Puerto Rican Women’s Labor Movement

Time Estimate

Three 45-minute class periods and one additional day for writing the DBQ.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. learn the steps involved in crafting an essay using primary sources.
  2. identify point of view in a variety of sources.
  3. identify other points of view or types of sources not represented in the sampling.
  4. interpret and evaluate the role of women in the Puerto Rican workforce as seen in multiple sources, and from multiple perspectives.
  5. identify factors that create different perspectives for women from different countries.
  6. discuss the participation of Puerto Rican women in the global economy.
  7. work in small groups to discuss different perspectives and points of view.
  8. cooperate with a group in order to formulate an answer to a question.
  9. write a five-paragraph essay comparing Roosevelt’s depiction of Puerto Rico with that found in contemporaneous source documents.
  1. Homework: Before the first lesson, have students read the Puerto Rican Labor Movement Introduction

  2. Hook: Pass out one copy of the Enlarged Photograph of Source 10: Photograph, Striking Workers and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images to each student.

    Introduce the discussion of Puerto Rican women in the labor force using the photograph and accompanying text. If possible, project the image of the photograph onto a large screen. Ask what impressions the photograph gives of women strikers.

    Next, examine the photograph with the students, following the image worksheet. Have students fill in answers as you go over the worksheet. Ask students to isolate aspects of the image; if possible, crop them on the screen so all can see.

    Finally, analyze elements of the photograph to introduce the prominent themes of the lesson. Discussion of violence (police), gendered labor (crops), imperialism and globalization (flags), and gender roles (gender) will be woven throughout the lesson.

    • Police:
      • Find the guards or policemen. Ask how are they distinguishable.
      • Ask what they appear to be doing, and whether the situation looks violent.
      • Ask whether it appears that violence was used against women strikers.
    • Crops:
      • Find the crops, and guess what kind they are.
      • Guess if this work was performed by both men and women.
    • Flags:
      • Look at the flags. Try to identify them and determine what they symbolize in that setting.
      • Ask why people would bring flags to a strike.
      • Ask if the use of the U.S. flag in Puerto Rico represents imperialism.
    • Gender:
      • Do the people in the photograph appear to be mostly men, women, or even?
      • How does that affect your understanding of women participating in strikes?
      • How would it be different if it were all men?
      • What does this indicate about women in the labor force?

    Ask students whether this photographic source provides rich information, and if so, what. Ask if students have any questions before turning in their worksheets. Students turn in their worksheet before the end of class.

  3. Homework: Give students copies of Source 5: Magazine, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts. Students will complete the worksheet, based on the Eleanor Roosevelt article, and bring to the next class.

  4. Review Source 5: Magazine, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts. Return homework to students. Point out strengths and weaknesses of their responses. Ask for questions. Ask students what they learned about Puerto Rican women in the labor force. Ask students to offer responses for individual questions on the worksheet.

  5. Read this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, referring to women needleworkers, “A few of them who work in factories earn fair wages, but for sewing done at home they are paid absurdly low pages.”

    Questions for the class:

    • What is Roosevelt’s attitude toward Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican women workers?
    • What economic suggestions does Roosevelt make for Puerto Rican women workers?
    • How would those changes affect the gendering of labor in Puerto Rico?
    • Does it appear that Mrs. Roosevelt is aware of women participating in labor strikes?
  6. Group Analysis of Primary Documents: The final goal of this lesson is for students to be able to put together an essay using primary sources to support their arguments. This is the scenario they will use for their essay:

    Imagine you are a Puerto Rican woman political activist organizing unions at the same time that Eleanor Roosevelt writes her article. Draft a response to Roosevelt’s call for manufacturing and improvement of the island that will be published in the same U.S. journal, Woman’s Home Companion.

    The intermediate objective is for students to present their findings and take notes on other groups' findings, so that each student has a body of points to draw on for his or her final essay.

    Part One: Working together in small groups, students will read and discuss issues as they each complete a worksheet to understand their group's primary source.

    Part Two: With the information that they gain from analyzing primary sources, each group of students will make a list of four points to be used in writing a response to Mrs. Roosevelt. Each point will be supported with a quote from or an interpretation of a primary source. As a group, students will present their analysis of their four strongest points to the class, describing how they came to their decisions.

    Assign each group one of the following primary sources. Ideally each source will be examined by at least one group. It is fine if more than one group examines the same source. Starting questions are provided below each of the listed primary sources.

    Source 2: Quantitative Evidence, 1940 Census and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Quantitative Evidence

    • What differences do you see in the work done by women and by men?
    • How do needleworkers in the census report compare to needleworkers described in Roosevelt’s article?

    Source 7: Newspaper, Needleworker Strike and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts

    • How does this compare to Roosevelt’s claim that women needeleworkers in factories receive “fair" wages”?
    • What are the benefits for women to join unions?

    Source 8: Official Document, Women's Union Telegram and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts

    • What does this telegram say about women’s beliefs about their rights?
    • Why do you think these women are seeking help from the Governor, who is appointed by the United States, rather than another Puerto Rican official?

    Source 9: Official Documents, Police Letter and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts

    • How does this letter to the Governor compare to Roosevelt’s portrayal of Puerto Rico?
    • How does this letter indicate that women are a significant part of the labor movement?

    Source 6: Official Document, Women's Employment

    • What does this report cite as the major changes in the needleworking industry over the previous 18 years?
    • What does this report say about the value of needleworkers in society?

    Source 4: Photograph, Worker’s Celebration and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images

    • What does this photograph show about the beginning of labor unions in Puerto Rico?
    • Why do you think the written part of the banner is in English and says “Labor Day”?

    Source 11: Photograph, Tobacco Workers and the Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images

    • Does this photograph show the improvement that Roosevelt sought?
    • What does this photograph document about the division of labor?

  7. Essay: Assess learning with five-paragraph essay as homework.

    Instructions: Imagine you are a Puerto Rican woman political activist organizing unions at the same time that Eleanor Roosevelt writes her article. Draft a response to Roosevelt’s call for manufacturing and improvement of the island that will be published in the same U.S. journal, Woman’s Home Companion.

    Use the Key Questions to help guide your essay writing. You must use at least two of the primary sources from this lesson. Your essay should either:

    • Analyze Eleanor Roosevelt’s position using documents; or
    • Compare and contrast Eleanor Roosevelt’s position with your own (remember, you are a Puerto Rican woman activist)


Advanced Students: These students should be encouraged to search for information on Luisa Capetillo, a Puerto Rican labor organizer, who lived from 1879-1922. Start with Wikipedia, and see how much information you can dig up. Look for primary sources; see if you can find any publications by her. With this information, try writing your essay again, only this time using the words of Luisa Capetillo in contrast to Eleanor Roosevelt’s. How does information about Capetillo change your perception of Puerto Rican women activists? For what act was she most famous?

Visual Learners/Less Advanced Students: These students could draw or design their own flag for the Puerto Rican women’s needleworker union. Try to make it fit the style of the 1930s. Look at the Spanish Civil War module for examples of “Poster, Farm Women” and “Poster, Factory Woman” in the 1930s. How might the Puerto Rican designs be different? Try to design a poster that fits with our readings. You can use elements of the primary-source photographs. What symbols should the flag incorporate? How will people recognize it? What does it symbolize?

Another option would be to skip the culminating essay and end with the document comparisons.