In education circles, document-based learning is all the rage. The idea is to present a historical document, ask students to examine it closely, then pose some questions. These DBQs, as they are affectionately called, are expected to introduce young people to the process of historical inquiry.
How sweet it would be, but it’s not that easy.
In 2005, the AP United States History test presented an historical image in which a woman wears a tricorn hat, grasps a powder horn in one hand, and supports a musket with the other; in the distance, a flag waves from a fort. No context was provided except for the title: “Woodcut of Patriot woman, Marblehead, MA, 1779.” Students were expected to write an essay, based on this image, responding to the question, “To what extent did the American Revolution fundamentally change American society?” The official “Scoring Guidelines” explained the “document inferences” students were expected to draw from this single image:
- Women participated in the American Revolution.
- Women’s roles were expanded during the American Revolution; women performed tasks previously done solely by men.
- Hints at the potential for revolutionary change in women’s roles.
Included in the “outside information” students might wish to bring to bear on this document, the Scoring Guidelines stated, was “Molly Pitcher.”
This is no way to train our junior historians.
First off, women did not participate in the American Revolution in the manner depicted, bearing muskets to defend a fort or related military purposes. Very occasionally, when a handful did so, they had to pose as males. True, camp followers participated in artillery teams, and back home, groups of women sometimes strong-armed noted Tories or shopkeepers who hoarded scarce items, but such women were not musket-toting imitations of their male counterparts.
The war did expand women’s roles and their worries, but not in that direction. Indeed, the so-called “Patriot woman” from Marblehead accompanies an explicitly anti-war poem, A New Touch on the Times, well adapted to the distressing situation of every Seaport Town. With men “gone the ocean wide” (during times of peace, Marblehead was a fishing center, but during times of war, men often shipped out on privateering vessels), women were left on their own to face wartime shortages and exorbitant prices: “It’s hard and cruel times to live,/ Takes thirty dollars to buy a sieve.” How did “every Seaport Town” fall upon such hard times, the author asks?
For sin is the cause of this,
We must not take it then amiss,
Wan’t it for our polluted tongues,
This cruel war would ne’er begun.
We should hear no fife and drum,
Nor training bands would never come:
Should we go on our sinful course,
Times will grow on us worse and worse.
Then gracious GOD now cause to cease,
This bloody war and give us peace!
And down our streets send plenty then
With hearts as one we’ll say Amen!
This poem hardly celebrates women-turned-soldiers. Indeed, its powerful message is quite the opposite of what the AP text-makers read into the woodcut that accompanies it.
Not only did the AP program present the Marblehead woodcut out of context, but it also erred by assuming the image was purely descriptive. This is a common mistake. Images and words can have many purposes, and reporting is only one. They can praise or condemn, ridicule or scold, warn or cajole. Depending on the accompanying text and social context, a broadside publisher might want readers to interpret an image of an armed woman in different ways. Even if we imagine that this woodcut depicts the actual behavior of some women at that time, how do we know whether that behavior was to be seen as laudable, lamentable, or ridiculous?
Not understanding the genre or the intent, we cannot draw inferences from an isolated document – yet that is exactly what the AP asked students to do. Most likely, test takers followed the errant path the test makers cleared for them and assumed the image was presented as a representation and celebration of real women during the Revolutionary War. Presented with evidence this scanty, students were not merely encouraged but forced to jump to conclusions. They had no choice but to practice hasty history, just as the test-makers did.
Unfortunately, presenting isolated documents with little context is all too common. Various curricula websites have glommed onto Marblehead Woman, making the same faulty assumptions as the AP did. Well-meaning educators, using DBQs to promote “historical thinking” yet poorly trained in historical inquiry, present a documentary snippet, then ask students to make snap judgments on minimal evidence. The actual practice of history, on the other hand, depends on the consultation of multiple documents, as many as can possibly be retrieved.
The real kicker, in this case, is the casual assumption that Marblehead Woman provides evidence of a change in women’s roles. Presumably, the American Revolution gave rise to expanded roles in a militarized society, as portrayed in this particular image. Were it not for the Revolutionary War, there would have been no expanded roles and hence no “patriot woman” woodcut. But what if historical documentation shows that this image did not even arise during the Revolutionary War, but many years before? Stay tuned. J. L. Bell will contextualize the roots of this sturdy lass tomorrow.