. In theory this rearranging of majorities could go on forever, with each round prompting a more appealing split for someone. Shapiro notes that only an agreement that sees the split as fair and a commitment to abide by a final decision will ultimately end the rearranging of the split. (9)

A way to broaden students’ thinking about this simulation in additional rounds would be to pass our cards that identify different causes or charities. Students will be playing the game on behalf of the Arthritis Foundation, or the Red Cross, etc. This will help students to understand that the point is not about selfishness, but about how majority rule can affect people working together to pursue a goal. One could presume that both the LGBT grassroots members and the staff of the HRC have the same ultimate goal in mind, but how that goal gets pursued – a one-bill strategy or multiple smaller advances – may depend on how people work together in different coalitions.

Another potential simulation that could be used with students is derived from the Rawls “theory of justice.” It involves having the class determine who gets “extra” points after a test or quiz has been taken but before the results of that quiz are known. Should these extra points get distributed to the top third of class, evenly distributed, or distributed to the bottom third? Students vote secretly and then results are debriefed. Interested teachers using this unit can find the references and additional details here (https://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/10643.pdf) though it should be noted that it was not written with middle school students in mind and will require scaffolding and adaptation.

Democracies and people can be complicated, difficult, and messy, as the “divide a dollar” and cake simulations have shown. Students have seen examples of conflict within the transgender rights community that illustrate this idea. So how can different groups work together to effectively produce change? Graetz and Shapiro talk about six elements or building blocks that are important for thinking about how these coalitions work together. In this unit students will focus on some of those elements to provide a framework to evaluate different reform movements. These include the moral narrative, the pursuit of proximate goals, and the role of leadership.

Some type of ethical or philosophical idea has to permeate the actions of the coalition in order to keep it together when times get tough. As seen in the “divide a dollar” game, any agreement can be easily upset by a perceived better agreement. When someone is not committed to a cause in a passionate way they will always be susceptible to a “better deal” that might come along. This is the moral narrative that Graetz and Shapiro discuss. One can think about who keeps going in a protest march when feet get sore or ankles get sprained. When confronted with the State Police at the other end of the bridge John Lewis and other Civil Rights leaders continued to march forward putting themselves at great personal peril. Without a moral narrative it would have been easy to stop fighting for Civil Rights at any number of junctures, but the truly committed kept fighting on. Think back to the students playing the “divide a dollar” game. If they believe that they are advocating for their assigned charity, something bigger than themselves, then they will be more motivated to continue the fight. (10)

Just as important as the moral narrative is the idea that people need victories to celebrate together as a way to mark progress and keep spirits high. Graetz and Shapiro refer to these as proximate goals. Having immediate short term goals as well as a larger overarching goal helps to create benchmarks that will help people to keep going when things seem difficult and make it harder for the majority agreement to be split up. If progress towards the next goal is taking longer than expected or desired then it is important to have a recent success to remember that will shore up the troops. If not everyone within the coalition agrees about everything then it is necessary to have smaller shorter-term goals that they can agree on and fight for.

Proximate goals also keep the focus on something that is achievable. During the fight to establish the New Deal in the 1930s the proximate goal of keeping people from becoming destitute in their old age was achieved at the expense of farm and domestic workers. Their inclusion in the legislation at that time would have made passage impossible and would have therefore created an unachievable goal. (11)

Strong leadership is another critical element of success. Their ability affects all of the other elements that Graetz and Shapiro discuss, including those that are not discussed in this unit. They must have the ability to craft, define, and defend the moral narrative that drives the movement forward. They must have the ability to raise the resources necessary to achieve success. They must be able to create proximate goals for the movement that will keep their supporters motivated to continue. Names like Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Gandhi all come to mind when thinking about strong leaders of strong reform movements in recent history. (12)

Students of this unit will learn about other strong leaders when looking at the reform movements of the 1800s. These leaders and their efforts to keep moving forward in the face of sometimes daunting opposition and years of lack of progress speak to the indispensible nature of leadership in a successful coalition. Having students consider the opposite would also be useful. A good example of what happens with a lack of leadership can be seen in looking at the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy protests that sprang from it. That movement went out of its way to state that it was leaderless, that each different area of the country or different occupation location that was protesting may have had different goals and agendas, and no one was going to tell them how to push for and achieve those goals. Although it was framed as a positive at the time, one needs only to look around today to see that due to this lack of overall leadership their agendas were not achieved and the movement as a going concern no longer exists. (13)

All of these aspects and more can be seen in the history of many different coalitions through the years. In order to see specific examples of how coalitions come together and break apart, students will look at information about the Abolition movement and the Women’s Rights movement in the United States during the 1800s. It might be useful to note that this unit’s goal is not to give students an exhaustive history of either movement. The point of studying these groups is to find examples of how coalitions work together, how conflict and controversy can derail coalitions, and to provide a historical viewpoint with which students can think again about current rights movements such as the struggle for transgender rights.

Abolition and Women’s Rights – Examples of Factions and Coalitions


During the 1800s in the United States a number of different reform movements began, most coming out of the renewed religious climate of the Second Great Awakening. As mentioned above this unit is not a historical survey of that time period or the reform movements that began during that time. Students should know that the Abolition movement’s goal was the eradication of slavery (hence the name) and that it operated in the United States in one fashion or another from the late 1700s until roughly the end of Reconstruction. The Women’s Rights movement, which later evolved into the Women’s Suffrage movement, also came out of the reform fervor of the Second Great Awakening and focused (again as its name suggests) on promoting equality for women. Women and men were both involved in these movements although the participation of women was a source of conflict at times (more on this later).  Sanchez-Eppler notes that women were involved in these and many other movements of the day. Many of them were in fact universal reformers, working for not only abolition and women’s rights but also temperance, school reform, prison reform, and more. (14) In both groups students can find examples of how difficult it is for groups to focus on their goals and how difficult it is for groups to work together. Students can also find examples in both movements of moral narratives, proximate goals, and the importance of leadership.

In the Abolition movement one can see examples of how difficult it is to keep a group fighting towards the same goal. The moral narrative of abolishing slavery was a strong one, many people in the United States fought for this cause their entire adult lives. However, as we see in the example of the fight for trans rights not everyone will agree about how to achieve those goals.

The Abolitionists split into two main groups. One group, under the leadership of William Garrison, fought for the immediate end to slavery all at once in the United States. Garrison promoted this view through his paper The Liberator and Lucretia Mott traveled around the country and gave speeches to this effect as well. The strategy favored by this faction was referred to by Mott as ‘moral suasion’ – abolition coming about because it was the right thing to do for both the North and the South. Mott and Garrison became allies for the cause in 1830. (15)

Not everyone thought that this was the best strategy however. Some moderates favored a focus on slow and steady gradual emancipation or even limited emancipation, which would provide “time to prepare the slave for freedom.” (16) Moderates also worked with the politicians of the Republican Party to accomplish the extension of rights for blacks in America, assuming that this would ultimately lead to the end of slavery. Students see here that the moral narrative of ending slavery was powerful enough to keep people working towards the end goal, but not powerful enough to keep them united in those efforts.  One could also argue that the moderates were focused on finding and fighting for proximate goals, while the Garrison faction, though still united in the larger cause, focused only on the end result. (17)

Women’s Rights

Turning to the Women’s Rights movement one sees the same dynamic at work and can find examples of tensions and disagreements within the group. The group definitely had a moral narrative, the promotion of equality for women, but it had the disadvantage of being difficult to define and easy to subcategorize. As McMillen notes in her biography of Lucy Stone, “…as can happen in all reform movements and within all organizations, carping, jealousy, and hurt feelings surfaced among female activists.” (18) Additionally the movement certainly did not suffer from a lack of strong leadership. Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony are all names that come easily to mind and about whom much has been written. But having multiple strong leaders produced multiple strong opinions.

As early as 1848 during the Seneca Falls Convention there was already tension within the group. Elizabeth Cady Stanton insisted that among the tenets included in the Declaration of Sentiments there should be mention of the right to vote. Others including Lucretia Mott and Henry Stanton (husband of Elizabeth) felt that this was going too far and would alienate many supporters. Mott and Mr. Stanton went so far as to refer to the right to vote as “ridiculous”. (19)

Two years later as preparations were being made for a national women’s rights convention some supporters, led by Pauline Wright Davis wanted to focus on marriage and divorce as well as marital property rights. Stone on the other hand wanted to focus on women’s bodies and the right to control them. Both factions had a moral narrative, but differed on the proximate goals that they should be fighting towards. (20)

After years of working together and fighting alongside each other the movement split into two different factions. Due to disagreements over strategy (think proximate goals) and conflict between Stanton and Stone (think importance of leadership), what had been the American Equal Rights Association became instead the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA focused on a range of demands that included the right to vote but also marital property rights, and more favorable divorce laws. In additional it was a women only organization. The AWSA instead welcomed both men and women participants and focused almost exclusively on the right to vote and took that fight to the states (instead of working towards a national suffrage law) hoping to win the battle there. (21)

Abolition and Women’s Rights – Together and Apart

Both of these movements that students will be examining worked together for many years. As previously noted many in the United States found their passion to work for the rights of others in the Second Great Awakening era and did not exclusively fight for one or the other. This combination of passions, however, was not an easy road for several reasons - having to do with gender assumptions of the age as well as disagreements over strategies and personalities. In this examination students will again think about the three elements that Graetz and Shapiro provide as a framework for analysis.

As mentioned earlier many women were involved in many reform movements. But it is useful at this point to examine why. According to Gurko involvement in these movements offered women the only types of activities outside of the home that they could participate in. Meeting together to discuss and promote temperance, or school reform, or the abolition of slavery was “one of the few public activities deemed respectable and available to them.” (22)

In many of the reform movements of the time the need for workers was so great that even men reluctant to work with women had to begrudgingly accept their participation. This is not to say though that women were treated as equal warriors for the cause. They were still relegated to ‘women’s work’ and not expected or permitted to speak in public. (23)

It was this involvement of women that would ultimately cause the Abolition and Women’s Rights movements to stop cooperating with each other. Two of the early voices that promoted both the abolitionist cause and the equality of women were the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina. They were among the first women to speak publicly and in this they met with almost immediate resistance by the Massachusetts clergy who attempted to limit their opportunities to speak by denying them access to churches. This strategy was ultimately unsuccessful because in those places where they were allowed to speak the crowds became increasingly large and enthusiastic. Gurko notes that the response to the Grimke’s public speeches helped to further polarize the different factions in the Abolitionist movement. (24)

Not only did the Grimke sisters face difficulties based on their gender, but when they began to focus on women’s rights in addition to abolition they inspired additional criticism and conflict. Gurko and Quanquin reference the back and forth communication between the sisters and abolitionist Theodore Weld (Angelina Grimke’s future husband). According to Quanquin, Weld believed that the Grimke’s status as former Southerners made them uniquely qualified to speak out on the subject of abolition. He believed that they were witnesses to the terrors of slavery, which gave them more clout (street cred, we might say today) than a Northerner would have. He then chided them for drifting into the Women’s Rights movement, saying that this departure weakened their message, that they lose credibility by and create a distraction for abolitionists instead. (25)

Grimke pushed back against this idea, telling Weld that she would not be able to fight for slave women if she as a woman were not also free.  She also argued that the issue of women’s rights was a deeper injustice that the injustice of slavery, that the cause of abolition was more superficial because it did not necessitate the questioning of all people’s rights. She wrote that “The slave may be freed and the woman be where she is, but woman cannot be freed and the slave remain where he is.” (26)

All of the issues noted above can be seen in the interplay within and between the two groups prior to the Civil War. During the Civil War work on women’s rights took a back seat because of war issues and the immediacy of the abolition issues. Once the war had ended, the fight for both resumed, as did the disagreements between the two groups. While the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments were positive developments, Hampson contends that these still left both blacks and women in the same position – citizens that could not fully participate and did not have political rights. (27)

In order to try and alleviate this issue the sides once again worked together to try and promote the idea of equality for both groups, forming the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) in 1866. Familiar names like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone worked alongside long time abolitionists like Theodore Tilton. According to Hampson the creation of this organization was a fusion of the two movements, acknowledging the feminists contributions to the abolitionist cause and the importance of equal rights, centered on the right to vote. Although their initial organizing conference took place without much controversy bringing these two groups together did not reduce the tensions between them. (28)

There were two main areas of disagreement. The first was a reaction to the disappointment felt over the wording of the 14th Amendment. The language used induced the word ‘male’ instead of person or citizen for the first time in this document, which was alarming for most of the women’s rights workers. In addition, abolitionists felt that the use of the word male too general to guarantee that their rights would be protected. (29) Garland notes that the freeing of slaves did not automatically lead to voting rights. Extending suffrage to blacks at that time was opposed not only by whites in the south (which might be expected) but also by many white northerners as well. She states that even some of the most fervent abolitionists felt that extending the vote to former slave would be too radical a change at that time. (30)

Response to the dissatisfaction with the 14th Amendment occurred along preexisting lines. The abolitionist response was to move closer to the Republican Party and to rely on political means to accomplish goals. This is reminiscent of the moderate abolitionist wing in pre-war days. Republicans had become more vocal in their support for Black suffrage after the elections of 1866 and the abolitionists wanted to take advantage of this momentum. Women’s Rights supporters (by this time mostly women) did not trust a political system dominated by men and sought to distance themselves from the national parties and focused instead on state conventions where they advocated for the right to vote for both blacks and women. (31)

Perhaps more important than the differences over strategy was the increasing argument about who should get the vote first. This became an immediate issue when the 15th Amendment was created and did not include the vote for women. Again the split was a binary one. One side advocated for immediate black voting rights while another group argued that women should get the vote first, or at the very least at the same time. One can see this disagreement illustrated in the writings about both groups as they both advocated for a different outcome to the race for suffrage.

The suffragists, as they were now called, believed that the vote should come to them either before men or at the same time as men. Stanton believed that if black men received the right to vote prior to women receiving the right to vote it would be difficult for women to ever recover. She believed that black male suffrage would create an even larger pool of male voters would could then more powerfully block any legislation offering women the right to vote. Stone reinforced this idea when she discussed the fact that most men (including most black men) had little interest in women’s suffrage because they believed that if a women had any issues that needed remedying via the ballot box then her husband could use his vote on her behalf. (32)

Douglass and other abolitionists felt just as strongly that black suffrage should take precedence over female suffrage. Not only was there the issue of precedence but also some worried that linking the two issues was a mistake. Connecting black suffrage (which was gaining support) with female suffrage (which was not) could only hurt the former. (33) In addition most former abolitionists believed that the suffering experienced by former slaves and other blacks entitled them to the vote first. In 1866 Douglass stated that women should only get the vote if and when black men received the vote. Women wanted the vote, he noted, and Black men needed the vote.  Of women Douglass said that “…when they are dragged from their houses and hung from lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains bashed out upon the pavement…then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” (34)

Connections and Conclusions for Students

These disagreements led to the separation of the two movements, the women’s rights advocates formed both the NWSA and AWSA (as discussed above) and the former abolitionists worked for and gained passage and ratification of the 15th Amendment and subsequently worked to ensure the rights of freed slaves. The coalition between the two groups as manifested in the AERA lasted only a few years. They came together for a reason, and then were driven apart as goals, priorities and strategies shifted.

The goal of this unit is to prompt the students to make a connection between past and present, and to use that connection to foster the study of history and the development of historical thinking skills. At this point students should think about moral narratives, proximate goals, and leadership and use those ideas discussed earlier in this paper to analyze and evaluate the past movements and also make connections and draw conclusions between them and the Transgender rights movement of the present.

In the struggle for transgender rights we see controversy over a one-bill strategy and a strategy of pursuing multiple smaller goals; echoing the split in the Abolition movement between the Garrison faction and those more moderate. This is one example of a connection that students can make. They should also be able to make comparisons between both groups using the Graetz-Shapiro framework. In the present day the trans one-bill supporters appear to lack proximate goals, while those pursuing the other strategy have smaller more specific goals that they are working towards. Those following Garrison and Mott and urging immediate abolition also appear to lack proximate goals while the more moderate wing pursed measured and deliberate action and could have won partial victories along the way to total abolition. Students should look for these differences and discuss them using the terminology presented tot hem in the framework of this curriculum unit.

The final project for this unit calls for students to find and examine a present day reform movement that speaks to them. After researching the specifics, students will briefly outline the movement, analyze and communicate how it uses the elements described by Graetz and Shapiro, and comment on how they themselves might adjust the movements’ strategies to increase its chances of success. The expectation is that students will use both text and visuals and will create either a slide presentation or poster presentation to communicate their learning. Students will consider what actions they could take to promote the goals of the movement that they identify with. They will be expected to outline the moral narrative and proximate goals they themselves could create and accomplish.

Once this is complete students will be challenged to put their ideas into practice in some way and create an action step. This could be writing a letter to a representative or editor, creating a flyer for the school, or another action/activity that communicates the moral narrative and supports the proximate goals of their reform. In this way the students themselves become the third component and provide their own leadership to the cause.

Teaching Strategies


This unit is a multiple step process. It begins with a current event illustrating a larger point that also enhances relevance and engagement. I have chosen the struggle for transgender rights but teachers could adapt for their students benefit. The next step is to frame the discussion around the idea that expanding rights is a messy proposition in a democracy using both simulation and the Graetz-Shapiro elements describing how coalitions work. Next comes historical context - the Abolition and Women’s Rights movement in two parts; an explanation of the movements and some analysis of how the coalition framework applies. The fourth step involves the comparisons of the present day movement with the historical movements and the conclusions that students can draw from them. The final project calls on students to examine a new movement of their choice using their learning to analyze and communicate how those movements exhibit the coalition behaviors that they have learned about.

Direct Instruction

Background information is needed in order to complete the activities within the unit. Direct instruction about the present day Transgender rights struggle, the Abolition movement of the 1800s, and the Women’s Rights movement of the 1800s and beyond will be necessary in order for students to have enough content knowledge to make comparisons, find connections, and draw conclusions.

Making Connections through Modeling and Collaboration

Students will analyze and evaluate the Abolition, Women’s rights, Transgender rights, and possibly other movements using the Graetz-Shapiro framework. This will be structured with multiple steps that roughly follow the gradual release format progressing from teacher modeling to independent activities.

Simulation / Collaboration

In addition to direct instruction students will be given the opportunity to have some ‘hands on’ experiences. There are a number of simulations that are discussed that let students experience the issues of coalition building and majority rule for themselves.

Student Activity Samples

1) Opening Activity – Majority/Minority Factions


Students can describe the challenges involved in trying to secure rights for one group without negatively affecting other groups.


List of groups that are fighting for rights

Index cards or card stock labels

Poster voting sheets and colored dots (only one color needed)

Overview and Procedure

This activity should be used at the start of the unit and could easily follow a discussion or lessons about the Federalist Papers and Monroe’s warnings about the tyranny of the majority. In this activity students will get a sense of how different groups/movements can sometimes compete for attention and resources.

Step One – on their own, to try and allow them to generate their own opinions, give students a list of groups/movements that want or struggle for expanded rights. Some examples would be immigrants, asylum seekers, minority groups, farmers, factory workers, farm workers, women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, Transgender, etc. Ask students to rank them 1 – x, from those most deserving to those least deserving. Ask for feedback to share and discuss as a group.

Step Two – ask students to think about what happens when different groups compete for the same or limited resources. If one group get s bigger piece of the pie what happens to another group? Divide students into groups and assign each group one of the names/labels from above. These groups can be random and do not have to be all the same size. Let each group know that whether their rights get expanded will be up to the majority of the class, but groups will be competing with each other. Give three dots to each student and have them use the posters to vote for who gets expanded rights. Each poster asks them to choose one group over the other.

Step Three – have students get up and move about the room, examining the posters and voting with their dots. Ask for a volunteer(s) to tabulate the winners and announce which groups get expanded rights and which do not. Point out that the decision was made by voters and a majority (tie back to American democracy) and yet will leave a large number of students disappointed/angry/unhappy.  This is the challenge of democracy and majority rule.

Step Four – this would be the appropriate time for the divide-a-dollar game or the extra points game as described in the unit above which will drive home the difficulties of making decisions based on majority rule and the need for formation of coalitions.

2) Majority Not Always Necessary – extension activity


Students can analyze and describe the phenomenon of small groups acting like a majority and securing rights.


Access to Chrome books and/or other research enabling devices

Overview and Procedure

One of the overall objectives of this unit is to give students an idea about how difficult it is to expand rights in a democratic society. Yet one of the groups studied is people who identify as transgender, which is actually a very small percentage of the population of the United States. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are only about 700,000 transgender people in the Untied States, which equals roughly .03% of the population (35). In spite of that small number there are now many places in the country were gender neutral bathrooms are becoming the norm. In this extension activity students should examine how a small number of people (as a percentage of overall population) can successfully lobby for an expansion of their rights. Students should be given a number of resources to study and then be directed to find other groups that fall into the same category so they can make comparisons and draw conclusions. There is no “right” answer or conclusion here, the object is to get students to do the research and do the thinking. Students will compare the transgender group to one of the other groups by competing a graphic organizer and then writing a summary paragraph. Suggested resources for information about transgender history and rights include 1) https://transequality.org/, 2) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/opinion/editorial-transgender-timeline.html, and 3) https://www.hrc.org/resources/understanding-the-transgender-community. There are likely other web and print resources as well.

Another group/event to compare would be disabled Americans and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Possible websites to examine are 1) https://www.pantsupeasy.com/u-s-wheelchair-user-statistics/, 2) https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/statistics/american-disability.php, and 3) https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/27/7-facts-about-americans-with-disabilities/. Again, there are likely other resources that students can find with these examples as a starting point.

Another group that could be researched are the first responders from the 911 tragedies, who have been successful in securing funding for medical expenses related to their job activities during and after the event from 2001. Here students will look at a very small subset of the total number of first responders in the United States that have received additional compensation based on their status in spite of their small number.

No part of this activity should be construed to mean that these groups should not fight for and win rights. It is not about what they deserve but about what might they have in common (either characteristics or strategies) that enables them to successfully expand their rights in a democracy where it is usually a difficult thing to do. This is the question that students should focus on as they compare and contrast these three (and potentially other) minority groups.

3) Wrap Up and Final Project


Students can apply their knowledge of the elements of coalitions by analyzing and presenting information about a present day reform movement.


Framework Information sheet

Graphic Organizer for note taking

Student notes and activity sheets saved throughout the unit lessons

Paper or electronic presentation resources

Overview and Procedure

Students will be given a framework information sheet (bullet point descriptions of the Graetz-Shapiro framework to supplement their notes) and a graphic organizer to focus their thinking and collect notes. Using one of the historical movements (Abolition or Women’s Rights) to provide modeling I will assist the whole class in looking for moral narrative, proximate goals, and leadership. Together we will find what worked for this movement and what did not, all in the framework and language of the Graetz-Shapiro elements and will fill in the organizer as a whole class creating a sample/example for students to follow.

After that students will examine the other historical movement (Women’s Rights or Abolition) in collaboration with classmates and produce the same type and amount of notes and analysis. Students will use the example created by the whole class activity and then be expected to work in pairs/small groups to complete the analysis of the other group. At the conclusion of this step we will review portions as a class to both scaffold and check for understanding.

In the third step the students will analyze the Transgender rights movement (or choose another contemporary reform movement) and will be filling out the organizer on their own to create the data points that will become their presentation. During this third step they are working independently to find and analyze the movement’s moral narratives, proximate goals, and examples of the value of leadership.

Once they have the necessary information, students will be instructed to create either a poster presentation or an electronic presentation. My students use Google Slides but alternate formats would work just as well. Students that are competent and confidant could certainly create a video instead. Presentations should include the following as a minimum – name of movement, overview of their history, strategy, goals, etc., list/description of the moral narrative, list/description of proximate goals, discussion of leadership (positive or negative, depending on what research turns up), any work done in partnership (did they form a coalition?), text descriptions and visual representations of all of the foregoing items.


  1. Michael J. Klarman, Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History (Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 2007), 204.
  2. Abby Goodnough and Erica L. Green and Margot Sanger-Katz,Trump Administration Proposes Rollback of Transgender Protections” New York Times online. May 24, 2019.
  3. Goodnough and Green.
  4. Todd Fernandez, “The LGBT Grassroots vs. HRC: Fighting for a One-Bill Equality Strategy (And Our Lives),” Huffington Post.
  5. Fernandez.
  6. Yezmin Villarreal. “5 Most Disappointing Things We Learned about HRC’s White Men’s Club,” The Advocate.
  7. Jaydn Marks, “Marks: What’s Wrong With the Human Rights Campaign, ” Daily Emerald.
  8. Chris Johnson, “Chad Griffin to step down as Human Rights Campaign president,” Washington Blade. Nov 15, 2019.
  9. Michael J. Graetz and Ian Shapiro. Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020) Chapter 2.
  10. Graetz and Shapiro, Ch. 2
  11. Graetz and Shapiro, Ch. 2
  12. Graetz and Shapiro, Ch. 2
  13. Graetz and Shapiro, Ch. 2
  14. Karen Eppler-Sanchez, Touching Liberty, Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 16
  15. Miriam Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, The Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement, (New York, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1974), 38-39
  16. Gurko, 34.
  17. David Blight, Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018), 104-106
  18. Sally G. McMillen, Lucy Stone, an Unapologetic Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 107
  19. Miriam Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, 98-99
  20. Sally G. McMillen, Lucy Stone, 107
  21. McMillen, 183,184
  22. Miriam Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, 33
  23. Gurko, 34
  24. Gurko, 38,39
  25. Helene Quanquin, “There Are Two Great Oceans: The Slavery Metaphor in Antebellum Women’s Rights Discourse as Redescription of Race and Gender.” In Interconnections: Gender and Race in American History, Carol Faulkner and Alison M. Parker (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012.) 84
  26. Quanquin, 85
  27. Whitney Hampson, “On Account of Color or Sex”: A Historical Examination of the Split Between Black Rights and Women’s Rights in the American Equal Rights Association, 1866-1869, accessed May 5, 2019 https://www.iup.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=37705, 53
  28. Hampson, 55
  29. Hampson, 54
  30. Libby Garland, “”Irrespective of Race, Color or sex:” Susan B. Anthony and the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1867”, accessed May 4, 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2563765, 61.
  31. Hampson, 57, 61
  32. Sally G. McMillen, Lucy Stone, 164,165
  33. Whitney Hampson, On Account of Color or Sex, 57
  34. Blight, Frederick Douglass, 490-491
  35. “Understanding the Transgender Community,” Human Rights Campaign Online, accessed July 30, 2019. https://www.hrc.org/resources/understanding-the-transgender-community.

Annotated Bibliography

Blight, David. Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018. A work dedicated to the subject of Douglass’ life, this work includes information about the priorities during the conflicts over the 15th Amendment and describes some of Douglass’ thought and actions.

Eppler-Sanchez, Karen. Touching Liberty, Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. This work provided useful information about the beginning of reform movements in the 19th Century, the role of women in those movements, and the challenges that women faced because of their sex/gender.

Faulkner, Carol. Lucretia Mott’s Heresy, Abolition and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. A mainly chronological description of Mott’s life as a reformer, this work provides a good amount of detail about both the Abolition and Women’s Rights movement and the interaction of Mott with other leaders of these movements over a long period of time, encompassing both cooperation and conflict.

Fernandez, Todd. “The LGBT Grassroots vs. HRC: Fighting for a One-Bill Equality Strategy (And Our Lives). Huffington Post. Last modified December 6, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lgbt-activists-one-bill-equality-strategy_b_1280560?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAACQHPjqbwYAH7fCRy6d4b3P_bf2F1_vKIkuNq_o6JYqR4GZMrQRY6h-CVDyLEMfxAXP3un40Ue1T3l_xeP0Hd6B6dAS2j1ZReYyl1AhsQGIbNDO8-CTkvUp8u_8stHiiVHKWUfk7R5EHWkz5gKnNEnwCiC-qfITNLKvbQ4uBUesy. Provides details about the disagreements between different factions about how to pursue equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Focuses specifically on whether or not there should be a comprehensive goal accomplished with one piece of legislation or whether multiple smaller goals would be more appropriate.

Garland, Libby. “Irrespective of Race, Color or Sex: Susan B. Anthony and the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1867.” OAH Magazine of History, 19, no.2 (2005) 61-64. Accessed May 4, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2563765.

Goodnough, Abby and Erica L. Green and Margot Sanger-Katz
Trump Administration Proposes Rollback of Transgender Protections
.” The New York Times online. Last modified May 24, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/us/politics/donald-trump-transgender-protections.html This article discusses the changes in interpretation that may lead to rollbacks of protections won for the trans community. Useful as a starting point to discuss a current reform movement and provide a connection point for later comparison and analysis.

Graetz, Michael J. and Ian Shapiro. Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. Chapter two of this upcoming book talks about factions and coalitions in democratic societies and provides a framework that can be used to analyze them. This unit uses a number of these strategies to provide a developmentally appropriate explanation and asks students to use the framework in their own analysis. Also includes a more detailed description of the “divide a dollar” game than is provided in my unit.

Gurko, Miriam. The Ladies of Seneca Falls, The Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement. New York, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1974. Although an older source this work proved useful as a resource about the Grimke sisters and their early reform activities, as well as how those activities were seen based on the Grimke’s sex/gender. This source also devotes time and space to a number of different people and topics all connected to the Seneca Falls gathering and would be a useful starting point or source if one wanted to assign biography research to students.

Hampson, Whitney (2004) “On Account of Color or Sex”: A Historical Examination of the Split Between Black Rights and Women’s Rights in the American Equal Rights Association, 1866-1869 [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://www.iup.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=37705

Johnson, Chris. “Chad Griffin to step down as Human Rights Campaign president.” Washington Blade. Last modified November 15, 2019. Accessed July 11, 2019. https://www.washingtonblade.com/2018/11/15/chad-griffin-steps-down-as-hrc-president-after-6-years/. This article discusses the conflict over the legal challenge to Prop 8 in California that overturned a same-sex marriage ruling.

Juro, Rebecca. “Even After All These Years, HRC Still Doesn’t Get It.” Huffington Post. Last modified Feb 2, 2016. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/even-after-all-these-years-hrc-still-doesnt-get-it_b_2989826. Contains criticism about the HRC, a good example of the difficulty in keeping coalitions all moving towards the same goals.

Juro Rebecca. “If not now, when???” In Through the Out Door. Date Unknown. https://lostkidz.livejournal.com/53329.html A short column that adds to the discussion about disunity within the LGBTQ rights movement specifically dealing with trans issues.

Klarman, Michael J. Unfinished Business, Racial Equality in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Klarman’s book focuses only on the struggle for racial equality but is an excellent source for examples about how and why advances in the expansion of rights in the United States have not been characterized by continuous progress.

Marks, Jaydn. “Marks: What’s Wrong With the Human Rights Campaign. “Daily Emerald. Last modified Feb 27, 2017. https://www.dailyemerald.com/opinion/columns/marks-what-s-wrong-with-the-human-rights-campaign/article_faa8f768-b908-52d7-9065-05473c462613.html. In this article the columnist talks about her perspective of the problems found within the Human Rights Campaign, the organization that manages the reform movement focused on the LGBTQ community.

McMillen, Sally G. Lucy Stone, An Unapologetic Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Told mainly from Stone’s perspective, this work also highlights the major events in the abolition/women’s rights movements including the conflicts between the two groups.

Mieder, Wolfgang. All Men and Women are Created Equal. New York: Peter Levy Publishing, 2014. This source provided some corroboration concerning the attitudes and actions of Douglass. This source, however, did not provide much in the way of new or different information and would not be a terribly useful source for middle school students.

Quanquin, Helene. “”There Are Two Great Oceans”: The Slavery Metaphor in Antebellum Women’s Rights Discourse as Redescription of Race and Gender.” In Interconnections: Gender and Race in American History, edited by Carol Faulkner and Alison M. Parker. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2012.  Chapter three of this book does an excellent job of analyzing the metaphor of woman and slave as developed by the women’s rights movement in the 1800s. Also includes great detail about the development of women in the movement focusing on the conflict between the Grimke sisters and Weld about female participation.

“Understanding the Transgender Community.” Human Rights Campaign Online. Accessed July 30, 2019. https://www.hrc.org/resources/understanding-the-transgender-community. General description of the transgender community, used here to demonstrate the small size when viewed as a percentage of total population.

Villarreal, Yezmin. “5 Most Disappointing Things We Learned about HRC’s White Men’s Club.” The Advocate. Last modified June 4, 2015. https://www.advocate.com/human-rights-campaign-hrc/2015/06/04/5-most-disappointing-things-we-learned-about-hrcs-white-mens-cl. This article again discusses some of the shortcomings found within HRC and contains more detail than the Marks column.

Walker, Jay. “Frederick Douglass and Woman Suffrage.” The Black Scholar, 14 no. 5 (Sept-Oct 1983) 18-25. Accessed May 5, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41067047. Although not cited in the unit this work outlines Douglass’ participation and assistance in the women’s rights movement of the 19th Century.

Appendix A - Implementing District Standards

Specific California Content Standards

8.2.4 Describe the political philosophy underpinning the Constitution as specified in the Federalist Papers (authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) and the role of such leaders as Madison, George Washington, Roger Sherman, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson in the writing and ratification of the Constitution.

8.2.7 Describe the principles of federalism, dual sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, the nature and purpose of majority rule, and the ways in which the American idea of constitutionalism preserves individual rights.

The major thrust of this unit is demonstrate for students how different groups work and struggle to gain rights and expand rights in the United States. In studying the three movements describe herein students will see examples of the political philosophy of the Federalist Papers as outlined by Madison when they learn about factions and coalitions. They will also see the ‘nature and purpose of majority rule’ and have a chance to internalize that lesson as they participate in the simulations that prepare them for studying the reform movements with the Graetz-Shapiro framework.

California Historical Analysis Skills

Research, Evidence, and Point of View 4: Students assess the credibility of primary and secondary sources and draw sound conclusions from them.  Students will be reviewing and analyzing a number of primary and secondary sources.

Historical Interpretation 1:  Students explain the central issues and problems from the past, placing people and events in a matrix of time and place. My students will be asked to make connections between the reform movements of the past and current day struggles for expansion of rights.

Historical Interpretation 2:  Students understand and distinguish cause, effect, sequence, and correlation in historical events, including the long- and short-term causal relations. In this unit students will focus on correlation in historical events, using a specific framework to think about and analyze events from the 1800s and the present day.

Comments (0)

Be the first person to comment

When you are finished viewing curriculum units on this Web site, please take a few minutes to provide feedback and help us understand how these units, which were created by public school teachers, are useful to others.
THANK YOU — your feedback is very important to us! Give Feedback