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An Exploration of Women’s History on the SAT & ACT

March is Women’s History Month, and while it’s these thirty-one days that highlight women’s historical contributions, the SAT and ACT exams highlight them year-round. Each test includes a History passage and the Paired Passages section is also notorious for featuring historical texts, mostly from debates in which the authors respond to one another. These passages chronicle a significant topic in civil rights history, and they are quite dense.

With this in mind, it’s prudent to review them to prepare for upcoming tests! Below  are examples of  chronologies of women’s history texts that have appeared on standardized tests. Following that is the context from the test on which they appeared, a summary of the passages, and brief biographies of the women’s rights activists in question. Afterwards, find tips on answering the questions for historical texts such as these.

1. Paired Passages: Report on Public Instruction, Tallyrand et al. (1791). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792).

Context: “Talleyrand was a French diplomat; the Report was a plan for national education. Wollstonecraft, a British novelist and political writer, wrote Vindication in response to Talleyrand.”

Passage 1 Summary: Talleyrand argues that division by gender is natural and ideal. He claims that biological differences between men and women show that nature has split the sexes, and this split should be echoed in society.

Passage 2 Summary: Wollstonecraft passionately argues against Talleyrand’s points. She claims that if women are not educated on a level equal to men, the progress of society will be stymied, for “truth” that is not “common to all” will be inefficient “with respect to its influence on general practice.”

Biography: Wollstonecraft was an 18th-century women’s rights advocate, writer, and philosopher. Today, she is considered a founder of feminist philosophy. While she wrote many other texts, her most famous is the above-quoted A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This text argues that the inequality between men and women springs not from biology, but from society, and that if both genders were treated as rational beings, civilization would improve.

2. History Passage: A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, Mary Robinson (1799).

Context: “Originally published under the pseudonym Anne Frances Randall.”

Summary: Robinson argues that no matter what a woman does, she is bound to experience backlash; thus, arguments against women’s participation in certain spheres are rooted in misogyny, not in reason. She also claims that it is more cruel to educate women and then to deny them the opportunity to use this education, than not to educate them at all; if women are to get an education, they deserve the rights that would enable them to apply it accordingly.

Biography: Mary Robinson was an 18th-century English actress, poet, novelist, dramatist, and socialite. In her time, she was known as “the English Sappho.” While she wrote many popular plays and novels, by the 1790s she was deeply inspired by feminist sentiment, especially that of Mary Wollstonecraft. That occasioned the publishing of A Letter to the Women of England. Her very last work, a series of poems titled Lyrical Tales, was released in 1800 and meant to respond to the Lyrical Ballads of the renowned male writers Wordsworth and Coleridge,  imploring readers to recognize the humanity of women: “[is] not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man?”

3. Paired Passages: Democracy in America, Volume 2, Alexis de Tocqueville (1840). “Enfranchisement of Women,” Harriet Taylor Mill (1851).

Context: “As United States and European societies grew increasingly democratic during the nineteenth century, debates arose about whether freedoms enjoyed by men should be extended to women as well.”

Passage 1 Summary: Tocqueville concedes that society is increasingly leveling inequalities, and the relation between men and women will be impacted by this. However, he claims, the physical differences between men and women are so apparent that it’s only natural for the two sexes to have different jobs, duties, and roles. If both are considered completely equal, society will disintegrate.

Passage 2 Summary: Mill argues that the most proper place for any human is the highest that they can attain through their own efforts. Thus, she claims, every occupation should be open to everyone, regardless of sex or class; otherwise, by imposing such an arbitrary limit on its citizens, society limits itself and cannot progress.

Biography: Mill was a British women’s rights activist, philosopher, and writer. Though she was quite prolific, little was published under her own name during her lifetime. Much was attributed to her husband, the noted intellectual John Stuart Mill, and he himself acknowledged that Harriet was the co-author of most works published under his name. “Enfranchisement of Women” argues not just for women’s right to vote, but “equality in all rights, political, civil, and social, with the male citizens of the community.”

4. History Passage: “Address to the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington, D.C.,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1869).

Context: “This passage is adapted from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s address to the 1869 Woman Suffrage Convention in Washington, DC.”

Summary: Stanton argues for the sixteenth amendment, the women’s right to vote. She claims that strife and war has constituted most of history, and that if women were permitted to partake in society to a larger degree, there would be less discord. Gender inequality, she argues, hurts men and women alike.

Biography: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an American abolitionist, suffragist, and a leader of the early women’s rights movement. At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York—the first women’s rights convention—she presented a “Declaration of Sentiments,” which is now considered to be the catalyst for the first organized women’s rights movements in America. Along with voting rights, she also championed women’s parental rights, employment rights, property rights, birth control, and divorce.

5. History Passage: Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf (1938).

Context: “Here, Woolf considers the situation of women in English society.”

Summary: Woolf reflects on the recent progress made in regard to women’s education. Instead of leaping at the opportunity to get educated and advance in society, she claims, women should stop to consider on what terms they wish to join society. Woolf cautions against pure assimilation, and proposes instead that women recognize the social construction of many societal paradigms—and the consequent potential to rethink and change them.

Biography: Virginia Woolf was a 20th-century English writer, and is considered to be one of the most important modernist authors. While she did not explicitly campaign for women’s rights, her writing—books considered canonical today, such as To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own—explore the experiences of women in her time period.

Tips For Answering Historical Passage Questions

1. Review important women’s rights activists and famous women’s rights speeches. Famous activists include Sojourner Truth, the Grimké sisters, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, among others. It’s very likely that the most significant of these names will be on a future test.

2. Read historical documents and “translate” them into contemporary English. These texts are notoriously dense because the vocabulary, syntax, and phrasing were much different back then. Generally, high-level vocabulary is used, and sentences are a lot longer, which can make them less straightforward. The more practice you have with reading this kind of writing, the better your comprehension will be.

3. Know important time periods. Context is important. Review each century’s significant civil rights movements, and know the speakers, writers, and advocates who led them, as well as the most important speeches and documents that came out of these eras.

4. Sum up the main idea of each historical passage you read. What is the central idea being expressed? What did you get out of reading this?   What do you now know from having read this passage? Answering these questions can lead you to the main idea. The more comfortable you get with rephrasing their words in your own, the better.

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