Votes for Women

Rights, Equality, and Citizenship

In this lesson, students will examine the idea of natural rights and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They will delve into the relationship between liberty and equality and examine the interplay of these two principles with respect to the idea of change within the United States constitutional order.

Founding Principles

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Equal Protection image

Equal Protection

The principle of equal justice under law means that every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law. There are no individuals or groups who are born with the right to rule over others.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Rule of Law image

Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.


In this lesson, students will examine the idea of natural rights and equality as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. They will delve into the relationship between liberty and equality and examine the interplay of these two principles with respect to the idea of change within the United States constitutional order.


  • Students will analyze the principle of equality as articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Students will distinguish between natural rights and rights conferred by civil society.
  • Students will assess the principles of liberty and equality, their relationship, and how they relate to American citizenship.
  • Students will examine the principle of equality with respect to long-term change in the United States constitutional order.


  • Background Essay: Rights, Equality, and Citizenship
  • Handout A: What Kind of Right?
  • Handout B: Equality Quotes
  • Appendix A: Amending the Constitution
  • Appendix B: Timeline and Quotes
  • Appendix C: Timeline Cards
  • Appendix G: Pathway for Change
  • Answer Key


“Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature?” - JAMES OTIS (1764)

“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” - DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1776)

“The one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science.” - JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY (WRITTEN 1779, PUBLISHED 1790)

“We the people…ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…” - PREAMBLE TO THE U.S. CONSTITUTION (1789)

“I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” - MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1792)

“To me it is perfectly clear that whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do.” - SARAH GRIMKÉ (1838)

Vocabulary Terms

  • suffrage
  • democratic
  • republican
  • renounce
  • coverture
  • poll tax


  • National Standards for U.S. History: Era 2 1585-1763
    • Standard 2: How political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies.
    • Standard 3: How the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies, and how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas.
  • National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies:
    • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
    • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
    • Theme 10: Civic Ideals and Practices
  • C3 Framework:
    • D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.
    • D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.
    • D2.His.7.9-12. Explain how the perspectives of people in the present shape interpretations of the past.

Background 15-30 min.

Have students read Background Essay: Rights, Equality, and Citizenship and answer the questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Distribute Handout A: What Kind of Right? or read it aloud and have students respond to each statement with a show of hands. As you go, refer to the background essay discussion of natural rights as part of our human nature, and not a gift of the government. These rights are also called negative rights because they can be exercised without anyone else acting on our behalf.
  2. Continue until you have completed all 15 items, clarifying any misconceptions as you go. See the Answer Key for some clues that the privileges (or rights conferred by civil society) listed are not natural rights.
  3. Conclude by asking, “What about voting? Is voting a natural right, a privilege, or neither?” Allow some discussion for a few moments.

Activities 45 minutes total

Activity I » 15 min.

  1. Have students work in small groups. Distribute Handout B: Equality Quotes and tell students they should first individually analyze the quotes and mark whether each reflects a commitment to equality for women, and then briefly discuss their answers within their small groups.
  2. Next, conduct a whole-class discussion in which you provide the source information (from the Answer Key) for students to fill in on their charts and ask if anything surprises them or causes them to change their minds about the quotes. Allow students to share observations.
  3. Have students complete the Handout B Comprehension and Reflection Questions in their small groups and ask what characteristics writers in each category had in common.
  4. At this point, provide students with Appendix G: A Pathway for Change and introduce the driving question: How does one carry out long-term change in order to better align institutions with principles of liberty, justice, and equality within a constitutional order? Spend a few moments previewing the graphic organizer. Note that students should keep this document in their folders and expect to refer to it frequently. Based on their discussion of Handout B: Equality Quotes, and considering the status of women at the American Founding, where do students think that American women were in the Pathway by 1800?

Activity II » 20 min.

  1. Write on the board the following two pairs of questions:
    • Is suffrage a right or a privilege? Is suffrage necessary for a person to be considered a citizen?
    • Is legal equality necessary for liberty? Can a person be free if not equal under the law?
  2. Divide the class into four large groups (subdividing if your class is large), assigning each group to respond with arguments supporting the following positions:
    • Group A: Suffrage is a privilege that is NOT necessary for a person to be considered a citizen.
    • Group B: Suffrage is a right necessary for a person to be considered a citizen.
    • Group C: Equality is necessary for liberty.
    • Group D: Equality is NOT necessary for liberty.
  3. Have them work in their groups to develop their arguments, perhaps in spite of what may be their personal beliefs.
  4. After about 10 minutes, have each group designate a speaker to explain their best arguments to the class.
  5. Debrief as time allows, offering as a prompt the way both Locke and Samuel Adams begin with the proposition that all people are born free, and are equal in this natural freedom. Note: This may be a good time to point out how the use of the term “man” in this context means all people. It has fallen out of fashion to use a masculine term to include both males and females, but at the time Locke and Adams were writing, their audiences would have understood the term “man” to encompass all human beings.

Activity III » 10 min.

  1. Read aloud from the last paragraph of Background Essay: Rights, Equality, and Citizenship, or ask students to reread it silently. Ask them to brainstorm other groups in American history who have gained greater legal equality over time.
  2. Have students complete Appendix A: Amending the Constitution, and answer the reflection questions:
    1. How democratic is the amendment process in Article V of the U.S. Constitution?
    2. List some pros and cons for democratic participation in the amendment process. Why do you think the Framers made the amendment process somewhat difficult?
    3. How would you evaluate the importance of the right of suffrage for those living under this Constitution? Encourage students to incorporate ideas from class discussion into their responses.
  3. Ask students to journal for a few minutes regarding to what extent this lesson has helped them develop a context and set the stage to learn about the movement for women’s equality and suffrage.

Wrap-up 10 min.

  1. As a class, place each of the Appendix C: Timeline Cards on your class timeline.
  2. As students work with the timeline cards, encourage them to discuss the historical significance of the events. For example, you might challenge them to decide which of the constitutional amendments included in Lesson 1 was the most significant in promoting constitutional principles and civic virtue.

Further Reading

Flexner, Eleanor, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography, Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, Inc. (1972)

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