International Women’s Day is March 8 and presents an opportunity to celebrate women from throughout history. Humanities curricula and history books are often dominated by United States presidents, world explorers, and cultural elites, who are mostly male. This year, teach your students about the women activists, suffragettes, and trailblazers who paved the way for equality across the world. Here are some activities to use in the classroom.
Map Women through History
If you’re looking to engage your students’ critical thinking and geography skills, then this activity is for you. If you have the Nystrom Atlas of World History or Atlas of United States History, pick a specific period in history for each student, have them research women from that era, and contrast them to women today. If your class is studying the ancient world, consider assigning your students Mesopotamia, Egypt, or China to analyze women’s roles in those societies. Other exciting periods that may intrigue students could include, medieval Europe, feudal Japan, the Renaissance, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States Civil War.
Begin with these questions to activate critical thinking:
- How did men and women differ in society?
- What was the expectation of women in that period?
- How were women viewed under the law?
- Did class affect a woman’s rights?
- Did geographic location affect women?
- Was there a specific woman who impacted the era and location?
Once students have answered these questions, have them contrast women in the past with women living in the same geographic region today. By mapping women through history, they will get a sense of how society has changed over time.
Photo: Library of Congress
Simulate Issues from the Women’s Liberation Movement
To engage the whole class, consider re-creating issues from the 1960s Women’s Liberation movement. An American History Activators simulation provides a great way to help students visualize the roles of women throughout history and how those roles changed over time. It is also a good starting point in discussing modern women’s issues, such as the fight for equal pay and #MeToo movement.
This simulation consists of three activities, two of which are mini-skits. Before these activities begin, students must complete a background essay about the history of women. This way, even if this activator doesn’t fit naturally in the unit you are covering, you can still work it in for International Women’s Day by providing appropriate information. After reading the background information, assign roles to students to perform the skits. I believe the simulation is more effective when the students act out the drama without being encumbered by their scripts, but ultimately you will decide if memorization is necessary. The first drama is a family scene from the 1950s and the second is a family scene from the 1970s. As students are watching the scenes unfold, they take notes about the gender differences and identify what characterizes each family. I also recommend filming each performance to play it back for students to really analyze the differences in how women progress through the decades.
After the dramas, students negotiate with a member of the opposite gender to rank future marriage issues by importance. The goal is for students to compromise on each family member’s responsibilities in a marriage to achieve a win-win situation. The simulation ends with a class debrief. Allow your students to discuss what they learned and read more about how the rights of women have changed. Focus discussions on the limitations of women throughout time, and then segue into issues happening today. Consider asking your students the following:
- What rights and freedoms do you think women should have?
- Which of these do they not have today?
- How have the rights of women changed over time?
- What are some issues women are still fighting for today?
You can also add extension activities to the simulation. For example, discuss what it would be like to switch genders for a day or two or watch an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to further illustrate gender differences over time.
Want to try these activities in your classroom?
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Inspire Your Class with Biographies of Women
I’m always a proponent of assigning students to read moving stories, and the recommendations below highlight some of the best books about women. Take some time with your class to read excerpts aloud or assign them to read the full book.
Rad American Women A to Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History…and Our Future!
by Kate Schatz
I love the subtitle of this book. “Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries”? Yes. Count me in to be inspired! While this is a children’s book, I believe it holds merit for the upper grades, as well. Students are introduced to 26 incredible women, most of whom are not included in traditional history textbooks. This book could support a class read-aloud, but it could also be the starting point for a research project. Students could each pick a “Rad American Woman” to research, or they could write about an inspiring woman in their own lives.
I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
I love Malala. I love how she speaks out for education, and its value for students, especially females. I suggest reading the Young Readers Version in class; however, older or more advanced classes would enjoy the regular version of her book. You can incorporate this book into the classroom in many ways: class novel study, literature circles, or independent reading. I had my girls’ book club read it, and it fostered great conversations about education, Islam, the Taliban, and so much more. This young lady is definitely role model for girls.
by Tara Westover
This memoir is a page-turner, and a story students will love! The author, Tara Westover, recounts her life growing up in a survivalist household in the Idaho mountains. She was home-schooled, but spent most of her time working in her father’s junkyard. Her journey to learn how to read, and eventually attend college is intense, but awe-inspiring. No, Westover is not a big name, but students need to hear her story which defends the value of education and how it can transform your life, if you let it.
Some other book suggestions:
Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly
Hands-on mapping activities can support your classroom to learn much more than just geography
Jessica Hayes has been teaching for five years. She completed a bachelors’ degree in Social Science Education at Auburn University in 2009, and a master’s degree in English Education from Jacksonville State University in 2014. Recently, she has received her Instructional Leadership certificate. In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program. In her spare time, she loves reading and learning new technology/productivity skills.