NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for School Teachers

Project Director, Professor Lori Ginzberg (ldg1@psu.edu)

This three-week NEH summer seminar will bring together sixteen K-12 school teachers for a close study of primary documents, scholarly readings, and historic sites to address the question, “What Did Independence Mean for Women? 1776-1876.”   The seminar will explore both the different meanings of independence for women than for men and how women’s experiences in the first century of the nation’s founding were shaped by their racial, legal, and class identities and statuses.  Drawing from scholarship at the intersections of women’s, African-American, social, and intellectual histories, the seminar will focus particular attention on the contrasting experiences of white and black women, seeing hierarchies of sex and race as the central challenges that a nation committed to the rhetoric of independence confronted.  As they address white and black women’s experiences and think critically about the concept of independence, seminar participants will work on individual projects that will contribute to their own classroom practice.


Philadelphia, as both the birthplace of the nation and as a hotbed of debates about the meanings of independence, is an ideal location in which to explore this history. It was in Philadelphia in 1776 that the nation’s founders declared independence from Britain and where, during the 1876 Centennial celebration, woman’s suffrage leaders climbed the steps of Independence Hall to demand their own political rights.  Here too African American and white women worked together to end slavery, raised funds to build Pennsylvania Hall as a center for open speech, and walked arm-in-arm in the face of the mobs that burned down the Hall in May, 1838.  Philadelphia’s African American women fought to desegregate the streetcars during the Civil War, and, soon after, insisted on working alongside white women to raise funds for the Centennial celebration.  Philadelphia’s rich institutional history similarly reflects both conflict and success.  Philadelphia was home to Richard Allen’s Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, founded in 1794 when black women and men walked out of a racially-segregated church; the city also boasted the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850), among whose graduates was Rebecca Cole, one of the nation’s first African American women physicians.  Literally hundreds of demonstrations and commemorations in front of Independence Hall signal the city’s centrality to ongoing struggles over the implications of the word. This NEH summer seminar will overlap with the Fourth of July, giving participants the opportunity to experience – and assess – the 21st-century celebration of the nation’s independence in its birthplace.

The resources in Philadelphia to explore women’s history are rich and varied, and much of it is accessible and appropriate for school use. In addition to the Library Company, participants will have access to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (next door), one of the largest family history and genealogy libraries in the nation.  Participants will also visit important sites of historical memorializing, notably Independence Hall, Pennsylvania Hall, and the President’s House Exhibit, which explores the life experiences of George Washington’s nine slaves who lived in – and in some cases escaped from – Philadelphia during his presidency.  A private walking tour of “women’s industrial Philadelphia” will make visible the lives of 19th-century women in the streets, markets, and factories of the city.  As we walk around the modern city, we will see many allusions to women’s participation in the early Republic, as well as glaring absences, all of which help contextualize seminar readings and discussions.  Indeed, the central questions raised in this seminar adapt well to vibrant debates among students of many ages:  Whose rights matter?  How do we balance individuals’ independence with communal responsibilities?  And who should vote:  Women?  Immigrants?  Children?

Host Institution

The host site, the Library Company of Philadelphia, has a successful track record of running seminars for K-12 educators and serves as an ideal place for a close study of women’s history.  Established by Benjamin Franklin in 1731, the Library Company is an internationally-renowned research library used by scholars, students, and teachers interested in the early Republic and Civil War eras.  The Library Company’s documents in women’s and African American history are especially strong, and its Program in Women’s History, established in 2014,  capitalizes on unsurpassed collections in the history of women’s education, work, religious activities, and participation in reform movements.  With vibrant public programs, fellowship opportunities, and teacher resources, the Library Company, and the City of Philadelphia itself, are ideal places to enhance participants’ understanding of women’s history and to suggest ways to incorporate their knowledge in their own classrooms.


The seminar will be directed by Lori Ginzberg, Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, and a respected scholar, lecturer, and teacher of 19th-century U.S. women’s social and intellectual history.  Prof. Ginzberg has worked with undergraduates, graduate students, K-12 educators, and public audiences on a range of historical projects. She welcomes the opportunity to direct a seminar that will bring complex and nuanced scholarship in women’s history to teachers who are well-positioned to make that history accessible and meaningful for students of all ages.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Slide 1 from left to right:

Green, Sarah Margru Kinson. In the American Phrenological Journal, vol. 12 (1850), p. 231.

Lucretia Mott. Painted by J. Kyle. Engraved by J. Sartain. [Boston: 1844).

The laundress. [Philadelphia: s.n., 1851]

Adams, Abigail Smith. Rufus W. Griswold, The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington. New and rev. ed.(New York, 1856), plate opposite 169. First ed., 1855.

Slide 2: Deroy, Laurent, lithographer.  State-House. Paris & New York: published by Goupil, Vibert, & Co., (1848).

Slide 3:  George G. Evans’ original gift book establishment. 439 Chesnut [sic] Str. Philadelphia. Edward Sachse. Medium GraphicsCollection [V64]. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Slide 4: Young girl leaning on book and chair. Cremer, James. (Philadelphia: 1868). Albumen on stereograph mount.

Slide 5: “A Reading Party,” in Godey’s Lady’s Book 33 (1846): plate opposite p. 145.