The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” While women have made powerful contributions to history and the present day, their stories and awards have gone largely unrecognized, in comparison to men’s. And as a result, it’s created a sizable group of little-known women’s history figures. To shine a light on their narratives and empower girls in your class, here are a few Women’s History Month figures to consider adding to your lessons.
Powerful Women Leaders in History
Dolores Huerta (b. 1930)
Best known for her work with Cesar Chavez to establish the National Farm Workers Association (a predecessor to United Farm Workers) and unionize California farm workers in the 1960s, Dolores Huerta was a powerful labor organizer and Chicano civil rights leader. The catalyst that drove Huerta to become an organizer at 25 was her experience as a teacher seeing many farm children come to school hungry. As a result, Huerta founded multiple advocacy groups and fought for countless rights. Throughout her life, Huerta has championed voter registration, government supports for non-citizens, better working conditions for farm workers, and increased political representation of women and Latinx people. She’s received multiple awards for her leadership, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her famous call to action “¡Sí, se puede!” remains a powerful rallying cry — and it even inspired President Obama.
Pro Tip: If you need Women’s History Month sub plans, consider using the PBS documentary Dolores as a foundation and pairing it with TPT activities about this important woman.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)
Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected chief of a major Indigenous tribe. Growing up, her family lived in rural Oklahoma without indoor plumbing or electricity, and moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s relocation project. When Mankiller eventually moved back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, she cemented her ability for collective organizing when she helped residents without running water build a 16-mile waterline over 14 months. In 1985, she went on to become Principal Chief. During her 10-year tenure, Mankiller built consensus, and fought for better healthcare, education, and housing. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her leadership.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (b. 1952)
While Ileana Pos-Lehtinen was not the first woman of color in Congress, she was the first Latina woman and Cuban-American in Congress. Born in Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen was a child refugee whose family settled in Miami, Florida. However, Ros-Lehtinen’s political career actually had its start in education. As a teacher and administrator, she helped immigrant parents navigate government systems. To expand the ways she could help, she ran for office. During her time in the House of Representatives, Ros-Lehtinen advocated for accessible education, women in the military, and marriage equality, in addition to opposing dictatorial regimes and violence against women. In 2019, she retired from Congress, but she continues to speak on issues as an opinion columnist for the Miami Herald.
Pro Tip: Explore what it means to be a refugee and immigrant woman in America by using Ros-Lehtinen’s unique and impactful portrait as a jumping off point.
Trailblazing Female Athletes
Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956)
Born to Norwegian immigrants in Texas, Mildred Didrikson earned the nickname of “Babe” for her physical prowess, like that of Babe Ruth. After reading about the Olympics in 1928, Zaharias started training to compete. Zaharias made the cut in five events, but only competed in three because that was the limit for women at the time. At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she broke records by earning three medals. Afterwards, she challenged herself to learn and play golf, and she won 82 tournaments throughout her golf career. In 1949, Zaharias co-founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and in 1950, the Associated Press nominated her “Woman Athlete of the Half-Century.” A few years later, when Zaharias was diagnosed with colon cancer, she didn’t let that stop her. Fourteen weeks after surgery, she returned to competing and even won the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open – colostomy bag and all.
Stella Abrera (b. 1978)
In 2015, Stella Abrera became the first Filipina-American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, but her journey was not easy. In 2008, her dance career almost ended when she learned she had nerve damage from her long years of training. She persevered, relearned foundational dance steps at 29, and shifted her mindset to focus on honing her craft rather than pursuing a rank. It paid off, and at 37, she achieved her childhood dream of becoming a principal ballerina. Since 2020, Abrera has retired, had her last performance canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has become the acting director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
Ibtihaj Muhammad (b. 1985)
In 2016, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. woman to compete in the Olympics while wearing hijab. She went on to win a bronze medal in fencing, making her the first American Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal as well. Her impact made companies take note. In 2017, Mattel modeled their first hijab-wearing Barbie doll in Muhammad’s likeness, and that same year Muhammad also became the face of Nike’s first Pro Hijab. Today, Muhammad is an author, an ambassador for the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sport Initiative, the founder of a modest clothing line, and an activist who works with organizations like Athletes for Impact to give back.
Pro Tip: Embrace HERstory in your class by reading Ibtihaj Muhammad’s books for elementary, middle school, and high school students.
Innovative Women in STEM
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
Nicknamed “the First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung Wu was a pioneering physicist born in Shanghai, China. Wu earned a degree in physics and then moved in 1936 to the U.S. to complete her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, she became the first female teacher in the physics department at Princeton University. Then during World War II, she took a lab role at Columbia University to work on the classified Manhattan Project. As an established nuclear physics experimentalist, she conducted a difficult experiment with Cobalt-60 that successfully disproved the law of conservation of parity. However, the 1957 Nobel Prize committee overlooked her contributions and only honored her male colleagues, who just theorized the parity violation (but did not test it). Wu made it a point for the rest of her life to advocate for women in STEM.
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson was born, raised, and earned her Bachelor’s in math in West Virginia. In 1953, Johnson started working as a “human computer” for the all-Black West Area Computing section at the Langley laboratory of NASA (then known as NACA). She was quickly reassigned to the all-male Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division when the need for a temporary computer arose. Her work was so impressive the position became permanent. Here, Johnson analyzed the flight trajectory for the U.S.’s first human spaceflight, later verified an electronic computer’s calculations for the first American Earth orbit, and worked on math for Project Apollo’s moon trips and landings. In 2017, the movie Hidden Figures was released and helped bring Katherine Johnson’s out-of-this-world contributions to NASA back into the light.
Pro Tip: For Katherine Johnson biographies made for your students’ grade level, check out the NASA Knows! series for grades K-4 and 5-8, or the books by Margot Lee Shetterly that inspired the movie.
Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999)
A biochemist and pharmacologist, Gertrude B. Elion won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on developing a new, more systematic and rational approach to drug development. Elion became determined to help find a cure for cancer, after her grandfather’s death, and earned degrees in chemistry. However, in the 1930s, she was unable to get a graduate research position because of her gender. It wasn’t until men were drafted for World War II that Elion was able to get a job that aligned with her ambitions at Burroughs Wellcome’s research laboratory, now GlaxoSmithKline. Here, she did her ground-breaking research, helped develop drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, infections, gout, and organ transplants, and became a co-holder of 45 medical patents.
Pro Tip: To help support girls’ interest in STEM and beyond, explore all 60 women who have won a Nobel Prize since 1901.
Revolutionary Women in the Arts
Enheduanna (c. 2285-2250 BCE)
Enheduanna was the daughter of Sargon the Great, a high priestess in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (modern-day Iraq), and the first recorded author to be known by name. The three works Enheduanna is most known for are Inninsagurra (“The Great-Hearted Mistress”), Ninmesarra (“The Exaltation of Inanna”), and Inninmehusa (“Goddess of the Fearsome Powers”). These poems and hymns helped unite the Akkadian Empire’s people under Sargon’s rule by creating a unified religious narrative. Today, a recent exhibit by the Morgan Library & Museum has brought Enheduanna’s powerful talents, and the work of other Mesopotamian women, back to history’s forefront.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941)
Born to a Sikh scholar and Hungarian-Jewish singer, Amrita Sher-Gil is often called the “Frida Kahlo of India” for her avant-garde paintings that typically focus on women. However, Sher-Gil’s life spanned many countries. She was born in Hungary, lived in Simla, India, spent time in Florence, Italy, and studied in Paris at 16. Sher-Gil gained recognition in the art world when her oil painting “Young Girls” won a gold medal at the 1933 Paris Salon. Sher-Gil unfortunately died at 28, she still cemented herself as a pioneer in modern Indian art. In 2021, her painting “In the Ladies’ Enclosure” became the second most expensive Indian artwork ever sold — showing just how impactful Sher-Gil’s work is.
Pro Tip: Use Google Art and Culture’s digital collection of Sher-Gil’s artwork to take your students on a virtual gallery tour.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Originally named Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria. Her Jewish parents laid the foundation for her future as an actress and inventor by explaining machines’ inner workings to her and teaching her piano and ballet. At 16, a director discovered Lamarr and her beauty and brought her to study acting in Germany. In 1932, she received recognition for her film Exstase and eventually got her golden ticket to Hollywood through MGM Studios. Lamarr became famous in the U.S. with the 1938 release of the Oscar-nominated movie Algiers. In 1940, she met composer George Antheil and discussed World War II reports of Germany jamming the signals of British torpedoes. Together, they developed a new, “frequency-hopping” system that would allow ships and torpedoes to communicate through multiple radio frequencies and reduce the risk of detection and interference. While the U.S. Navy did not end up adopting it, her technology lives on today as the foundation for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth systems.
Groundbreaking Women Activists
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
The child of former slaves, Mary Church Terrell was born the same year that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother and father managed to find economic success in the Jim Crow South, which allowed Terrell to receive an education in Ohio and become one of the first African American women to hold a college and graduate degree. Terrell first worked as a teacher in D.C. before turning her focus to activism when her friend Thomas Moss was lynched in 1892. She formed the Colored Women’s League and was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Terrell became a well-known and prolific writer and speaker, helped educate and uplift the Black community, and advocated for desegregation and Black women’s inclusion in the women’s suffrage movement.
Pro Tip: The Library of Congress has a rich collection of Terell’s correspondences throughout her lifetime. Try incorporating some of these first-person primary sources into your lessons about this influential suffragist.
Elizabeth Kaaxal.gat Wanamaker Peratrovich (1911-1958)
Orphaned as a young child, Kaaxal.gat was born in Petersburg, Alaska as part of the Tlingit Lukaax.adi clan of the Raven moiety. She was adopted by a Tlingit couple, given the name Elizabeth Wanamaker, and raised bilingually in the traditional Tlingit lifestyle. In 1941, Wanamaker Peratrovich and her husband moved to the capital of Juneau where they saw a “No Natives Allowed” sign on a business door, just as the U.S. was entering World War II. Outraged, they decided to write a letter to the governor, proclaiming: “The proprietor of Douglas Inn does not seem to realize that our Native boys are just as willing as the white boys to lay down their lives to protect the freedom that he enjoys.” As Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Wanamaker Peratrovich had experience in activism and used it to advocate for an anti-discrimination bill in the Territorial Legislature. When it failed in 1943, she redoubled her efforts and defended the bill herself during the senate’s 1945 debate. Her efforts paid off and the bill passed, becoming the nation’s first anti-discrimination law.
Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)
A central figure in the Stonewall Inn protests, Sylvia Rivera was a Latinx transgender woman who became a powerful advocate for trans inclusion in the gay rights movement. Together, Marsha P. Johnson and Rivera founded STAR — an organization that supports homeless transgender youth. Protecting youths was especially important to Rivera, who began living on the streets at the age of 10 or 11. Rivera’s experience of homelessness, sexual exploitation, police brutality, and later substance abuse spurred Rivera’s advocacy for the most vulnerable and marginalized in the community. Today, Rivera’s legacy lives on not only through STAR, but also the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and New York City’s upcoming transgender monument, among others.
If you want to read more about the Women’s History Month figures in this post (or research other little-known women’s history figures!), explore these websites:
And for more ideas on how to honor HERstory in your classroom, check out: