Syllabus: Women and Gender in World History, 600-2000

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Thumbnail image of Glikl


The syllabus below lays out a 15-week course, beginning in the 6th century and continuing through the 20th century. It provides suggestions for how to use units and their various parts with your students, as some of the materials are student-facing, and others are instructor-facing.

Units in the Teaching section of World History Commons tend to be multi-source and multi-part. In general, the opening Overview and Essay in each unit are designed for students, as are the annotations to the primary sources. (To see the actual sources, click on the “primary source” bar and then click on the title or the source.) The Teaching Strategies and Lesson Plan are designed for you, with all kinds of suggestions for how to provide context, terms you should explain, questions to ask your students as they read, broader discussion questions, suggestions for assignments, etc. Even if you don’t know this material, these sections plus a basic world history textbook provide enough guidance for you to provide a good week-long unit. The Document Based Question is an AP-style question that students answer based on the documents in the unit. The instructions view this as a 40-minute exercise, but it could easily be used as a long online assignment.


Women and Gender in World History, 600 to 2000

A brief description of the course for your students might be:

This course introduces you to the history of women and gender around the world over the last 1500 years, from the sixth century through the twentieth century. It focuses primarily on original sources, that is, the written, visual, and material traces that people and societies have left. You will be learning about many different types of history—social, cultural, political, economic—and will be interacting with and analyzing sources from many parts of the world. The course will include materials that focus on central topics in world history, including the spread of religions, contacts between cultures, revolutions, imperialism and anti-imperialism, and health and disease.

Week One: Course Introduction

This is the time for you to map out the course, providing the students with an introduction, and setting out your course goals. If this is an online course, you should include information about online learning, and any specific instructions relevant for your campus learning management system (lms). (Sample statements about course goals and online learning are included below.)

To create a sense of social presence, the sense that students are in a class together with others, should start the first week with introductions and possibly icebreaker activities. You might want to have students do two introductions: one only for you (posted wherever assignments are posted) and one shared with the other students, posted in the Discussion section of the course website. This exercise can not only introduce students to you and to one another, but also involve historical thinking skills, as you can respond to the posts by asking students to think about how knowing that you or other students would be reading them affected what they wrote. You can broaden this to discuss purpose, audience, perspective, and so forth in a digital historical source. (Which is what these introductions are—my students are always surprised to learn that they’re creating historical sources all the time.) You will be asking them to think about these issues in the sources they read and look at, so it’s good to start right away. You may also want to discuss their understanding of terms you’ll be using over and over, including women, gender, patriarchy, original source, etc. Some of them may have never taken a world history course before, and a very simple map of world regions is a good resource to have available throughout the course, along with specialized maps for different units.

Week Two: Women in the Islamic World, 600-1500

Islamic Empire

Analyzing Religious Texts

The development and spread of world religions are essential aspects of world history, so beginning your course with women’s role in one of these allow you to start with a bang, making the point that the history of women and gender is not separate from “real” history. Starting with women in the Islamic world also counteracts views that some of your students may have about Islam.

This week uses two units, Islamic Empire and Analyzing Religious Texts. In Islamic Empire, the opening overview and essay are designed for students, but it assumes they know something about Islam. So in the materials you post on the course site, or in your opening (very short!) lecture, you should include a brief overview of the early history of Islam, its basic beliefs, and the growth of Islamic empires. Analyzing Religious Texts includes a multi-part video, full of visual materials and designed for students, in which the historian Sumaiya Hamdani talks about the Quran and Hadith. You could move to this directly after your introduction, before turning to the sources in Islamic Empire.

There are nine sources in Islamic Empire, beginning with the Quran and including one visual source of public buildings that women built in their name. I would use them all except the travel narrative by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, as this is out of the time period.

Week Three: Women Writers in Asia, 700-1300

Bhakti Poets

Women Writers of the Heian Era

This week continues the theme of women in religious and cultural traditions, focusing first on female bhakti poets in South Asian Hindu traditions, and then on women writers in Heian Japan. The Essay in the Bhakti Poets unit, designed for students, has a good introduction to Hinduism in general, South Asian social structures, and a brief discussion of political developments. There are nine poems, and you may not want to use all of them, but they’re quite short, so you could. The Annotations introducing the poems all include the same opening paragraph, then specifics about the authors, so there’s less reading than there appears to be at first glance.

The Essay on women writers in the Heian era provides intellectual and cultural context, and also addresses the issue of why Japan is the only place in the world where women created the classical literary tradition. The sources include excerpts from three pieces of literature and two illustrations from The Tale of Genji. None of the excerpts is long, and the Annotations provide directions to students to help them understand what they are reading and seeing.

Both the Teaching Strategies and Lesson Plan in the units have excellent ideas that can be adapted to an online environment. Along with the suggested discussion questions, you should pose some comparative ones: What’s different and what’s the same in the two groups of literature the students have read for this week, and why?

Week Four: Women in the Early Modern World, 1400-1800

Early Modern Period

Analyzing Personal Accounts

The first two weeks have examined women in different regions, and this week will be comparative, with sources from Europe, China, and India found in two units in World History Commons. In the Early Modern Period unit, the Introduction includes a brief discussion of periodization (why is “early modern” called that?), and general information about ideas about women. The twelve sources include written and visual materials, and are arranged so that the ones by men appear first, and then the ones by women. Thus the unit is comparative by gender of the author/artist as well as by region. The Teaching Strategies includes discussion questions. The Lesson Plan includes useful ideas about what to convey to students in terms of historical background, but it also refers to two worksheets about interpreting sources that are no longer attached to the site. (These are not essential, so just ignore that part of the Lesson Plan.)

The second unit, Analyzing Personal Accounts, includes two personal accounts written by women living in northern Germany in the 17th century, the Jewish merchant Glikl of Hameln and the Protestant midwife Catharina Schrader. It includes a multi-part video, full of visual materials, in which I talk about the documents, designed for students.

Week Five: Gender in Aztec and Colonial Mexico, 1500-1800

Three sections of the Codex Mendoza:



Advice of an Aztec Father to his Son

Analyzing Inquisition Documents

Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America

In week four, students compared various societies, and here they look at one of the many places where people and cultures blended, a key aspect of the early modern world. There is no one unit in World History Commons that focuses directly on this in Latin America, so the materials for this week include sources from multiple units. Each of these has rich annotations for your students to read, and three have an Essay for you with information about how to introduce, contextualize, and help them understand the source. (The materials do not have a general introduction to exploration and colonialism in Latin America, so you will need to provide one for the students, just as you did for Islam.)

The first three units are sections from the Codex Mendoza, an indigenous account of history and moral behavior, which refer to gender. As the Essay explains, this gives insights into gender in pre-colonial Aztec society and its refashioning in the colonial period. The fourth unit is a text about the socialization of Aztec boys, also from an indigenous text. The fifth unit is an Inquisition trial document of a fourteen-year old mixed-race girl accused of renouncing God. This includes a multi-part video of the historian Joan Bristol talking about this document, designed for students, which contextualizes the case in depth. The sixth unit, Gender and Race in Colonial Latin America, includes three long legal documents that refer to issues of gender and race; you may just want to use one of these, as the annotations are also quite long.

Week Six: Women, Gender and the Family in Early Modern South Africa, 1650-1800

Cultural Contact in Southern Africa

This week focuses on another colonial setting, this time South Africa. The Overview provides a brief discussion of early European settlement and the indigenous groups that were already there, and the Essay discusses family patterns and gender structures in various groups. The eleven Sources include material objects as well as several different types of texts, some with illustrations, so they are especially varied. The Teaching Strategies are helpful; the Lesson Plan refers to worksheets and links that are not there, but still has some useful tips.

Week Seven: Women and the French Revolution, 1760-1800

Women and the Revolution

Women participated in many aspects of the Atlantic Revolutions of the late eighteenth century, including the French Revolution. This unit includes an essay designed for students that provides an overview; you should probably preface this with some general information about the French Revolution. It has 50 sources, which stretch from the pre-revolutionary period to the end of the century, so you may want to use just some of them, but many are visual, and the annotations are short, so you could use them all.

Week Eight: Women and Imperialism I: The British Empire 1820-1980

British Empire

Commission Records on the Women’s War in Nigeria

This week focuses on British women and women from the colonies in the British Empire, and includes two units, one with a number of sources on the British Empire and one on what became known as the “Women’s War” in 1929-1930 Nigeria. The Essay in the British Empire unit, designed for students, includes general information on British imperialism, as well as on women in the empire. Teaching Strategies has good discussion questions, and the Lesson Plan is a very specific small group exercise that might not work in an online setting. The twelve sources include paintings, and a wide range of written works, some by British women and some by women from the empire. The second unit includes a multi-part video of the historian Meredith McKittrick talking about women in colonial Nigeria and the commission that investigated the Women’s War, with many photographs. The primary source is a photograph and one very short excerpt from the commission records.

Week Nine: Women and Imperialism II: The French North African Empire 1830-1970

Imperialism in North Africa

This unit focuses on women in the three North African states—Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco—that were part of the French Empire. The Essay includes general information on French imperialism, designed for students, as well as on women in the empire. Both Teaching Strategies and the Lesson Plan have good discussion questions, and various other strategies. The ten sources include paintings and photographs, along with a wide range of written sources from French and North African authors, including interviews, songs, and autobiographies. The annotations are sometimes quite long, and provide plenty of context.

Week Ten: Women, Industrialization, and the Labor Movement, 1900-1940

Puerto Rican Labor Movement

World History Commons does not have a unit on women or gender and industrialization per se, but this unit covers many of the major issues. It focuses on women in industrializing Puerto Rico in the early twentieth century, and especially on their role in the labor movement there. The Essay, designed for students, provides good background information, and the twelve sources include a range of visual and written materials.

Week Eleven: Women, Protest, and Political Change, 1900-1990
Southeast Asian Politics

Filipino Comfort Women

This unit looks at the complex relationship between feminism and nationalism as nations gained independence from colonialism, and at women’s political leadership and activism in the twentieth century, with women from several nations within Southeast Asia as examples. Using the Filipino comfort women material along with that in the Southeast Asian Politics unit provides them with examples of political activism by women who are not heads of state or members of the elite. It also provides them with material about women’s experiences during war, about which there has not yet been much in other units.

You will need to provide some general background on several issues: anti-imperialism and the struggles for independence; the global feminist movement (most students have no idea there was a women’s rights movement outside the U.S. and England); World War II and military sexual slavery. In the Southeast Asian politics unit, the ten sources include speeches, documents, photographs, and a song, with good annotations. The Essay in the Filipino comfort women unit is instructor-facing, but you might assign it to your students anyway, as it contains good background information. The two sources are a brochure and newsletter, with illustrations and photographs.

Week Twelve: Women in Communist and post-Communist Eastern Europe, 1930-2000

Soviet Dictatorship

Women in Romania

This week uses materials from two units, one on women in the Stalinist Soviet Union and the other on women in Romania after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. The Essay on women in Soviet dictatorship provides fairly good contextualization, and the eleven sources include Soviet newspaper articles, graphs, drawings, and cartoons, with annotations. The Essay for the unit on Romania is instructor-facing, but has good background and could be read by your students. The sources for Romania are oral history interviews conducted in 2003 with women looking back at their lives under Communism and the changes that have taken place since then.

Week Thirteen: Sexuality, Gender, and Adulthood, 1600-2000

Age of Consent Laws

This unit focuses on age of consent laws, and their implications for ideas about gender, sexuality, and other issues, over a long period, which encourages students to think about change over time. The Essay, designed for students, provides solid background on this issue since the Middle Ages, and the sources include a wide range: trial records, newspaper articles, laws, speeches, songs, legal decisions, and billboards.

Week Fourteen: Women, Health, Sexuality, and Reproduction, 1975-2000

Health in Latin America

This unit is titled “health,” and it does include sources on general issues regarding women’s health, but more of the sources concern issues related to sexuality and reproduction, including prostitution, domestic violence, birth control, abortion, and maternity leave. You could thus frame this week in a variety of ways: the diversity of women’s experiences in Latin America (which is how the author frames it); sexuality and reproductive rights, with Latin America as a case study; gender and health. The additional information you provide for your students will depend on how you frame it. If you decide to make the focus sexuality and reproduction, you may wish to find some sources from the U.S. that would allow students to make comparisons with the Latin American material. There will no doubt be challenges to (and thus sources about) women’s reproductive rights as you are teaching the course, as well as issues concerning sexuality and gender related to COVID-19. At any rate, it should not be hard to convince your students why health is an important issue.

Week Fifteen: Course Wrap Up

Here is the time for final discussions and summative assignments.

Sample course goals:
In this course, you will examine world historical patterns and processes, with a focus on issues concerning women and gender. Using primary sources that present a variety of perspectives, along with secondary materials that accompany the primary sources, you will learn about the ideas and actions of women of the past. You will come to understand how gender has been shaped by historical developments into highly variable and historically changing systems of power relations. You will learn how gender has in turn shaped other events and structures. You will evaluate how gender intersects with other forms of identity and systems of power such as class and race, a concept described today as “intersectionality.” You will learn how and why the ideas and actions of individuals and groups have transformed gender over time. You will develop credible and effective narratives and analyses of women and gender in the past that show understanding of the contexts of different historical eras and cultures.

[Then add instructions relevant for your campus learning management system (lms). Your campus office overseeing the lms often has general guides to netiquette and study strategies to which you can link, along with tutorials for students about tech issues.]

Primary Sources

Excerpt from Memoirs by Glikl

Thumbnail image of Glikl
The is a diary written by a Jewish merchant, Glikl of Hameln, a woman living in northern Germany in the 17th century. This source is a part of the Women and Gender in World History, 600-2000 teaching module and the Analyzing Personal Accounts methods module.

Teaching Strategies

Sample introduction to learning online:

Learning online presents its own rewards and challenges. You will find that the online learning environment allows you to attend class whenever you wish, day or night, seven days a week; you can plan readings and activities around your personal schedule each week. You will be able to respond to the discussion questions at your own pace and then think about how to comment to someone else’s responses. Each time you connect with the class you will find that others have responded to your comments and brought up new perspectives and ideas that you have not thought about. This course requires you to stay on top of the readings, discussions, and writing assignments. Its freedom and flexibility means that good time management and individual initiative are of the utmost importance. Some students find it helpful to log on every day, or at least five days a week, and work on the course in smaller amounts of time. If you do not participate actively and consistently, you will not do well.


Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the long-time senior editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal, an editor of the Journal of Global History, and the editor-in-chief of the nine-volume Cambridge World History (2015). She is an author or editor of more than thirty books and nearly 100 articles that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean. This module was developed for the World History Commons.

How to Cite This Source

"Syllabus: Women and Gender in World History, 600-2000 ," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/syllabus-women-and-gender-world-history-600-2000 [accessed June 11, 2024]