Introduce your students to these influential women from around the world!
To honor Women’s History Month, introduce your students to these eight women who have made the world a better place for all of us. By getting your students thinking and talking about women’s history and gender equality, you’ll help them meet ACTFL’s world-readiness standards, such as acquiring information and diverse perspectives and making cultural comparisons.
1. Sandra Hernández (UN Pilot)
Sandra Hernández holds a special place in women’s history as the only female helicopter pilot in El Salvador’s United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA).
Students will enjoy hearing about how Hernández dreamed of being a pilot since she was a child and how, with 16 years of flying experience in her home country, she joined MINUSMA in 2017. She currently flies surveillance and rapid response missions, provides air support for forces on the ground, escorts UN convoys, and protects civilians in the Northern regions of Mali.
Hernández says that while it’s hard to be away from home for long stretches of time, she takes comfort in knowing that the work she’s doing makes people safer.
2. Sophie Scholl (Anti-War Activist)
Sophie Scholl (1921–1943) was a German student and anti-Nazi political activist. She was convicted of high treason after distributing anti-war leaflets to other students at the University of Munich and was soon after executed. Among her last words were: “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?”
Since the 1970s, Scholl has been extensively commemorated throughout the world as a symbol of youthful courage and resistance. Her bravery and unshakable moral principles make her a standout in women’s history and the history of protest.
3. Michelle Bachelet (Human Rights Advocate, Politician)
Michelle Bachelet (1951) is one accomplished lady.
She’s currently serving as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a post she’s held since 2018. Before that, she was the President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018.
Bachelet holds two firsts in women’s history: She is the first woman to hold the Chilean presidency and the first elected female leader in South America. Between her two terms as president, she served as the executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. A victim of violence under Pinochet’s dictatorship, Bachelet states that her highest priority is to be a “voice for the voiceless, but also to engage governments so that they respect human rights.”
World language students will be impressed to know that Bachelet speaks Spanish, English, German, French, and Portuguese.
4. Rokhaya Diallo (Journalist, Filmmaker, and Activist)
Rokhaya Diallo (1978) is a French journalist, author, and filmmaker, who is making history with her activism for racial, gender, and religious equality. She has produced and/or directed documentaries, television, and radio programs, many about the black experience in France. She has published several books and essays, including France Belongs to Us and How to Talk to Kids About Racism.
Frustrated by the structural racism of French society and the repeated assertions that she wasn’t “truly French,” Diallo founded The Indivisibles in 2006. The Indivisibles campaigns to end "a partition of French citizenship by physical appearance" and host the Y’a Bon Awards, which calls out the most racist statements made by French politicians.
Students interested in fashion will enjoy checking out Diallo’s art and journalism about natural black hairstyles.
5. Zhang Haidi (Writer and Disability Rights Activist)
Zhang Haidi (1955) is a Chinese writer, inspirational speaker, and chairwoman of The National Paralympic Committee of China.
Haidi developed paraplegia in early childhood and has been hailed as a role model for disabled people in China and throughout the world. Social conventions prevented Haidi from attending school, but your world language students will be impressed to learn that she taught herself English, Japanese, German, and some Spanish.
In 1993, she began advocating for the rights of the disabled, and because of her visible public work, Haidi has seen Chinese attitudes about disability transform. Her work is a testament to how perseverance can shape the arc of history.
6. Diana Trujillo (Aerospace Engineer)
Diana Trujillo (1983) is a Colombian aerospace engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She currently leads the team responsible for the robotic arm of the Perseverance rover on Mars. On February 18, 2021, Trujillo hosted the first-ever Spanish-language NASA transmission of a planetary landing, a true milestone in both Latina and women’s history.
Growing up amidst violence and drug trafficking, Trujillo says she would look to the skies in an attempt to disappear. Reflecting on her experiences, she says, “What I knew was that education was going to give me the shot I needed. It wasn’t easy, but nothing that’s worth it is easy.”
Trujillo’s story is a good reminder that when you reach for the stars, sometimes you catch them.
7. Sonia Sotomayor (Supreme Court Justice)
We couldn’t let Women’s History Month pass without mentioning U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (1954). She’s held this position since 2009 and is the third woman and the first woman of color to hold this office.
Sotomayor was born in New York City to Puerto Rican-born parents, attended Princeton University on a full scholarship, and received her law degree from Yale. Before becoming a Supreme Court Justice, Sotomayor played an active role in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and taught at the NYU School of Law and Columbia Law School.
During her time on the Supreme Court, Sotomayor has called for reform of the criminal justice system and prioritized issues of race, gender, and ethnic identity.
8. Maria Montessori (Doctor, Teacher, Educational Theorist)
Some of your world language students have likely benefitted from Maria Montessori’s educational interventions. A true women’s history pioneer, Montessori (1870-1952) is one of the most influential educators in modern history and was one of the first women in Italy to receive a medical degree.
Her passion for education began when she began working with children with learning difficulties at a hospital in Rome. She concluded that these children did not need psychiatric intervention and would benefit from a different pedagogical approach. This idea served as the foundation for her theories, and, in 1907, she opened the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s Home), where she further developed her methods of child-directed learning.
After publishing her findings, Montessori traveled the world to share her philosophy based on principles of observation, respect, independence, and motivation. Her methodology has greatly influenced the state of modern education and is utilized by thousands of schools today.
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How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?
Sophie Scholl, German Anti-War Activist