Battling, Spying, Dangerous Females: Teaching Women’s History to Rough & Tumble Kids

Talking to my seven and ten-year old sons about Women’s History Month, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Thatcher, and Betty Friedan wasn’t an utter waste of breath. But it was close. Vacant stares and a feeble “Oh” from my oldest left me deflated, but not hopeless. I realized I needed to come at women’s history from a different angle.

These kids are excited by Madden NFL, Elon Musk aiming for Mars, wrestling, their “packs” (shorthand for stomach muscles) and poop. It was none too shocking women's lib and suffrage didn’t whip them into a frenzy.

For girls, it can be empowering and exciting to learn about our female forebears that shaped society because they can see themselves in these heroes. Celebrating how far our gender has come and our achievements in the face of inequality shows young women today that there are no limits. They can be sparkplugs and change the world.

This is not to say that boys don’t care about women and our unique plight to gain equal footing in politics, the workforce and just about everywhere else. But kids often don’t see beyond the tip of their nose. And yet, as a mother to boys, I want my sons to not just respect women, but to truly value our strength and accomplishments. I want them to see us as the powerhouses we are. Because we kick butt, ladies.

Though a healthy dose of feminism and femininity could do everyone some good in my humble opinion, sometimes it’s easier to meet people where they are. So for all the stinky, sweaty, adventure-mongering, tough-guy boys (and girls!) out there, here’s our list of some of the most rad females in history. And how you can learn about them.

Mold-Breaking Women

The Courageous Fighter Pilot:

Marina Raskova set world flying records and paved the way for generations of female pilots in Russia. With her leading the charge, The Night Witches became the most feared fliers of World War 2. The whooshing noise their wooden planes made like that of a sweeping broom was the only warning the Germans had of their attacks. Their planes were too small to show up on radar or infrared locators. These ladies were like ghosts. Deadly ones at that. Hear Marina’s story on Episode 61 of The Past and The Curious, a podcast for kids and families.


The Undaunted Spy: 

Phoebe Fraunces, a Black woman, was George Washington’s housekeeper. But she was also a spy trying to save his life. Her mission was to uncover who was trying to take Washington out, and to foil them before it was too late. Phoebe the Spy tells the story in paperback form of a real-life spy during the Revolutionary War.


The Daring Detective:

In 1856, only men were detectives. But when Kate Warne explained that she could worm out secrets where men could not go―in disguise as a society lady—she got hired. Kate was not any old sleuth. She thwarted a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Learn about her in How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln: The Story Behind the Nation's First Woman Detective, a picture book for younger kids or in The Detective's Assistant, a paperback novel for older elementary.


The Elite Warriors:

If your kid was awed by the all-female Wakandan special forces in the movie Black Panther, they will want to learn about the women of the Dahomey army. Starting from childhood, these formidable warriors were devoted to learning about weapons, military trainings and wars of conquest to protect the King. If any man dared to lay a hand on them, they were condemned to death. Serving as a bodyguard to the king gave these women independence, the chance to hold important positions in the military and to influence kingdom politics. Read about them in Women in African History – The Women Soldiers of Dahomey.  


The Fearless Firefighters:

Although women have been involved in firefighting for more than 200 years, women today only comprise about 4% of firefighters in the USA.  Some fire departments still have only one woman on their staff and some have none. In 2020, a group of five women in South Florida made history as the first all-female fire crew. Here’s a video with their story.


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