Women Make History: An Untold Story of the Civil Rights Movement


From Left to Right: Shirley Chisholm, Yuri Kochiyama, Angela Davis, and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

Women Make History presents the important and extensive role of women in social justice movements. In this 45- to 90-minute lesson, participants take on the identity of one activist and interview at least six more. This lesson has been used successfully in middle and high school classes and in teacher workshops.


One of the least recognized stories of the Civil Rights Movement is the role of women. This is true despite the fact that women were responsible for many of the achievements of the Movement. They developed strategies, marched in demonstrations, attended mass meetings, registered voters, taught in freedom schools, wrote searing critiques of societal structures, organized boycotts, and risked their lives. What’s more, the participation of women crossed racial and ethnic lines. Unfortunately, in the more traditional narrative of history, women’s work in the Civil Rights Movement is reduced to the icon of one or two women at best.

Teachers may use this activity to introduce students to many of the women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and related movements for social justice — women whose lives and legacies transformed our understanding of leadership and democracy.

This activity is useful as preparation for a larger study of women in the Movement or of the Civil Rights Movement in general. The lesson makes participants aware of how many more women were and are active in movements for social change than we typically see represented in textbooks, children’s books, and the media. However the lesson provides only a brief introduction to the lives of these women. We recommend the related resources at the end of the lesson for students to deepen their understanding.

Materials and Preparation

Handout No. 1Biographies of Women Activists [PDF] – There are 36 biographies listed in this handout. Print the handout and cut the paper into individual strips, with each strip displaying one biography. Each student or workshop participant and the instructor should receive one bio each. If there are more bios than participants, you can either give two bios to a few participants or reduce the number of bios distributed. If you reduce the number of bios, reduce them in multiples of six and delete the respective names from Handout No. 2. You can also read the bios online here.

Handout No. 2What’s My Name? What’s My Story? [PDF] – There are six versions of this questionnaire to ensure students receive different questions. Print all six versions and make enough copies to cover the total number of students that will participate in the activity. Each student will receive one of the six versions of the handout.

Answer Key: Women Make History Answer Key for Instructor/Facilitator. [PDF]


1. Ask students to name women who were active in the Civil Rights Movement or other movements for social justice in the second half of the 20th century. Record those names to refer back to at the end of the lesson. Students will typically name icons such as Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta.

2. Explain to the students that there were many more women involved in the Civil Rights Movement and related movements, and that the women  will “visit” the classroom.

3. Distribute one bio to each student. Explain that for the rest of the class, they will take on the identity of the woman on the bio they received. Point out that these biographies are simply brief introductions to the lives of women whose stories could fill entire books.

4. Ask them to take a few minutes to read their bio and to let you know if they have any questions.

5. Distribute one questionnaire per student or participant.

6. Explain to everyone that they have the rare opportunity to attend a conference for veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and other struggles for social justice. In order to make the most of their time at this conference, they have a questionnaire to complete. This questionnaire will help them meet and learn about other women at the conference. As they participate in the conference, they stay in role, responding to questions from other participants, and in turn asking them questions. Each student should try to “meet” the women on their questionnaire. Their conversations with each other should reveal the necessary clues for the student to figure out the names and fill in the blanks.

7. Launch the activity. At the beginning, you may need to remind students to stay in role.

8. Once you have determined that most students have had enough time to complete their questionnaire, have everyone return to their seats.

9. Ask for volunteers to share what they learned and what they found to be most surprising and/or interesting during the activity.

10. This is the conclusion of this activity. There are lots of possible next steps. For example, students can:

(a) Conduct research on the woman they represented in the activity. Document and share this information in the form of an essay, bulletin board display, a children’s book, or iMovie.

(b) Develop a similar activity based on women in their school and/or community.

(c) Develop a similar activity using the 52 women featured in the book Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC. (Three women from the book are already included in the Women Make History lesson.)

List of women featured in the lesson.

Ella Baker

Daisy Lee Bates

Gwendolyn Brooks

Elaine Brown

Shirley Chisholm

Septima Clark

Daisy Bates

Jessie de la Cruz

Angela Y. Davis

Virginia Foster Durr

Fannie Lou Hamer

Lorraine Hansberry

Dorothy Height

Dolores Huerta

Yuri Kochiyama

Audre Lorde

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo

Winona LaDuke

Viola Liuzzo

Wangari Maathai

Rigoberta Menchu Tum

Wilma Mankiller

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland

Pauli Murray

Diane Nash

Antonia Pantoja

Gloria Richardson

Judy Richardson

Jo Ann Robinson

Arundhati Roy

Vandana Shiva

Barbara Smith

Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson

Emma Tenayuca

Ingrid Washinawatok

Merle Woo

Dorothy Zellner

Lesson by Deborah Menkart, Alana Murray, and Jenice View. Updated by Amber Massey.

Related Resources

Hands on the Freedom PlowHands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC

In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women — southern and northern, old and young, rural and urban, black, white, and Latina — share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.

The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings and arrests and witnessing unspeakable violence. These intense stories depict women, many very young, dealing with extreme fear and finding the remarkable strength to survive.

Standing on My Sisters ShouldersStanding on My Sisters’ Shoulders

One of the best films on the Civil Rights Movement, this award-winning documentary reveals the movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s from the point of view of the courageous women who lived it — and emerged as its grassroots leaders.

Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders is full of riveting historical footage and original interviews with Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Mae Bertha Carter, Victoria Gray Adams and more. Voter registration, the fight for equal education, desegregation, and of course the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge at the Democratic Convention are featured.

More books, films, and lessons on women’s history can be found on the Zinn Education Project website.