Well-Behaved and Not So Much: Stories of Girls and Women Who Made History

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Since the first “International Women’s Day” in 1911, the contributions of women and girls in every aspect of life have demanded attention. Every March, Women’s History Month is an opportunity to share those stories with all of our children, to remind ourselves of the incredible work that has been done, and be inspired to continue and build on it. “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less,” wrote gender studies scholar and advocate Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker. It’s vital that all children know the stories of the women of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds, and from across the globe who have been among the great thinkers, doers, artists, scientists, explorers, leaders, teachers, movers, and shakers who have made history, well-behaved and not so much. Here are a few titles and activities that can help you immerse your family in some of those stories.

  • Rad Women Worldwide

    by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl

    This wonderfully diverse collection features women from 31 countries around the world, from 430 BCE to 2016, more familiar names like Malala Yousafzai and Venus and Serena Williams, to less well-known but incredible accomplishments of women like Nanny of the Maroons, Sophie Scholl, Queen Lili’uokalani, and Fe Del Mundo. Then there’s an index of 250 more women from around the world! This beautifully designed book, like the team’s Rad American Women A-Z, is as bold and transformative as the women whose stories it tells.

  • Who Is Sonia Sotomayor?

    by Megan Stine, illustrated by Dede Putra and Nancy Harrison

    One of the latest in this wildly popular series, the story of the first Latina Supreme Court Justice born to immigrant parents in the Bronx, NY is a briskly told and triumphant tale. All kids will find reasons to cheer in Sotomayor’s story, from her childhood struggle with diabetes to her historic appointment by President Barack Obama. Add to that a motorcycle chase and the Major League Baseball strike and readers will be enthralled by her groundbreaking life story.

  • Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

    By Candace Fleming

    This riveting nonfiction title reads like a thrilling cinematic drama. Amelia Earhart's life — from childhood to her fateful last flight — is captured in prose, with photos, maps, and Amelia's own handwritten notes. Middle grade readers will find much to keep them engaged, informed, and entertained, as they dart back and forth between discovering Amelia's history and keeping pace with the search for her missing plane. Winner of an impressive array of awards, Amelia Lost captures the excitement, gusto, and guts of this impressive woman.

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can

    by Cynthia Levinson

    While much is known about the former First Lady, senator, secretary of state, and first female presidential nominee of a major party in United States history, this extensively-researched and comprehensive biography tells us more of the woman who is that public figure, from some of her inspirations (like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Birmingham protests) and the impact of her religious faith on her commitment to service. Kirkus Reviews notes that it’s “a respectful, insightful, and inspiring portrait of a fiercely ambitious, remarkably successful woman who has changed the face of American politics.”

  • The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement

    by Teri Kanefield

    This story of a seemingly quiet teenager who moved a whole community to take action is remarkable — as a Virginia high school student, Johns planned and led a successful school boycott to protest the terrible conditions in her segregated school. Johns accomplished this before the famous actions of Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine — it was “the first public protest of its kind demanding racial equality in the U.S.— jumpstarting the American civil rights movement.” She convinced the NAACP to support her and the students of Moton High, and became part of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case that ruled that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal.” Kanefield’s book features firsthand accounts, photographs, timelines, and important definitions that bring Johns’s story to life and shine a light on this important story of nonviolent civil disobedience.

ACTIVITY: Get Involved! Discuss the quote (from writer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) “Well behaved women seldom make history.” What messages do girls and young women get and share about “good” behavior”? Is it sometimes good to “break the rules”?

Check out an online exhibit on the history of the suffrage movement like “Crusade for the Vote” from The National Women’s History Museum, discuss some of the questions in “Actions That Changed the Law,” resources from Project Citizen, and read documentation from the “first convention ever called to discuss the civil and political rights of women” in New York state, 1848. Get together with a few families and organize a “convention” to discuss local issues that directly affect women and girls today, and develop a plan to take action in your own community.

  • Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer

    by Trina Robbins, illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh

    Born into a well-off family and a comfortable life, young artist Lily Renée Wilheim was forced to separate from her family on Kindertransport as a young teen in Nazi-occupied Austria, and escaped to England, where she lived and worked as a servant and nanny for two years. After reuniting with family members in the United States, she eventually found work at a publishing house that needed to replace male artists who had gone to war. Battling harassment and disrespect from male colleagues, she began as a “penciller” by erasing the stray marks other artists made as they drafted their cartoons, and went on to write and illustrate her own work, and write plays and children’s books. This graphic novel tells the story of her dramatic escape from Europe and her early work in comics and includes extensive backmatter including a glossary and detailed information about the time period.

  • Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

    by Rachel Ignotofsky

    The design of this gorgeous book immediately makes it irresistible, and the stories inside, featuring women across the STEM spectrum like Nobel-prize winner Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson (of “Hidden Figures” fame) to fourth century astronomer and mathematician Hypatia and geneticist Nettie Stevens. Chock full of infographics, statistics, and vivid illustrations, this meaty volume gives readers a lot to chew on and is sure to inspire more in-depth research in a variety of directions.

  • Girls Think of Everything

    by Catherine Thimmesh, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

    While the traditional “mad scientist” image is often male, the profiles of women like “white out” inventor Bette Nesmith Graham and Ann Moore, who was inspired by the age-old babywearing techniques of West African women to create the “Snugli,” demonstrate the wonderful inventions of women and girls (including tween Becky Schroeder who invented glow-in-the-dark paper at age ten when she got tired of trying to do her homework after dark in the car). Sweet’s vibrant collage style is inviting, and readers will struggle between continuing to read and getting so inspired that they put the book down to work on an invention of their own.

ACTIVITY: Get Creative! Talk with your child about how and why inventors do what they do — like problem-solve, ask “what if” questions, and figure out new ways to use “old” tools. Then identify a household challenge and use available tools (maybe in the kitchen, the toy box, or break out the always reliable duct tape) to solve it. Check out these activities from the US Patent and Trademark Office for ideas and inspiration.

Using photographs, video, or illustration, create a graphic how-to guide for your invention that other children can use to recreate it.

  • Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told

    by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen

    One of my favorite stories of Ida B. Wells, the daughter of enslaved people, is of how she refused to comply with the organizers of the 1913 suffrage march on Washington, D.C. when they ordered her to follow the rules of segregation and walk behind the white marchers. Instead, Wells joined the march from the crowd, and walked proudly alongside whites. Wells took bold action throughout her life as an activist and journalist/publisher, writing about race and politics in the South, particularly the brutal practice of lynching. She went on to establish the National Association of Colored Women and was instrumental in the founding of the NAACP. Myers’s unflinching tale highlights Wells’s courage and persistence by using own words and writings throughout, and sharing the many moments of her life when she refused to accept discrimination and raised her voice for justice.

  • Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly

    by Deborah Noyes

    In the 19th century, at a time when women journalists were usually limited to writing about fashion or domestic life, Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) faked mental illness and went undercover and spent ten days in an “insane asylum” for women, then reported on the inhumane and unjust conditions women lived under there. And the drama doesn’t stop there — Bly continued to do pioneering work as an investigative journalist and went on to circumnavigate the globe in 72 days, and become a leading American industrialist as the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. Noyes’s journalistic style doesn’t embellish (no need!) and the numerous photographs and illustrations make this a real page-turner.

ACTIVITY: Use Your Words! Talk with your children about the role of journalism in society, and the different ways people communicate with their elected officials. Encourage them to get involved in a school or community newspaper, or to create and distribute their own. (“Creating a Classroom Newspaper” can help.) Work with them to write an op-ed and submit it to a news organization, using resources like “How to Write and Place an Op-Ed” from the American Library Association. Spend time identifying local public officials, then use a resource like “Writing Letters to Elected Officials” from the Community Toolbox at the University of Kansas to craft a letter to them about an issue that’s important to your family.

  • 100+ Native American Women Who Changed the World

    by K.B. Schaller

    Though I haven't been able to check this one out yet, K.B. Schaller's 100+ Native American Women Who Changed the World sounds like a must-read, shining a light on just some of the countless stories that often go unheard. It features profiles of women like nurse, editor in chief, and founder of the Seminole Tribune, author Dr. Betty Mae Tiger Jumper/Potackee, the first woman to chair the Seminole Nation Council; and MacArthur "genius" Elouise Cobell/Yellow Bird Woman, who led a 15-year class-action lawsuit against the federal government for its "mismanagement of Indian trust funds since the late 1800s," led the movement that founded the Blackfeet National Bank, the first national bank on a reservation and owned by a Native American tribe, and was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. This title sounds like a great add to any collection of stories that will inspire all children to help create a more just future.