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Women and the Spanish-American War

Based on document archive "How Did Women's War Relief in the Spanish-American War Alter Traditions of Female Benevolence and Pave the Way for Women's Formal Military Service?" by Carolyn Strange, 2011.

The document project on which this lesson plan is based is available by subscription only from Alexander Street Press.

Jessica Derleth
Binghamton University


In 1898 the United States entered into war with Spain by intervening in an anti-colonial rebellion on the Spanish colonial island of Cuba. With an American victory Spain ceded its territories--Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and the Spanish West Indies--and the United States grew as an imperial power while simultaneously gaining access to new markets and raw materials. Though men formed the core of formal political and military leadership during the conflict, historians have recently begun to ask questions about the role of women and gender in the Spanish-American war. This means scrutinizing, for instance, gendered language in American newspapers that portrayed savage Spaniards preying upon sexually vulnerable Cuban women in need of virtuous and manly American saviors. Furthermore, historians have increasingly charted the vital role American women played in the war by providing aid to soldiers, serving as nurses, and raising money for food and supplies. By joining historians in studying women and gender in the Spanish-American war, students stand to gain a better understanding of a critical period in the history of American imperialism..


Lesson Ideas

Read documents 1, 2, 3A, 3B, and 3C, newspaper articles from the early stages of conflict in Spanish colonial Cuba. Do these articles seem to support or resist U.S. intervention in Cuba? Why do the authors take these positions? What kind of gendered and racial language do the articles use?

Read documents 4, 5A, 6, and 7. How did women express patriotism and commitment to aiding the Spanish-American war effort? What forms of assistance did women offer? Do the women making these offers of assistance appear to be of a particular class? How do you think class did or did not influence their war contributions?

Divide the class into three groups and have them read the different documents--group one read document 9, group two read document 10A, and group three read document 10B. Within their groups have students discuss the following questions. What kind of services did the Red Cross provide? What role did women serve as nurses and medical assistants during the war? How did these women perceive and evaluate the war? Then come back together for a whole class discussion. How are the perspectives offered in these articles the same or different? What did it mean for women to criticize war protocols or military conditions?

When the Spanish-American war was over many newspapers evaluated the contributions of women to the war effort. Divide students into two groups and have them read the following articles: group one, documents 16A through 16D; group two, documents 16D through 16G. Discuss the following questions first in small groups then as a class. What were reactions to women's involvement in the war? Pay attention to language, word choice, and analogies. Were female nurses and Red Cross workers seen as challenging gender prescriptions by involving themselves in a war? Or was this volunteer work seen as an extension of women's traditional roles as caregivers?

After the war Spain ceded its colonial territories to the United States, solidifying America's position as a global power on par with Europe. Beyond material interest, the U.S. at the end of the war was convinced that the indigenous peoples of Cuba were incapable of managing their own government. Read documents 1 and 2, which cover the very beginning of the war. What do these articles tell you about race and imperialism? How are Spain, Cuba, and the U.S. described? As the war progressed American racial assumptions were also visible in the belief that African Americans, or "immunes," were impervious to yellow fever. Read document 11 and document 18 (pp. 242-43, 246), which discuss African American men and women sent to help contain disease outbreaks in Cuba. How are these "immunes" described? Are they seen as different from white medical professionals? Overall, what do these two sets of articles indicate to you about the role of race in U.S. imperialism and the Spanish-American war?

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