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Ten Essential Women For A World History Class

Dr. Marjorie Bingham


     Though most of my teaching was in Advanced Placement history, the hardest course I ever taught was a one-semester class in Western Civilization. Our department referred to it as "Neanderthal to NATO." Including women's history into an already packed curriculum was not easy. We had to use "Ju yi fan san"—a Confucian saying meaning, "Learning three things from one example." One of the ways I found to do this was to give "cluster lectures" about once a week; placing the name of an individual in the center of the board and then developing "spokes" out to a variety of ideas and names. It was, of course, modeling the technique of "mapping" for students as an alternative to the usual A to B organization. In this essay, I'd like to suggest, particularly for beginning world history teachers, how to include "three things at once" for women's history.

     Women's history or gender history may be taught in a variety of ways; but biography is often an engaging focus for students who are, themselves, creating a new autobiography as they shift from teenager to adult.1 Role models matter. I've chosen ten "essential" women for students in a world history class to know—there are, of course, thousands who might be included; and your list might look quite different from mine. It would be fun to debate the choices, but here, at least, may be a place to begin.

     But before we start, my five criteria for selection:

1) The woman's significance has to be stated in one sentence—well, maybe two. The idea here is that, while there are many interesting women in history, students need a reason why this woman has import. Eva Peron is an intriguing figure, still controversial, and still part of a cultural image—as shown in the musical "Evita." But her impact on world history would take quite an explanation. Further, she would not fit well into a "cluster lecture" which is my second criteria.

2) The "cluster lecture" is not a formal one, but more a Socratic dialogue in which the teacher begins with an individual story but "spokes" out to others. Questions might be asked, "Here's Franklin Delano Roosevelt, crippled by polio, married to the niece of a former President, what role might you expect his wife Eleanor to play?" "Did she? —Let's look." Because our courses have so many demands on them, the richer the cluster the better. For example, Florence Nightingale was a remarkable woman who had a great impact on both nursing and the medical treatment of ordinary soldiers. But a "cluster" around her is problematic—the inept British generals of the Crimean War? Well, maybe a Tolstoy story from the siege of Sevastopol. (Though for fun, it's not a bad thing to have the students recite Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" in rousing tones as a fill for a day full of fire drills or other interruptions.) But when women are chosen as part of a significant cluster, two things happen. One, women's involvement in history is seen as multilayered not always the lonely figure struggling for her cause or against discrimination. And, two, the cluster helps students see themselves as part of networks of support or opposition counteracting some of the "lone wolf" images of the media.

3) The women chosen should have an intriguing or dynamic story. Emily Dickinson is a great poet and Murasaki Shikibu one of the world's greatest novelists. They both are parts of significant "clusters"—in the New England Renaissance for Dickinson and the rich Heian Period of Japan for Murasaki Shikibu. But their lives are more dynamic internally than externally, much harder to tell to the average high school student. So a person more engaged in the "outside" world is just plain easier.

4) There should be a historiographical issue that students can readily grasp. One of the responsibilities of a teacher is to help students understand that history is an "acquired art"—that as we learn more and find new ways of looking at materials, our views of the past may change. Further, one of the things I've found in teaching is that students are more likely to remember information if issues are debatable. In class we frequently had debates (Athenians vs. Spartans) or "press conferences" with students assigned to historic identities and questioned by class "journalists" (Genghis Khan meets National Inquirer and New York Times). To put the issue of historiography more simply, too many admirable women can be boring. Seeing them as more than icons is much more challenging. Joan of Arc is not on my list, although she certainly might have been for the different ways she is seen as heretic, saint, military leader, puppet of the crown, or icon of warrior women.

5) The last reason for selection is that the woman's life should say something about women's history that allows for another view of the field. Women's history is increasingly complex, but students should get at least a taste of some of the issues and the talents of past women. Maria Theresa of Austria, Catherine the Great of Russia, Empress Wu of China—a whole grand list of women rulers might be examined. But I've tried to choose women from different eras who illustrate a range of questions.

     These five criteria—1) a sentence of significance, 2) a clustered group of major people, 3) an engaging story, 4) a historiographical set of questions, and 5) a series of ways to look at women's history—might, of course, be weighted for selection. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, the learned nun of Mexico, is such an intriguing figure for her own writing that it might "outweigh" other issues. The real point is to develop an overall sense of women's history rather than be at the mercy of textbook sidebars or brief mentions now and then. So here are my ten women with a bit on each—you may have other choices! For each choice, I've included a source that might be helpful in class.2

Hatsepsut: reigned in Egypt 1479-1458 B.C.E. 1) Significance: She was Egyptian Pharaoh with a prosperous twenty year reign, sent an expedition to the Punt, brought in an era of artistic creativity, and built one of the world great buildings, Deir el Bahri. 2) Cluster: Thutmose II, III (Napoleon of Egypt), Senenmut, Minoan art, Valley of Kings, Osiris, Amun-Re, Akhenaton 3) Story: Sister and Wife of Thutmose II, rules for step-son Thutmose III, takes on male identity as pharaoh; step-son tries to destroy all evidence of her. 4) Historiography: How to piece together (literally) evidence that Thutmose III had buried beneath a major road. How have archeological teams worked to determine her story? 5) Women's History: Why did it take so long to discover such a major figure? What do historians see and not see? Why? Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogue on Hatshepsut, completed for a recent major exhibit, has some good pictures of the shattered statues being pieced together. There are also several good short essays on current scholarship in the field tying this era more closely to Minoan art.

Makeda: ruler in Ethiopia c 960 B.C.E. 1) Significance: Makeda is seen by Ethiopians as the Queen of Sheba described in the Bible, a powerful and witty figure, and the mother of a line of Ethiopian kings that lasted 2000 years. 2) Cluster: King Solomon, Menalik (founder of the Ethiopian king line), church writers Origen, Josephus, presentation in art. 3) Story: Wealthy, smart queen travels to Jerusalem to see if Solomon lives up to his reputation as wise man. Everyone impressed with her talents—and the security of her position is that she can go on such ventures. She and Solomon have a son—Menalik, but she leaves because Solomon has 700 wives, and she's not willing to stay. 4) Historiography: Makeda is presented quite differently in Old Testament, New Testament, Ethiopian sources and the Qur'an. She is also surrounded by a variety of legends much like those of King Arthur. Early African history, like that of Britain 500-900, is mainly based on oral tradition. How do we deal with that? 5.) Women's History: What elements in this story have been so compelling over time? ("Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?") What image of women is so attractive in the story? Source: Nicholas Clapp's Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of a Legendary Queen (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) suggests the long lasting power of her story.

Sappho: poet in Ionian and Aegean Greece, c. 612-570 1) Significance: One of the world's great poets whose personal, lyric voice challenges the "silence" of women desired in Pericles' Athens. (See his Funeral Oration). 2) Cluster: Plato (who called her the 10th Muse), Herodotus, Alcaeus,. Artemisia who illustrate Ionian culture as opposed to Athenian, Lesbos/Lesbian, and later church fathers. 3) Story: From the poetry, she seems to have been from an aristocratic family in Lesbos, exiled for political reasons to Syracuse, Sicily. She may have taught young women and was married with a daughter. 4) Historiography: Her name is well known, but most of her poetry was burned by the Christian Church. It was found by examining strips of paper/papyrus reconstructed by modern techniques that had been used to wrap mummies. Question: who controls the past and why was her poetry particularly targeted? 5) May a sex segregated society, like ancient Greece, encourage a stronger, more individual voice? (i.e. when Heian women were not generally taught classical Chinese, they wrote in Japanese and created a great novelist tradition.) Source: Many of her poems might be used to illustrate different aspects of Sappho's life, but generally I've used the poem, "Some say a cavalry corps,/ some infantry, some, again, will maintain/ that the swift oars/ of our fleet are the finest/sight on the dark earth; but I say/ that whatever one loves, is." (Mary Barnard translation). After studying the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, students seem to appreciate another view of the military. The issue of her sexuality (Lesbos/Lesbian) I've dealt with by discussing homosexuality generally in ancient Greece.

Sondok: Silla queen, c 582-647 1) Sondok fought off rival kingdoms and the Chinese to continue the consolidation of Korea, built major temples, the oldest existing observatory in Asia, and bolstered Buddhist links between China and Japan. 2) Cluster: T'ang women rulers, Kim Yusin,(Korea's most noted general), Chindok (queen continuing her work), Silla knights (hwarang) Silk Road continuation, series of writers, monks (Wonhyo). 3) Story: Her father is a Silla king, with no sons, so Sondok rules on her own. The Chinese try to overthrow her, believing that no woman should rule, but her nephew General Kim supports her. She was known for her intelligence (observatory, seeing through Chinese plots), the "Golden Age" of Korea. 4) Historiography: What do Confucian scholars make of a woman ruler? Was Sondok a "pig trying to fly" (one view) or one of Buddha's great gifts (the Buddhist view)? What criteria should we establish in determining the value of a ruler's reign? 5) Women's History: Sondok was a reigning monarch because she was of the highest "bone rank" in Silla society. Do aristocratic societies, where status matters more than sex, have more openings for "exceptional women" than democratic ones? Are nations who have a "queenly" tradition more likely to have higher political positions for women? (i.e. Norway, England, Sweden, Denmark, Holland?) Source: Edward Adams' travel books on Korea contain stories of the Silla era, particularly on Sondok and Kim. Also, the Korea Society of New York will soon publish a curriculum book on Silla and Calliope magazine will have an issue on Silla that includes a chapter describing its queens.

Aisha: Wife of Muhammad c.614-678 1) Significance: Aisha, the most controversial of Muhammad's wives, took an active role in the politics and the religious interpretations of Islam and is partly instrumental in the split of Islam into Shi'a and Sunni. 2) Cluster: For this lecture Muhammad would be at the center of the circle with Aisha, Khadija, Ali, Hussein, Fatima, Shi'a and Sunni as "spokes." 3) Story: To further the success of Islam, Muhammad marries a series of wives; Aisha is one of the youngest and lives on to tell his followers about his sayings, (hadiths). She opposes the leadership of his family (daughter Fatima, Ali, Hussein) in Islam and prefers leadership from a learned set of caliphs. In the Battle of the Camels (656 C.E.) she rides a camel to inspire her troops, but Ali captures her and sends her to Medina to live out her life near Muhammad's grave. 4) Historiography: The Shi'a tend to see Aisha as turning early Islamic leadership astray. Sunnis stress her knowledge of the Qur'an and her role in providing insight into Muhammad's oral sayings. For students, understanding the split between the Shi'a and the Sunnis, even in this biographical way, may help with events in contemporary Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world. 5) Women's history: The role of the widow or surviving daughter may be a complicated one—liberating in power, but also carrying major responsibility. (Coretta Scott King, Indira Gandhi, (Nehru's daughter), Benazir Bhutto).

Source: The most recent, extensive source on Aisha is D.A. Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: the Legacy of A'isha bint Abi Bakr (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Eleanor of Aquitaine: French, English Queen 1122-1204 1) Significance: Eleanor of Aquitaine's decision to marry Henry II of England helped to create an Angevin empire that almost united England and France and, though her sons, continued its power until her death. 2) Clusters: Troubadours in Aquitaine, Louis the Pious, Second Crusade, Courtly Love, Henry II/ Becket, Richard the Lionheart, Third Crusade, Prince/King John, Magna Carta, daughter Marie of Champagne, Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot/Arthurian legends. 3) Story: A duchess in her own right, Eleanor first marries weak Louis VII of France, goes on the Second Crusade, has two daughters, and divorces Louis.. She marries Henry II, raises sons who later rebel against Henry, and he isolates her.. After his death, she rescues her son Richard, kidnapped on his way back from the Third Crusade, and later holds on to the empire for her son John. After her death, he makes serious mistakes, loses a good deal of the empire, and signs the Magna Carta. 4) Historiography: Many different versions of Eleanor—the errant trouble maker wife (both for Louis and Henry), the savior of Britain, (ransoming Richard when Prince John would have let him rot), founder of the courtly love tradition, (legendary?), or "a woman out of time" (play and movie "Lion in Winter" version.) Since she is also a frequent subject of literature, this might be a good place to explore the ways in which films and historical fiction portray her. I've asked student to write about her using the personae of one of the people in the "cluster." 5) Women's history: Do certain eras, like the 12th century, provide newer images of women—i.e. the growth of the concept of chivalry, courtly love, cult of the Virgin? What forces might create shifts? (Men go on crusades and leave women more active in maintaining life at home or new cultural contacts, such as Moorish poetry coming in through Spain from the Middle East). Source: For shifts in women's history, I've used pictures of the Virgin Mary in different era and for Eleanor I've used a letter she supposedly wrote to the Pope, angry over Richard's imprisonment. The letter is probably a rhetorical exercise from a later period, but it acts as a nice introduction to the assignment suggested above. Probably the most readily available biography is Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine : A Life. (Ballentine, 1999).

Elizabeth I: Queen of England 1533-1603 1) Significance: Elizabeth gained a religious truce (of sorts), defeated a Spanish invasion, fostered exploration, and inspired a major cultural age. 2) Cluster: Drake, Cecil, Raleigh, Shakespeare/Marlowe/Spenser, Philip II, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, John Knox, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII 3) Story: The ultimate dysfunctional family: Father Henry kills Elizabeth's mother, one of her step-mothers, divorces two others; half sister imprisons her in Tower; former brother-in-law alternately proposes or sends invasion armadas (3 of them). The Pope puts her on a "hit list" and cousin Mary wants her throne. 4) Historiography: According to a British survey in 2002, Elizabeth was seen as England's greatest monarch, but opinions do vary—was she too tough on Catholics? The Puritans thought her too lenient. Raleigh and others criticized her for her dithering—hard to get a decision from her. More recent military historians have criticized her for her lack of compassion for the sailors who defeated the Spanish Armada. Does she deserve the British people's evaluation? 5) Women's History: Mildred Alpern, a New York teacher, developed a good lesson on Elizabeth in which she took excerpts from historians' books. Their summaries on Elizabeth are enlightening on how even an accomplished woman may be presented—it was largely Cecil's good judgment; Shakespeare and company were accidental to the age; her "dithering" was not a sign of thinking things over, but of woman's indecision, etc. Students may look in textbooks to see how comparable rulers are portrayed, in both the amount of space they are given and the kinds of topics discussed. Source: While much has been written about Elizabeth and there are several good films, she could certainly speak for herself. Elizabeth I: Collected Works (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000) contains some of her speeches—I've used the speech before the Spanish Armada attack and some of her exchanges with Parliament

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: United States Reformer 1815-1902 1) Significance: Stanton was the driving intellectual force behind the women's rights movement in the United States, leader at Seneca Falls (first women's rights convention, 1848) and, with her daughter, helped to establish international links for women's suffrage. 2) Clusters: abolition, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, women's rights—Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Blackwell, Carrie Chapman Catt, 3) Story: Stanton was from the "Burnt over District" of New York—lots of causes, particularly abolition, temperance. She marries and family life confines her movement. Goes to the Anti-Slavery convention in London; she and Mott have to sit in the back of the room, and they come back to hold Seneca Falls. She continues to work for equality for African-Americans and women, though Anthony does much of campaigning. Both focus on the Union in the Civil War and are later angry over the lack of appreciation for women's participation. They start a major suffrage organization, but it splinters. Neither lives to see the suffrage amendment passed. 4) Historiography: One of the reasons for choosing Stanton over Susan B. Anthony or Mary Wollstonecraft is that Stanton may be more controversial. Her bitterness over the Fifteenth Amendment giving black men the right to vote led to a split in the women's suffrage movement. Her book The Woman's Bible "re-wrote" passages to make them more tolerant of women, and her militant newspaper attacked politicians choosing immigrant issues over women's. But she also inspired many women, gathered a history of the suffrage movement, and with her daughter, Harriot Stanton Baltch, Anthony, and Catt was part of an international women's suffrage movement. 5) Women's history: Stanton's career raises issues about how far to push for reform—is, for example, the "re-writing" of the Bible a good tactic? Should women set aside their concerns in time of war (might compare what happened in the Civil War and World War I)? Are the women who pushed for women's rights more significant than those who nudged? Source: The "Declaration of Sentiments" from the Seneca Falls Convention is readily available on-line but somewhat difficult for some students. I've used it in comparison to the Declaration of Independence and asked what students see as differences in style and how equality is presented.

Pandita Ramabai: Reformer in India 1858-1922 1) Significance: Ramabai pushed for women's education, a shift in treatment for Hindu widows, the abolition of child marriages and restrictions on child widows, and for better medical facilities for women and lower castes. 2) Cluster: Lady Dufferin, Queen Victoria, Julia Ward Howe, Anata Shashri, colonialism, Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu 3). Story: Her father has no sons so he teaches Ramabi to be a Sanskrit scholar; she marries out of caste. Her husband is supportive, but his family does everything they can to keep her from studying. He dies, and she is expected to be a Hindu widow: retreat from society, live on one meal a day, and wear rough clothing. She becomes a Christian, and acting with others starts reforms for women in India. She tries to go to medical school in Britain but decides to focus on issues such as polygamy, child widows, and education. She raises money largely in the U.S. including circles in Boston led by Julia Ward Howe. 4) Historiography: Though Ramabai is featured on a 1989 Indian stamp, her conversion to Christianity and her books attacking Hindu conservative beliefs remain controversial. On the other hand, some of the schools she founded are still in existence, her title "Pandita" means scholar, and she was known for her high level of Sanskrit learning. 5) Women's history: The issue of women and colonialism is a complex one; Western "feminism" remains an explosive issue. (Taliban/Afghanistan) Would Ramabai have had more success if she had used Sanskrit examples of notable women and tried to work within an Indian system or did she need to turn to Britain and the United States to accomplish her goals? Does cultural relativism (unfortunate about sati—widow burning—but every country has its customs) outweigh "outsider" interference? (The example of the description of sati is from a textbook of the 1970's). Source: There is a new edition of Ramabai's writing from Oxford University Press, but I've used excerpts from her book, Renada: His Wife's Reminiscences, (Ministry of Information, New Delhi, 1963) that show how the women in her husband's family were threatened by the thought of an educated woman in the house. It raises issues of how conservative women may resist cultural changes which expand women's opportunities.

Anna Akhmatova: Russia Poet 1889-1966 1) Significance: Akhmatova was a great poet who gave voice to the turmoil of a twentieth century ripped apart by two major world wars, revolution, and totalitarianism. 2) Cluster: Stalin, Pasternak, Blok, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Tsvetaeva, the "Silver Age," the Russian Revolution, purges, siege of Leningrad. 3) Story: Her father did not want her to embarrass the family by being a published author, so she went from Anna Andreavna Gorenka to Akhmatova. She was educated in St. Petersburg and was part of the "Silver Age" circle of writers. Many of these died in the Russian Revolution or the purges that followed, including her first husband who was executed and her second who died in Stalin's gulag. Her son was arrested and imprisoned to keep her silent. But she continued to write, and her poetry was circulated in samizdat. She saw the beginning of the siege of Leningrad but was later evacuated. Her poet friends, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam, died in the disruptions of the era, and her later protégé Brodsky was arrested and sent to the gulag. Her poetry was condemned as decadent, and it was only at the end of her life that it was published again. 4) Historiography: Akhmatova and her circle illustrate the danger to writers in a totalitarian nation; her personal voice was not "building the Soviet state" according to her critics. Her poems also may be compared to textbook descriptions of events and raise the question of the role of poet as historian—who tells it better? (Homer, the World War I poets). Students may also speculate about the survival of Akhmatova and Pasternak when Stalin killed so many—were they just too skilled to kill? 5) Women's history: When the Soviets set out to destroy Akhmatova's reputation, they began by calling her a "harlot," pointing to her love poetry and lovers. Male writers' private lives were not similarly addressed. Are women held to a different set of conduct and behavior from men? In what ways? How may this affect our view of history? Source: Akhmatova's poetry is very accessible to students, and for a sense of era, I would suggest the following: World War I: "July 1914," "We Don't Know How to Say Goodbye," the purges: "I Am Not One of Those Who Left the Land," The Last Toast," "Requiem," World War II: "Courage," Her "Instead of a Preface" before the poem "Requiem" is a moving statement of the role of a poet as the conscience for a generation.

These are my ten women—though, of course, I could probably do a hundred more for ten more lists. And in the "cluster lectures" with men centered in the circle, there are often women to discuss, like the Soong sisters of China in evaluating Mao; one (Mai-ling) the wife of his major enemy and icon of the American China lobby, the other, Ching-ling later Honorary President of communist China;. or Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth carrying on his Westernization work and grooming Catherine the Great to do the same; or Alexander the Great's mother Olympias and sister Cleopatra keeping an eye on Greece while he was wandering the world; or the wives of the Mongol Khans controlling the destinies of Genghis Khan's successors; or one with W.E.B. Dubois on the Harlem Renaissance and Zora Neale Hurston, Ida B. Wells, and Nella Larsen. There are so many intriguing women who have played major roles in how our histories have been shaped. As a culminating essay, I've sometimes asked students to research and write about one figure in history that, for whatever reasons, they thought should receive more attention than the textbook or class presented. One of the best parts of reading the essays is to find indignation at the ignoring of one of their favorite women. Maybe the reader of this essay feels something similar!

Biographical Note: Dr. Marjorie Bingham taught at  St. Louis Park High  School, Minnesota, and Hamline University.  Co-author of a series of  books on Women in World Cultures, her most recent book is An Age of  Empires.  She has served on several national history teaching committees including the Bradley Commission and was one of the  founders of the National Council on History Education.



1 For other ways of teaching: Peter N. Stearns, Gender in World History (New York: Rutledge Press, 2000). Margaret Strobel and Marjorie Bingham, "The Theory and Practice of Women's History and Gender History in Global Perspective," in Women's History in Global Perspective. Edited by Bonnie G. Smith. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004): 9-34. Both of these are reviewed in the article by Kathy Callahan in this issue.

2 Sources on these women are readily available on-line, but for more general background, teachers may be particularly interested in Sarah Shaver Hughes and Brady Hughes anthology Women in World History, Vol I, II. (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1997) and the four-volume series Restoring Women to History, with volumes on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, Women in the Middle East and North Africa, Women in Asia, and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999). Susan Gross and I did a series of books on Women in World Cultures which is largely out of print, but available occasionally on line.



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