Join NCFL in celebrating women in education for Women’s History Month!

Beginning as a week-long celebration in Santa Rosa, California, March was officially designated as Women’s History Month in 1987 by an act of Congress. With so many pioneering women recognized throughout history, it can be difficult to decide where to start! This year, NCFL invites you to join us as we celebrate notable women in the history of education as their work helped lay the foundation for the success of millions of students.

Margaret Bancroft (1854-1912)

Born in 1854, school teacher Margaret Bancroft was a pioneer in education for specialized needs, with her most notable accomplishment being the creation of the Haddonfield Bancroft Training School. This school was the first private boarding school in New Jersey—and one of the first in the United States— specifically designed for children living with disabilities, at a time when many educators considered children with differing abilities unteachable. 

Recognizing that each child is unique in their varying abilities and learning styles, Bancroft created specialized programming for each individual student, with the goal to address their physical, mental, and spiritual growth. Much like NCFL, Miss Bancroft believed strongly in providing a holistic approach to education, with her students receiving proper nutrition, personal hygiene, exercises, and sensory and artistic development. Read more about Margaret Bancroft.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Born in 1875 to enslaved parents, Mary McLeod Bethune is recognized for her work as an educator, philanthropist,  civil rights leader, and women’s rights advocate. After the end of the Civil War, Bethune was given the opportunity to attend a boarding school in North Carolina, from which she graduated in 1894 before going on to become an educator in South Carolina. In 1904, Bethune opened a private boarding school in Florida, named the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. 

Her holistic curriculum—which included cooking, dressmaking, business, and even foreign languages—helped to mold a high educational standard for today’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The school she founded is still open today as Bethune-Cookman University. Read more about Mary McLeod Bethune.

Ruby Bridges (1954 -)

When Ruby Bridges was only six years old, she became the face of desegregation in public schools when she walked into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School to further her education. Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, was willing to accept Bridges in her class, and Bridges spent the school year in a class of one, eating lunch alone, and spending her recess playing with her teacher. 

In spite of all opposition, Bridges did not miss a single day of school that year and went on to graduate from a desegregated high school, becoming a lifelong activist for racial equality. Today, Ruby Bridges Hall is the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation, which works to promote the values of tolerance, respect, and appreciation of all differences. 

For even more information on Ruby Bridges, visit Wonderopolis’ Wonder of the Day #2380.

Patsy Mink (1927-2002)

As the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Asian-American woman in Congress, Mink made a monumental impact on equal access to education. Mink co-authored and advocated for the passage of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act (more commonly known as Title IX), which prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal funding. Signed into law in 1972, the amendment was renamed in 2002 after Mink’s passing; it is now titled the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. Mink also introduced the Early Childhood Education Act (the first federal child-care and bilingual education bills), worked on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and promoted bills for adult education, school lunch programs, special education, and teacher sabbaticals. Read more about Patsy Mink.

Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837-1913)

Born into enslavement, Fanny Coppin’s freedom was purchased at age 12 by her aunt for $125. Eager to educate herself, she hired a tutor to help her study for three hours a week and spent most of her free time learning whatever she could. Coppin enrolled at Oberlin College, graduating as one of the first Black women to earn a college degree. From a young age, she firmly believed that education provided access to a better life, a sentiment that NCFL’s own mission statement—to eradicate poverty through education solutions for families—echoes strongly. 

Fanny Coppin dedicated her life to helping fellow African-Americans through their education, particularly active after the Civil War as she focused on helping formerly enslaved people who migrated to the North. In 1869, Coppin became the head principal at the Institute for Colored Youth, which made her the first Black woman in the country to hold such a position. Read more about Fanny Jackson Coppin.

Malala Yousafzai (1997-)

Malala Yousafzai has been a fierce advocate for girls’ right to education since she was a child, becoming particularly vocal after Taliban extremists took over her village in Pakistan and banned girls from attending school. In 2009, Yousafzai began blogging anonymously for the BBC, speaking about her life under Taliban rule and her desire to go to school. Working with her father even after they were displaced from their home, Yousafzai spoke out to the media, advocating for equal education—actions that earned her a nomination for the 2011 International Children’s Peace Prize. While she did not win the award, the nomination put Yousafzai’s life in danger, and she was airlifted to Birmingham, England in 2012 after she was shot by Taliban members. Today, Yousafzai and her father continue to support and advocate for women and girls through the international Malala Fund, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work. In 2020, Yousafzai graduated with honors from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Read more about Malala Yousafzai.

Sharon Darling 

To round out our celebration of notable women in education, we would like to give a special mention to Sharon Darling, the founder of the National Center for Families Learning. As a lifelong educator, Sharon began her work in family literacy in a Kentucky church basement, volunteering to help adults learn to read. Through her volunteer work, she discovered the importance of systemic family support in children’s educational success and went on to play a pivotal role in the creation of the model for comprehensive family literacy in 1985. 

In her three decades of leading NCFL, Sharon helped refine and spread the family literacy model across the United States, emphasizing the importance of a holistic approach to fostering student growth and achievement. While she retired in 2021, Sharon now sits on the Board of Directors, continuing her strong commitment to family literacy. Read more about Sharon Darling.

There is no shortage of women to recognize and celebrate for their notable accomplishments, which is why Wonderopolis invites you to peruse their Women’s History Collection for even more notable figures to celebrate Women’s History Month.