Women Who Changed the World

While you don't always find the names of famous women in history books, there are a variety of ways to help pupils learn about these notable females.

By Cathy Neushul

Woman face statue

Times have changed, especially with regard to society's views about women. If you look at the list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business published by Fortune Magazine, women run some of the largest companies in the United States. These companies include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Pepsi Cola. Looking at COED magazine's list of the 50 most popular women on the web, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Each of the women on the list, such as Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, is influential in her area of expertise.

While these lists show that women have taken important strides toward equality, there is still more work to be done with regard to women's rights and equality. Women throughout the world face threats to their health, their safety, and their ability to live a full life. As part of Women’s History Month, have your class discuss women in history, the contributions they have made, and the situations where women are still unequal or unsafe.

World-Changing Women from the Past

A good first step to helping your pupils understand women’s history is to make a list of all the things women weren’t allowed to do in the 1900s, 1930s, or 1950s. For example, until fairly recently, women couldn't vote; nor were they allowed to work wherever they wanted to, or in certain types of jobs. It seems absurd nowadays, but in reality, women have made significant social progress in a relatively short period of time.

In order to bring this point home with your pupils, there are many books you can use to highlight women in history. I just read a book about a woman who was instrumental in promoting equal rights for women in the work place in the early 1900s. Her name was Clara Driscoll and she worked for Louis Tiffany, the maker of Tiffany lamps. When she felt the women in her area were being treated unfairly, she organized a protest march. Clara is just one of many women who shaped history. Work with your class to compile a list of books and resources that they can use to learn more about women in history. Each person can read about a woman who interests him/her. Afterward, students can share about the women they found most interesting. To get you started compiling your list, here is a link to a government-sponsored website dedicated to Women's History Month.

Another powerful way to discuss women’s history is to focus on the suffragettes' quest for the right to vote. Voting and women's rights came to the forefront of American society in the early 1900s. You can have your class learn about the work of these women by asking them to look through the resources available at the same website that I mentioned above. Here, students can listen to audio files, look at photographs, and read flyers produced during the time of the suffragettes. 

Modern Women Who are Changing the World

While it’s a wonderful idea to learn about the past, it’s just as important to focus on the present. These days there are women all over the world doing great things. You can have each learner pick a modern, renowned woman, and learn about her. For instance, someone could choose to learn about photographer Annie Leibovitz and her efforts to present realistic, recognizable depictions of people in the United States. Or, you could have your class focus on women in politics, such as First Lady Michelle Obama or former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. There is a plethora of material on current influential women. Learners can read newspaper and magazine articles, the text of speeches, and watch video clips on the Internet in order to learn about these famous females. The more research they conduct, the more your pupils will discover that women have shaped history in a myriad of ways.

Women’s History Month: 

Famous Women

Learners delve into the lives of famous women through the use of primary sources. They talk about such women as Helen Keller, Sojourner Truth, and Clara Barton. 

History of Famous Women

This resource gives pupils a list of famous women from the modern era to discuss and investigate. Learners read information about women like Sally Ride. As a culminating activity, the class makes an oral report about a famous woman.

Where Are the Famous Women in History?

Have your class engage in critical thinking activities. Learners make a list of famous men and then do the same for women. Afterwards, they discuss why they think there aren’t as many women as men named in history books.

Famous Women in US History

Learners investigate the lives of Helen Keller, Pocahontas, Susan B. Anthony, Betsy Ross, and Rosa Parks. The lesson comes with resources to make an exploration of this topic quick and easy.