Global Learning Programme Wales

Women's History Month

Celebrating Women’s History Month through the history curriculum


Mao Zedong, the communist leader of China, when trying to change traditional attitudes of Chinese society towards women, once famously said, 'Women hold up half of the sky.' Do women hold up half of your curriculum? How well represented are they in the significant individuals you look at? And do the women you choose act as good role models? Of course, some women are very familiar – Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, Boudicca, perhaps Queen Elizabeth [I and II] and Queen Victoria, Emily Davidson, and Emily Pankhurst. But could we do better? Women’s History Month (March) and International Women's Day (8th March) gives us a perfect opportunity to audit our curriculum and think about the subliminal messages we give out.

This rapid survey through some history periods cannot, and does not, hope to do justice to the many women who have played a significant part in history. However, here are some examples of women you might consider including in the history curriculum:


Possible people to study

Stone Age

Red ‘Lady’ of Paviland


Fu Hao

Ancient Egypt




Ancient Greece

Agnodice of Athens

Roman Britain 

woman gladiator, London




Emma of Normandy

Anglo Saxons

Abbess Hilda of Whitby


Lady K'abel


Iyoba Idia


Betsi Cadwaladr

Early 20th Century

The Davies sisters

The Red ‘Lady’ of Paviland (Wales)

Let's start with the Red Lady of Paviland, who, confusingly, turns out not to be a woman at all but a man wearing a necklace of shells! In 1823 a vicar came across a skeleton while on an archaeological dig in the Gower Peninsula, Wales. He thought the remains were those of a woman, painted in red ochre, hence the name, dating from the Roman period. The truth, discovered more recently by radio-carbon dating, is that the incomplete skeleton is around 33,000 years old and that of a young male. It is not always easy to identify the sex of an individual from an incomplete skeleton. You can find out more about the Red Lady of Paviland in the BBC series for KS2, 'Ancient Voices.' You might use the Red Lady of Paviland to discuss the reliability of evidence.

Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Fu Hao (Egypt and China)

In Ancient Civilisations, you might choose Nefertiti, Hatshepsut or even Cleopatra, who was the last pharaoh of Egypt, and provides a link to the Roman Empire and Julius Caesar, all of which might be familiar to you. If you study the Shang Dynasty, you really ought to focus on Fu Hao, a powerful ruler and army leader from around 1200 bc. Much of what we know about the Shang – their crafts, their weapons, their gods, their clothes – comes from the artefacts found in her grave, excavated since 1976. So far it is the only royal Shang Dynasty tomb found that still contained all its burial goods, thus allowing us to find out about this remarkable woman and her life. You might use the artefacts found in her tomb to build a picture of life in Shang times. What can the artefacts in her grave tell us about life at the time? What can't they tell us?

Agnodice of Athens (Greece)

In Ancient Greece in the 4th century bc, Agnodice of Athens became the first female doctor. She dressed as a man in order to train (women were allowed to be midwives, but not doctors). She was so successful that she was accused of seducing the women of Athens; to prove otherwise, she stripped in front of a jury of men and won her case. There is some conjecture about the truth of this story – it may or may not be true – but Agnodice did exist and did work successfully as a doctor at a time when it was an all-male profession. You might use Agnodice to explore Greek medicine and its legacy to us, but also to ask why it was so difficult for her, and other women, to become a doctor at that time. You might contrast her experience with that of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her struggles to become a doctor in Victorian England.

Woman gladiator (England)

In 1996, archaeologists in London discovered what they believe to be a unique grave in Roman Europe – that of a female gladiator (though some historians disagree). Women did fight in the amphitheatre, and there is written evidence to support this from Pompeii, but no other known grave. You might discuss the role of women in Ancient Rome using the female gladiator, or you might ask about the significance of the grave – as we have already said, it is the only one found [so far] throughout the Roman Empire.

Zubayda (Iraq)

Other non-European societies provide us with examples of powerful and influential women. From Baghdad, Zubayda who died in ad 831, was said to be the richest and most powerful woman in the world at the time. Famous for her wisdom and good works, she was responsible for, and funded, a series of way-stations and wells all the way from Baghdad to Mecca, thus making it easier and safer to make the Haj, or Pilgrimage to Mecca, that each Muslim is expected to perform during their lifetime. You could use Zubayda to research life in Baghdad, what it was like to go on a Haj at the time, and compare it with what it is like today, as well as the impact her work had at the time, and how it has been viewed since.

Emma of Normandy (England, Denmark and Norway)

Emma of Normandy was the wife of Æthelred the Unready and, when he died, became the wife of the Viking King Canute – so at one time she was Queen of England, Denmark and Norway. She played an important part in uniting the country and, when Canute died, her Saxon son from her first marriage, Edward the Confessor, became King. It was her Norman connection that was part of the claim for William the Conqueror in 1066. She was indeed a powerful and influential lady. You could use the story of Emma to explore what happened to rich ladies when they became widows – how easy was it for them to make a life for themselves? Why was Canute so keen to marry her – was it because of who she was?

Abbess Hilda of Whitby (England)

Abbess Hilda of Whitby founded, and became the head of, a large mixed monastery in the seventh century. Her learning was famous throughout Europe, and kings and others sought her advice readily. She chaired the Synod (church meeting) at Whitby in ad 664 where the divisions in the Church were ironed out, and everyone agreed to adhere to the rules of the Pope in Rome. She was made a saint after her death, and St Hilda᾿s College in Oxford is named after her. Abbess Hilda provides a great opportunity to discuss the role of the church in Saxon times, the work of monasteries and abbeys, and particularly how difficult it was for a single woman to support herself. You might research Hilda's life and discover why she was made a saint, and the part played by saints in the life of the Anglo-Saxon church.

Lady K᾿abel (Guatemala)

Lady K᾿abel was a Maya queen and military ruler from the Classical period of the Maya in the 7th century. Her tomb in Guatemala was only discovered in 2012. Her title of ‘supreme warrior᾿ meant she was more important than her husband the king. Archaeologists are still unsure of the facts, but her tomb, like that of Fu Hao, contained lots of artefacts that help us understand her life and times. It also shows us how new evidence can change the way we view things, by providing new information, or support for one theory as opposed to another, or simply adding to our understanding of life at the time. We know very few named individuals from Maya times, so it is quite exciting to have a named individual to study. Again, Lady K'abel is a perfect opportunity to discuss her significance – both then and now.

Iyoba Idia (Benin)

Iyoba Idia from Benin was a famous warrior queen in the 16th century. She is someone we probably have never heard of, but whose face is one of the most famous bronzes and ivory masks on display in museums and collections around the world. You might use her to explore the role of women in Benin – how was their life different from that of men – and especially of royal women. How easy was it for a queen to be powerful and influential at the time? And just why is her face on so many Benin bronzes?

Betsi Cadwaladr (Wales)

Betsi was born in 1789 and brought up at Llanycil, near Bala, She was the daughter of a Methodist preacher, one of sixteen children. After her mother died she helped bring up the other children before getting a job as a maid. When she grew up she left Wales and got a series of jobs as servant or companion. Betsi travelled around the world as a maid to a ship’s captain, where she learned nursing skills and the importance of cleanliness.

Back in Britain, Betsi trained as a nurse. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, Betsi learned about the terrible conditions for wounded soldiers on the battlefield. She volunteered to go to Crimea, where at first she worked in a hospital run by Florence Nightingale. They didn’t get on, so Betsi moved to the frontline. Here she worked day and night to care for wounded soldiers, battling against filthy conditions. Worn out and ill with cholera, Betsi returned to London a year later and died in 1860.

Compared with Florence Nightingale, Betsi was soon forgotten. But in 2009 her work as a pioneering Welsh nurse was recognised when the Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board was set up in North Wales.

The Davies sisters (Wales)

Gwendoline and Margaret Davies (1884 – 1963 and 1886 – 1951) were born into a family of wealthy industrialists. They grew up in Montgomeryshire where they learned that the wealth came from the work of ordinary Welsh people. At the beginning of the 20th Century they were the richest independent women in Britain. In the First World War they volunteered for the Red Cross on the front line in France. Before the war they were great travellers and art collectors; afterwards they were determined to use their wealth for good causes. They bought Gregynog Hall, Newtown and made it a centre for art, music and culture. In 1951 they gave their art collection to the National Museums and Galleries of Wales – its biggest single donation.

The National Museum of Wales website says ‘The sisters championed social, economic, educational and cultural initiatives in Wales and beyond. Their idealism and generosity had a remarkable impact on the cultural and intellectual life of Wales which is still with us today’.


1. Audit your curriculum.

Traditionally, textbooks focus on the rich and famous who, throughout history, tend to be men. Where might you change some of the individuals you use to reflect better the importance of women in society? What criteria might you use for including certain women? Should you include more women at the expense of, or as well as, men?

2. Review content.

Including more women instead of men might redress one issue, but does it just replace one 'bad practice' with another? How can we produce a curriculum that includes both men and women naturally, reflecting the way society works? What might be the impact of not doing this?

3. Set your pupils a challenge!

You could get them to look through history textbooks or reference books and identify the women in illustrations. What are they doing? What image does this project? How many are there compared to men?

Or you could ask them to think about why women should be included in the curriculum:

Pupils could write a potted biography of each, and present them to the rest of the class.

Finally, you could ask the class to draft a letter to the book author[s] explaining why the people they have chosen should be included in a revision of the course textbook.

Discussion: A list of the 50 greatest Welsh men and women features only seven women, with the highest-ranking, Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, at number 22. Why is this?