[Women's History Month] Honoring Extraordinary Women Who Changed Education
March is Women’s History Month where we celebrate the contributions of women to in our culture, society, economy, and political policies, as well as the women in our lives and our own histories who helped make us who we are today. March 8, specifically, is International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the achievements of women all over the world.
This month reminds us of the power that women have in making meaningful change for generations to come. The world of education is just one place brimming with impactful, inspiring, and driven women who have challenged the status quo and gone above and beyond for not only their students, but students everywhere. This year's theme, "Inspire Inclusion," highlights the importance of embracing diversity and fostering a sense of belonging for all individuals.
Each woman featured in this article has left an indelible mark on education and society, inspiring inclusion in their own unique ways. Take a look at some of their amazing stories:
“Special children must have special schools with well-trained teachers who use materials adapted to those children’s capabilities.”
Margaret Bancroft was a pioneer in special education. At the age of 29, she opened the first private boarding school in New Jersey for children with disabilities. She believed that children with special needs should have specialized programs that could be adapted to their unique physical and mental needs. At her school, lessons were designed for their individual mental ages, teachers were trained how to individually tailor instruction, and students were able to enjoy recreational activities and trips.
A female leader in education, Bancroft’s ideas laid the foundation for what would become the field of special education. She championed the idea that every child deserves access to specialized education tailored to their individual needs, promoting inclusion and equity in the classroom.
“The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.”
Mary McLeod Bethune was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, womanist, and civil rights activist. As the daughter of parents who were formerly enslaved, she had limited access to formal education as a child, until around the age of 10 when she was able to enroll at a one-room school house. There she learned to read, and because she was the only child in her family able to attend school, would return home each day and share what she had learned with her siblings.
Bethune became a teacher, eventually opening her own school in 1904. She served as an important advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and went on to become a champion of Black women’s education, founding what is known today as the Bethune-Cookman University to help women of color receive access to quality education. Bethune's unwavering dedication to advancing Black women's education epitomizes the spirit of inclusion and empowerment. She believed that education was the key to equality, and we couldn’t agree more.
“Don’t follow the path. Go where there is not path and begin the trail. When you start a new trail equipped with courage strength and conviction the only thing that can stop you is you!”
At six years old, Ruby Bridges single-handedly initiated the desegregation of public schools in New Orleans, Louisiana, in November 1960 when she became one of the first black children to attend an all white school there. Her first year at her new school wasn’t easy, and many people were angry and threatened Ruby, but Ruby just wanted to learn. Thankfully there were people in Ruby’s life who were encouraging and supportive, like her teacher Barbra Henry, who taught Ruby as though she were in a full classroom, even though it was just the two of them. Ruby ate lunch alone and sometimes played with her teacher at recess, but she never missed a day of school.
By the next school year, Ruby was in classes with both white and black students, and ultimately Ruby grew up to be an author, an activist, and a speaker. Bridges' courage and resilience in desegregating public schools challenged systemic barriers to education and paved the way for greater inclusivity and diversity in classrooms across the nation.
“The seeds of dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world.”
Widely known country music singer/songwriter Dolly Parton is also a certified book worm. Dolly grew up in a small town in rural Tennessee, where many people in her community, including her father, never had the opportunity to learn to read or write. Even as child, Dolly was an avid reader, and often credits her love of reading as part of what inspired her to follow her dreams of being a star.
Driven to share the joy of reading with children all over the world, Dolly created The Imagination Library, which delivers age-appropriate books to children that foster a "love of reading and learning; regard for diversity of people, their roles, culture and environment; promotion of self-esteem and confidence, appreciation of art and aesthetics."
Dolly’s dedication to promoting literacy and education exemplifies her commitment to inclusivity and opportunity for all. She hopes that by making reading more accessible to children, she can inspire them to learn and to achieve their dreams. As she once said, "If you can read, even if you can't afford education, you can go on and learn about anything you want to know. There's a book on everything."
“If children are apparently unable to learn, we should assume that we have not as yet found the right way to teach them.”
Mary Clay was a highly acclaimed educator from New Zealand, known for her revolutionary work in literacy acquisition for children. More than three decades ago, she introduced a method of reading acquisition, known as Reading Recovery, for first graders. The program offers students on-on-one tutoring sessions for a focused short-term period to raise students from low achieving readers to average readers. During that time, the child is surrounded by a language-rich environment, and encouraged to choose books that appeal to the child’s own interests. The program continues around the world through the Reading Recovery Council of North America.
Clay's innovative Reading Recovery program has empowered struggling readers from diverse backgrounds to achieve academic success, demonstrating the importance of personalized instruction and inclusive teaching practices.
“It was in me to get an education and to teach my people. This idea was deep in my soul.”
Once Fanny Jackson Coppin was freed from slavery, she became one of the first black women to earn a college degree, and dedicated her life to lifting up her fellow black Americans through education. Fanny Jackson Coppin worked for 40 years as principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, starting in the 1860s. After the Civil War, Coppin made it her mission to educate many of the formerly enslaved people migrating to the North. She then made it a life mission to ensure all Americans had equal access to education, and through that education, a better life. Her dedication to providing education to formerly enslaved individuals and advocating for equal access to education for all Americans embodies the spirit of inclusivity and social justice.
“We have to build things that we want to see accomplished, in life and in our country, based on our own personal experiences ... to make sure that others ... do not have to suffer the same discrimination.”
In 1959 when Hawaii became a U.S. State, Patsy Mink knew she wanted to run for a position in government. Little did she know, she would become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress.
As a congresswoman, Mink fought for gender and racial equality, affordable childcare, bilingual education, and became a supporter of Title IX. She was one of the authors and sponsors of the Title IX law that stated that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In addition to this enormous feat, she additionally wrote the Early Childhood Education Act, and the Women's Educational Equity Act, and Mink was the first Asian-American to run for the office of U.S. President.
Mink's groundbreaking legislation has expanded educational opportunities and promoted gender equity in schools, advancing the cause of inclusivity and diversity in education.
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist’”
Maria Montessori was an Italian educator and the originator of the educational system that bears her name. She pioneered the concept of child-centered education with the Montessori system which is based on belief in the creative potential of children, their drive to learn, and the right of each child to be treated as an individual. Using hands-on learning methods and encouraging self-directed activities, Montessori was able to form a unique instructional approach that provided successful results even in students that were considered, “unteachable.” To this day, the Montessori Method is implemented in schools all over the world, fostering inclusivity and individuality in classrooms and emphasizing the importance of respecting each child's unique abilities and learning styles.
“The ability to read, write, and analyze; the confidence to stand up and demand justice and equality; the qualifications and connections to get your foot in that door and take your seat at that table – all of that starts with education.”
Today, there are more than 62 million girls around the world who are not in school. This can be due to customs of their community or country, but research shows that countries with more girls in secondary school tend to have advantages such as better child nutrition. Michelle Obama is dedicated to creating programs and resources for girls living in disadvantaged countries that do not have education access. Her Let Girls Learn initiative has made huge advancements in providing schools and education to adolescent girls in Africa. Through initiatives like these, Obama has advocated for educational access and empowerment for girls worldwide, promoting inclusivity and equality in education on a global scale.
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
Malala Yousafzai’s story of resilience and fighting for what is right is nothing short of incredible. Growing up in Pakistan, Yousafzai became an advocate for women’s rights and education at a young age. However, due to the Taliban rule of Pakistan, freedoms for women were severely limited, with access to education virtually nonexistent. She has become one of the most prominent advocates of human’s rights and educational access for women. In 2014, at the age of seventeen, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her amazing work in bringing attention to these issues.
Yousafzai's fearless advocacy for girls' education in the face of adversity has inspired millions around the world, highlighting the transformative power of education in promoting inclusivity, equality, and social change.
Interested in exploring more content to celebrate Women’s History Month? Check out our FREE classroom resources from Edmentum for fun, interactive toolkits, downloadables, and more in our Women’s History Month Resource Pack.
This post was originally published in March 2021 and has been updated.