Learning History Through the Stories of Powerful Women

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“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Madam C. J. Walker

Have you heard of Madam C. J. Walker? She is famous for being one of the first African-American female millionaires. With $1.25 to her name, she launched a line of hair products and straighteners known as “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” As her wealth grew, she began philanthropic outreach to the African-American community and encouraged political activism by her sales agents. 

Madam C. J. Walker’s story is a fascinating one, not only as a look into her journey as a businesswoman but also as an introspective look at the time in which she lived. She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a Louisiana plantation to enslaved parents and died at her New York estate in 1919.

We have all heard of famous American women such as Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. However, there are many more stories of strong women, such as Madam Walker that aren’t as well known. These are the tales that have the possibility to intrigue and inspire today’s girls into making their dreams into reality.

Several sites and organizations focus strictly on famous women and women’s issues. These sites include legendary and everyday women heroes and serve as excellent resources not only for biographical purposes but also for historical perspective. In a blog a couple of years ago, I shared several resources for Women’s Equality Day that includes several websites devoted to telling the stories of strong women.

Let’s take a look at some more sites devoted to famous and not-so-famous women:

Having excellent resources is just a start. Incorporating them effectively into your curriculum is the end goal. Here are some ideas for incorporating stories of strong women to build understanding and knowledge of previous and current history:

  • Help students understand the past by listening to music from the time. Use YouTube to find playlists from virtually anytime. For example, here is a playlist from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. It is sure to get you and your students in the mood of the period.  
  • Use a timeline tool that incorporates videos, images, and text to help students visualize the sequence of events for any period. StoryMaps (TeachersFirst review) offers digital storytelling tools that build upon maps to create interactive stories. 
  • Ask students to compare and contrast different events or people. For example, compare Madam C. J. Walker to Harriet Beecher Stowe using a Venn Diagram or Infographic to compare and contrast the different eras, their upbringing, and accomplishments. Canva (TeachersFirst review) offers a wide variety of templates and tools for both Venn Diagrams and Infographics. 
  • Take advantage of historical map collections for use as primary sources to understand the physical layout of cities from the past to the present. The Library of Congress Historic American Maps Collection (TeachersFirst review) provides an excellent starting point for research. 

Sometimes well-known heroes seem larger than everyday life and not relatable to students. Take advantage of the many available primary sources to help students find heroes in all walks of life and all corners of the globe. Their experiences provide an opportunity to serve not only as inspiration but also as a framework for understanding and connecting on a personal level to events in history.

We would love to hear how you inspire your students with stories of powerful women. Share your ideas in the comments below.

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About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.


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