Women and the British Empire: A Talking DBQ

Time Estimated

One 80-minute class period and DBQ as an independent assignment.

Because students need a background on the British Empire in order to complete this lesson, the lesson would be most appropriately placed near the end of a unit on imperialism.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. analyze primary-source documents for evidence of roles women played in the British Empire.
  2. devise yes/no questions in order to gain more information.
  3. cooperate with a group in order to formulate an answer to a question.
  4. recognize the multifaceted nature of the role women played in the development and support of the British Empire.
  5. identify different views of the British Empire based on the documents provided.

  1. Methodology: This lesson borrows heavily from the Suchman Inquiry Model of teaching, which allows students to discover key facts by analyzing artifacts and formulating questions. Essentially, the lesson is a talking DBQ.

    In small groups, students are presented with one artifact at a time and asked to analyze the artifact within the framework of a specific question. In the case of this lesson, the question is: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? Once they have analyzed the artifact and taken notes, they then formulate a question to ask the teacher to gain more information. The question should be asked so that the answer is either yes or no. By putting this restriction on the students, if forces them to formulate thoughtful and detailed questions. Each group is given the same artifact at the same time, a few minutes for analysis, and then a few minutes for questioning the teacher. Once one artifact is complete, the teacher then passes out the next artifact. The lesson proceeds in this way until all the artifacts have been analyzed.

    At that point, students use the sum of the knowledge they have accumulated to try to answer the primary question posed them at the beginning of class. Through guided full class discussion, teachers are able to bring students to the necessary conclusions to understand the documents and the learning question.1

  2. For this lesson on women in the British Empire, the question to be answered is: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? For this lesson, there are five artifacts selected for analysis: three paintings, one diary excerpt, one book excerpt and one personal letter excerpt. Six artifacts can usually be analyzed and discussed in one 80-minute class.
  3. Introduction: Explain to students that we will be analyzing documents today by playing 20 questions. In small groups, they will receive one document at a time. They will be given ten minutes to analyze and take notes on the document. Then, along with their group members, they must come up with a yes/no question for the teacher that will give them more information. They should come up with more than one question because another group might ask their question before it is their turn. They will also have the opportunity to ask more than one question if time allows. Ultimately, they are trying to answer the following big question: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire? Put the question on the board. Once every group has asked a question, the next document will be passed out for analysis. We will proceed in this way for all four documents. When it is each groupís turn to ask a question, it can relate to any of the documents analyzed so far.
  4. Teacher-guided analysis: Before beginning the 20 questions game, indicate to the students that they will analyze one document together as a class to give them an idea of the types of questions they should be asking when it is their turn. At this point, project Source 4: Painting, Scotland Forever (1881) by Elizabeth Butler. Give the students a minute to study the painting.

    Pass out the note sheets; give them a few minutes to take some cursory notes on the painting. Point out to the students that they should ask questions that will help them gather information about the document; specific information like point of view, bias, medium, influence of medium on message, audience and authorship. It might be helpful to write these terms on the board. Ask students to take a minute to formulate some questions about the painting, keeping in mind the larger question we are trying to answer today: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire?

    As students offer questions, compliment them on their thinking and attention to the list of types of information they are trying to gather. Ask them to try to rephrase their questions as yes/no questions if it was not in that form already. This will be a challenge to the students, and possibly somewhat frustrating, but as they begin to form more precise questions, their analysis becomes clearer.

    If students are having difficulty formulating questions, offer some models. For example, one of the pieces of information they need is point of view. A question for the Scotland Forever painting might be:

    • Was the artist British?
    • Was the artist loyal to the British Empire?
    • Was the artist trying to encourage support for the British military?

    Questions that could be generated for the authorship might be:

    • Was the artist British?
    • Was the artist a soldier?
    • Was the artist a man?

    After you feel that students have gained an understanding of how to formulate and ask questions, go on to the first document they will analyze in their small groups. Continue to remind them of the types of information they are seeking and the question they are trying to answer. Answer any questions the students might have about the lesson procedures.

  5. Small-group Analysis: Put students into groups. When everyone is ready, begin by passing out a copy of the first document to each group. The first document is Source 1: Painting, The Secret of Englandís Greatness (1863) by Thomas Jones Barker. You might also want to project a larger image of the painting for the students to study. Give them five to ten minutes to analyze and formulate a couple of questions.

    While students are working, circulate to monitor their analyses and depth of understanding. Encourage them to make comparisons with the document they have already analyzed. Refrain from answering questions at this point; encourage them to rephrase their questions so that you may answer them with a yes or a no at the end of this round of document analysis.

    When the time has expired, ask for a volunteer group to begin the questions. Allow each group to ask one question. Remind students that all the questions their classmates ask will provide them with more information. Thus, they should pay attention to the questions and the answers. Once each group has asked one question, proceed to the next document. Try not to allow more than one question per group until all the groups have had a chance to ask a question. This will frustrate the students somewhat, but the result will be more focused and thoughtful questions as the lesson proceeds. If time allows, go back through each group to give them the opportunity to ask more questions.

    Continue with the remaining three documents (Source 7: Autobiography, Mary Seacole, Source 10: Fiction, Nervous Conditions, and Source 3: Letter, Mary Moffat) until the analysis is complete. Try not to spend more than 15 minutes total on each document.

  6. Discussion: At this point, the students have analyzed five documents, one with you, and four as a class asking questions. Make sure they understand this key information about each document. Give the students a few minutes to discuss an answer to the big question: What role did women play in the creation and perpetuation of the British Empire?

    When they are ready, invite students to give their answer to the question. Encourage students to take notes on the discussion; this will help them with the upcoming writing assignment. Lead the students through a discussion of the various roles women played and impact of those roles on the British Empire. It is at this point that you may fill in information you think they may have neglected to uncover in their questioning. Clarify any misconceptions that might have arisen.

  7. DBQ Assignment: When it is clear that the students have grasped the lessonís material, proceed with the DBQ assignment. They will notice that not all of the documents are the same as those analyzed in class. Review the writing assignment with the students and assign a due date.

Possible enrichments activities for this lesson include:

  • Internet research: Allow students to search for other women who impacted the British Empire during the Age of Imperialism. What role did they play? Did they support the empire?
  • Create your own DBQ: Have students use the Internet and classroom resources to find documents to create their own DBQ. Students can be required to find five related documents and write a question tying them together.
  • A presentation on bias: Students can be assigned to find documents representing a specific point of view (African, Indian, British). Those students can then present the impact of British imperialism from those points of view.

1 For more information on the Suchman Inquiry Model in its original form, see, Mary Gunter and Thomas H. Estes and Jan Schwab, Instruction: A Models Approach, Third Edition, (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999).