Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist, and Judicial Pioneer Lesson Plan


On December 28, 1894, Burnita Shelton Matthews was born into an educated, civic-minded family, in Copiah County, Mississippi. Although she aspired from a very young age to pursue a legal career, her father insisted that she pursue the study and teaching of music which he believed was a more ladylike profession. Following her marriage to Percy A. Matthews, she taught music for a short while in Georgia before moving to Washington, D.C. to accept a job with the Veterans Administration. She strategically chose to live and work in Washington, D.C. so that she could pursue a law degree at one of the few law schools that would accept women at the time, the National University Law School. While in law school, Matthews became involved with the National Women’s Party’s suffrage movement. Upon graduation, she operated a legal practice in Washington, D.C., and she continued her work with the NWP as head of their Legal Research Department. In 1949, President Harry S. Truman nominated Matthews to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She became the first woman ever appointed to a federal trial court and only the second woman ever appointed to a federal constitutional court. After a long career on the bench, Matthews died of a stroke in 1988. Her headstone in the Shelton Family Cemetery in Copiah County marks her contribution to women in American society. Her epitaph notes that she was the first woman to become a U. S. district court judge and the “author of laws advancing the status of women.”

Curricular Connections

US History: 1877 to Present

  • US.3.2 - Trace the development of political, social, and cultural movements and subsequent reforms, including: Jim Crow laws, Plessy vs. Ferguson, women’s suffrage, temperance movement, Niagara movement, public education, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Marcus Garvey.

Teaching Level

Grades 7 through 12



The students will:

  1. Construct a timeline of events in the life of Burnita Shelton Matthews.
  2. Analyze the life of Burnita Shelton Matthews.
  3. Compose an essay about the role Burnita Shelton Matthews played in furthering the rights of women.

Opening the Lesson

After displaying the term on the board, the teacher will ask the students to define the term “pioneer.” After a class discussion about the term, the teacher will tell the class that they will study about Burnita Shelton Matthews, who was a suffragist, feminist, lawyer, and judge. The teacher will tell the students that through their study, they will determine how she was a pioneer in the fight for female suffrage and equal rights for women.

Developing the Lesson

  1. While reading the Mississippi History Now article, “Burnita Shelton Matthews: Suffragist, Feminist, and Judicial Pioneer,” students will take notes on the major events in her life.
  2. Working with a partner, the students will use their notes to construct a timeline listing at least ten major events in the life of Burnita Shelton Matthews.
  3. The teacher will ask student volunteers to share events from their timeline with the class. The teacher will facilitate a discussion about major events in the life of Burnita Shelton Matthews as student volunteers share their timeline information.
  4. Next, the teacher will ask the students to revisit the events in the life of Judge Matthews to determine the obstacles/challenges she faced in pursuit of her goals. The students should also consider the personal characteristics she possessed to overcome these obstacles/challenges. The students can work alone or with a partner on this portion of the lesson. The chart in the materials list can be provided to the students to record information about Judge Matthews. Once the students complete the charts, the teacher will discuss information from the charts with the class.
  5. Again, with the option of working alone or with a partner, the students will write an essay about the life of Burnita Shelton Matthews. The focus of the student essay will be the following: Burnita Shelton Matthews was a pioneer in furthering opportunities for women in American society.

Closing the Lesson

The teacher will ask the students the following questions:

  1. How was Burnita Shelton Matthews a pioneer for furthering the rights of women?
  2. What do you find most fascinating about her life?
  3. Are there any connections between her life and yours?
  4. What do you think Judge Matthews would say about the roles of women in society today?

The students can discuss answers to the questions above with the class or individually on paper.

Assessing Student Learning

  • Class participation
  • Chart
  • Essay


  • Conduct research on the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
  • Conduct research on the suffragettes, the Nineteenth Amendment, and/or the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.
  • Conduct research on other Mississippi women who held local, state, or national leadership roles.
  • The teacher can use other Mississippi History Now articles such as “Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment” to create a unit on women in Mississippi history.
  • Trace the changes in the roles, rights, and opportunities of women in American society.

Karla Smith is the Social Studies Department Chair at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jefferson Davis Campus.

Other Mississippi History Now articles:

Equal Rights Amendment and Mississippi

Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment

Lucy Somerville Howorth: Lawyer, Politician, and Feminist

Betsy Love, and the Married Women’s Property Act