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William Paarlberg and Janet Paarlberg


Main Ideas
Edna Ferber wrote three novels and ten short stories about Chicago and the suburban regions.

A main theme in her writing was the role of women in the workplace in Chicago and the surrounding area. Also, she stressed how women can be successful through their own efforts in the workplace and in society.

Connection with the Curriculum
The following activities can be used to teach Illinois history, U.S. history, and writing skills.

Teaching Level
Grades 7-12

Materials for each Student
A copy of the narrative portion of this article

Handouts 1 - 4

Objectives for each Student
Use the narrative portion of the article as the starting and a resource point for discussions, debate, and writing. For example, discuss the differences between the narrative Ferber novel So Big and the film So Big with the students.

Use primary source and narrative material to discuss, debate, and write about Ferber's love of Chicago.

Compare Ferber's Chicago novels and short stories to the events of the time in the Chicago area. For example, use the narrative and the novel The Girls and compare it to Chicago history and women's rights contemporary with the novel.


The activities are designed to study the role of women in the world of work from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s.

Opening the Lesson
Ask the students to read the narrative portion of this article.

Assign the activities in the handouts.

Developing the Lesson
The key to the lesson is having the students read the article, or listen to it on tape or read aloud and for the teacher to integrate the various activities into the lesson.

The activities can be done in sequence or can be arranged to fit the curriculum.

Woman on a Tightrope

Concluding the Lesson
Teachers may wish to close the lesson by discussing the points of the activity.

Handout 1 - Women from 1865 through the 1920s and women of today.

Handout 2 - Motivation of women to work in their 20s versus their 50s.

Handout 3 - Writing about Chicago.

Handout 4 - Dutch people's way of life in society and the world of work.

Extending the Lesson
Discuss Ferber's other book themes such as treatment of minority groups, protecting our environment, etc.

Discuss Ferber's efforts or lack of effort in the women's movement of the 1910s and 1920s.

Write about your goals in life and how cultural events of the past have permitted you a more diversified spectrum.

Chicago is a microcosm of nationalities. Using your nationality, describe the impact and contributions that have been made by the Chicago area. Use social, cultural, language, and literature themes in your debate or report.

Compare the book So Big to the video version.

Research and compile Ferber's life, and describe how her life led to the themes for her short stories and novels.

Have students write persuasive essays on such tropics as :

(a) Women in the workplace

(b) Women's right to vote

(c) Ferber and ecology

Create a Venn diagram demonstrating Ferber's overlapping themes of women's rights and women in the work place. Substantiate your thesis.

Quiz and test examples: essay, multiple choice, true and false, etc.

Assessing the Lesson
Assess each activity individually based on its individual merits and the ability of each student.

Ask students to answer the following summary questions.

  1. Why are Ferber's stories and novels about Chicago so important to women in the world of work?

  2. How did the role of women change in society and the work place from 1865 through 1920?

  3. Why is Ferber important or not important to the women's movement?

  4. What are Ferber's greatest contributions?


Handout 1

In the world of work, compare and contrast women (especially their physical, emotional, and psychological freedoms) from 1865 to the 1920s and women in the present time. To complete the chart, use the narrative, Ferber's work, and especially consider using these books: Linda Kerber and Jane Sherron DeHart, Women's America: Refocusing the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) and Nancy Cott, The Grounding of American Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.)

WOMEN 1865 TO 1920s                     WOMEN OF TODAY



Handout 2

In the world of work, compare and contrast what motivated women in their 20s and in their 50s in the purpose of work. Use the narrative, Ferber's work, and Cott and Kerber's books to complete the chart.

PURPOSE OF WORK 20s                     PURPOSE OF WORK 50s



Handout 3

From the primary source letter below, write about or debate why Ferber enjoyed writing about Chicago. Use the narrative, Ferber's Chicago short stories, and her novels Fanny Herself and The Girls as your starting point and as background materials.

Letter written by Edna Ferber to Mr. Carpenter

Source: Chicago Historical Society Collections


Handout 4

From the primary source letter to the Chicago Historical Society, write about or debate how the Dutch material improved Ferber's understanding of the Dutch farmer's way of life. Use the narrative, the novel and/or video So Big as your starting point and as background material.

Letter by Edna Ferber to Caroline Mollvaine

Source: Chicago Historical Society Collections
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