Lesson 4: Women Characters and Readers
Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to protest the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. At a time when the
public sphere was reserved for men and the domestic sphere for women, Stowe couldn't express
her political views by voting, but she could write. What she wrote was a woman-centered novel,
a novel in which women characters usually act more morally than their male counterparts and in
which the narrator directly appeals to women readers in terms of their morality and motherhood.
Stowe felt that women had a role to play in the slavery debate because slavery was a moral
question, not just a political one.
Lesson 4 focuses on Chapter IX: "In Which it Appears that a Senator is But a Man." The heroine
of Chapter IX, Senator Byrd's wife, gently expresses her opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act by
"entreaty and persuasion," and admits to her husband that "I don't know anything about politics,
but I can read my Bible . . ." The way in which Stowe holds up Mrs. Byrd and other pious and
domestic women as models raises the question of whether Stowe's novel challenged or upheld
her culture's strict gender roles. This is the fundamental question of Lesson 4. Students will
complete a variety of activities in this 2-day lesson, including a guided reading of Chapter IX, an
exploration of gender-related cultural artifacts on the Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture
website, and a look at two more radical positions regarding women's roles in the mid-nineteenth
- Section of Novel
- Chapter IX: "In Which it Appears that a Senator is But a Man"
- Length of Lesson : 2 days
- If Teachers only have one day for this lesson, individual activities could also be used effectively.
See the individual activities listed in the lesson below.
- Materials Needed
- Guided Reading Worksheet: Gender in Chapter IX
- Internet access to the Sentimental Culture
category on the Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture website
- Letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the Worcester Women's Rights Convention
- Excerpt from Book Review of Uncle Tom's Cabin in The Southern Literary Messenger
- Background Materials
- Understanding Chapter IX requires a general familiarity with the Fugitive Slave Act of
1850. If students have already completed Unit 1: Lesson 1: America in the 1850s,
Lesson 4 by simply reviewing the poster they've made about the Fugitive Slave Act. If
students have not done Lesson 1, follow these instructions to get to an overview of the
Fugitive Slave Act: Go to PBS's Africans in America website.
Click "Enter." Click on "Judgement Day: 1831-1865," and then "Resource Bank." From here,
scroll down to Part IV: Westward Expansion, Section A: People and Events.
Select "The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act."
for an overview of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Skills Focus -- based on Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOLs)
- History and Social Science:
- VUS.6 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the major events during the first half
of the nineteenth century by
c) describing the cultural, economic, and political issues that divided the nation,
including slavery, the abolitionist and women's suffrage movements, and the role
of the states in the Union.
- 11th Grade English
- 11.3 The Student will read and analyze relationships among American literature,
history, and culture.
* Describe how use of context and language structures conveys an author's point of
view in contemporary and historical essays, speeches, and critical reviews.
11.7 The student will write in a variety of forms with an emphasis on persuasion.
- Begin class with a review of the Fugitive Slave Act, a central issue of Chapter IX.
- Guided Reading : This activity will work best if students have already read Chapter IX
through once. Teachers might consider assigning it as homework the night before this
lesson is done in class. To begin this activity, tell students that they will be looking
closely at Stowe's portrayal of Mrs. Byrd. Distribute the Guided Reading Worksheet.
Students may complete the sheet individually or in small groups.
- When students have completed the Guided Reading Worksheet, discuss their findings as
a class. Tell students that at the time in which Stowe was writing, it was believed that
women and men should occupy two separate spheres: the public sphere for men (including
politics, business, and careers) and the private sphere for women (including the family, the home,
and religion). Mrs. Byrd is a clear example of 1850s America's "ideal woman" in that she excels in her assigned sphere. As a
class, create a list of the traits of this ideal woman, based on the students' answers on the
Guided Reading Worksheet.
- Cultural Artifacts : Assign students to small groups. Each group will need access to a
computer with internet access. Have students go to the category entitled Sentimental
Culture on the Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture website. Each group is to
find one (or more, according to the time allotted) item from the website – an image or a
text – that somehow connects to the topic of gender in Chapter IX of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Have each group print the item(s) that they have found. Tomorrow they will present their
findings to the class. In the remaining class time or as homework, have students plan
- Group Presentations : Begin class by having each group present their findings from the
cultural artifacts activity. Discuss the items as a class. What else can these items tell us
about mid-nineteenth century American culture's expectations of women and men? How
did Stowe's novel conform to the gender expectations of her time?
Note : There is much evidence in Stowe's novel to suggest that she embraced her
culture's expectations of men and women, evidence that students will have most likely
gathered in the earlier activities in this lesson. Today, however, students will be
presented with two items that paint Stowe in a more radical light.
- Speeches : Have two (or more) students read the following two document excerpts aloud
as speeches: Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Letter to the Worcester Women's Rights
Convention of 1850, and John R. Thompson's book review of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the
Southern Literary Messenger.
Note : Teachers may want to assign students to prepare
these speeches ahead of time in order to practice their public speaking skills and so that
the class can experience the enthusiastic tone of both documents. Stanton's letter was
actually presented aloud in the 1850 Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, so it's
especially appropriate to experience this document as a speech.
- Tell students that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the most radical feminists of her
day. (Students may want to find out more about her in the PBS website "Not For Ourselves Alone" listed in
Resources.) Ask students to summarize the argument Stanton was making about women
and politics. As a class or on paper, have students make a list of specific similarities
between Stanton's argument and Stowe's Chapter IX. It will be easiest for students to
create this list if they have their own copies of both texts (the speech and the chapter).
- After the speech from the book review, ask students to summarize
Thompson's opinion about women and politics. Thompson accuses Stowe of not being a
"lady." What does this mean?
- As the closing activity for this lesson, have students consider these questions:
- How did Stowe imagine women changing slavery?
- In what other places in the novel is gender an important issue? (This may be a
question that teachers want to revisit later in the novel.)
- Did Stowe ultimately conform to the status quo regarding gender, or did she
ultimately challenge it (either through her characters or through her own
activities as a writer)? Remind students to think back to the objects in the
cultural artifacts activity as they answer this question.
Note : Teachers may choose to use the final question as a topic for a class debate
or as a persuasive essay question. If used as an essay, have students brainstorm
specific passages from the novel that support their opinions.