Constructing Womanhood: Politics in 20th-Century Southeast Asia

Time Estimate

Five 50-minute blocks and DBQ as an independent assignment.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. analyze textual primary sources.
  2. analyze visual primary sources.
  3. recognize gender as a social construction.
  4. understand that those social constructions change over time.

  1. Hook:

    • Write the word “feminine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
    • Write the word “masculine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
    • Ask your students to share their responses; as they say them, write their responses underneath of “feminine” and “masculine.”
    • Discuss their responses. What generalizations can they make about their ideas of femininity and masculinity? Where do these ideas come from?
    • Write the sentence “Gender is a social construction,” on the board, then explain that what they have been describing have been ways that our society constructs, or creates, gender. Other societies have different beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman, and what roles men and women should play in a society. For the next week, the class will be examining how gender roles were constructed in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.
  2. Contextualizing the Sources:

    • Direct students to read the Southeast Asian Politics Introduction.
    • As they read, they should answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:
      1. What time period and area of the world is the subject of the introduction?
        • Students should answer that it focuses on 20th-century Southeast Asia.
      2. Summarize how Southeast Asia’s relationship to the rest of the world changed between 1920 and 1970.
        • Students should answer that most Southeast Asian countries went from being colonized by European nations, to being occupied by Japan, to being independent nations.
      3. When independence came, Southeast Asian countries had internal struggles for power. Describe those struggles and analyze why independence would bring about internal conflict.
        • Students should see that as new governments were created, different groups of people wanted different things out of that government. Some wanted democracy, while others wanted a strong central authority. Students may theorize that these struggles occurred because there was a power vacuum left by the European colonizers.
      4. What roles did women play in those struggles for power?
        • Students should answer that women mostly played unofficial roles, meaning that they exercised power behind the scenes through their kinship groups. Some women campaigned for women to have official power as well.
  3. Introduction to Primary Sources:

  4. Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood:

    • Direct students to read all of the sources in their source packet. Remind them that they are reading with a purpose: to understand and analyze how ideas of womanhood were constructed in 20th-century Southeast Asia. If students have access to computers, also direct them to explore Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam on the web.
    • After students have completed an initial reading of the sources, direct them to work in partners to pull apart the sources. Ask them to:
      • Pick out clues that indicate what it meant to be a woman in this time period, in this area of the world. Students should circle key words and sentences and make notes in the margins. Remind students to make a note of the date each document was created so that they are aware of change over time.
      • Create a concept map to reflect the competing notions of womanhood they found in the documents. Students may create a map that shows two major trends: one of women as moral guardians and more traditionally feminine, and one of women as activists and more androgynous. Or, students may create a map that reconciles those competing notions by acknowledging that both recognize women’s power, just in different realms. Students may also create a map that reflects chronological changes in gender constructions. There is no “correct” concept map.
    • Ask each group to share their map with the class and explain why they made the decisions they made about organizing their information.
    • Guide students in a discussion around the following questions:
      1. What did it mean to be a woman in 20th-century Southeast Asia?
        • Students should make generalizations based on their concept maps.
      2. How were notions of womanhood used by women to achieve political goals?
        • Students should recognize that Southeast Asian women used womanhood as justification for achieving more rights. The most common argument was that women, as mothers and moral guardians, controlled the spiritual and political future of the nation and therefore should be given more education and entrusted with more political rights. Other arguments, later in the 20th century, focused more on women as men’s equals, and therefore deserving of equal rights.
      3. What generalizations can you make around how ideas of womanhood changed from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end? How can you account for these changes?
        • Students should see that portrayals of women as traditionally feminine were used in the early 20th century; feminist descriptions of women as equals to men were used in the late 20th century. The main trend is a move away from emphasizing women’s differences from men and toward emphasizing women’s sameness with men. Students might theorize that these changes happened because of the influence of Western ideas of power—the unofficial power that women held in Southeast Asia was not recognized as “real” power in Western society. Students might also theorize that the rhetoric used to argue for Southeast Asian nations’ independence would have resonated with women, who also wanted freedom and justice.
  5. Document-Based Essay Question:

    • Distribute copies of the Document-Based Essay Question.
    • Allow students time in class to brainstorm and outline their ideas.
    • Instruct students to complete the essay for homework.


  • Use a SMART Board to examine Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam together. Discuss the language and the imagery chosen by the Sisters in Islam to convey their message. Click on the “Links” tab on the website to visit other, similar sites. Compare how those sites are constructed and which ones are the most effective at conveying their message. Note: The content of the sites may not be appropriate for all age groups.
  • Ask students to use laptops to create the concept map under step number four, “Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood.” They may use SMART Ideas or Inspiration. Ask them to email the maps to you when they are done, then display the best one on the SMART Board and use it to guide your discussion.

Advanced Students:

  • Accelerate the lesson by skipping step three, “Introduction to Primary Sources.”
  • Instruct students to complete the Document-Based Essay at home; do not allow for extra in-class time to complete outlines and do brainstorming around the question.

Less Advanced Students:

  • Give students extra time to complete the Document-Based Essay by adding an intermediate step of handing in their outlines for comments before writing the essay.