Influential Black Women Who Changed The World


"There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It's as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet" is a quote by Maya Angelou... and she was correct. If the world were a machine, black women would be the cogs which kept it functioning. Every single day since time began, black women have been strong, inspirational figures. They've worked hard to achieve things they were told they never would, they've smashed the glass ceiling to smithereens in the world of business and they've invented things which we now could not survive without. Black women have fought tirelessly for the freedom and rights of millions and have give little girls hope that their voices deserve to be heard and their stories are worth telling.

With black women being the very backbone of society, there will never come a time when they are appreciated enough. Our world seems to take for granted black women and all they have done, therefore, I wanted to shed some light on the accomplishments of some unsung heroins, the black women who we don't learn about in school and the ones who aren't celebrated in the ways that many men are. The following women are black excellency personified and we all ought to revere their bravery, work ethics, kindness and talents.

Madam C.J Walker (1867-1919)Madam C.J Walker was an entrepreneur, civil rights activist and philanthropist. She suffered from a scalp ailment which resulted in hair loss. As a result of this, she invented her own line of African-American hair products in 1905. She travelled the world to promote them and give demonstrations and was eventually able to establish Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories, which manufactured her range and trained sales beauticians. Thanks to her hard work and intelligence within the business field, she became one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. 

Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980)
Euphemia Lofton Haynes was an American mathematician. She worked to achieve degrees in both mathematics and education before going on to become the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. She gained this from the Catholic University of America in 1943. She also pushed tirelessly to change the education system which, at the time, was illegally segregating black students. 

Alexa Canady (1950-)
Educator and surgeon, Alexa Canady, was inspired to pursue a medical career after attending a summer program in college. She initially planned on being an internist, but these plans changed when she became intrigued by neurosurgery. Despite many obstacles being placed in her path and receiving a lack of support, she remained determined. In 1981, Alexa Canady became the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States.

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)
In 1966, Constance Baker Motley became the first black female federal judge. During her career as a judge, she oversaw many civil rights cases, one famous one being her ruling to allow a female reporter into the New York Yankees' locker room in 1978. Constance Baker Motley went on to become chief judge of the district in 1982, and senior judge in 1986. She continued to serve as a federal judge until her death in 2005.

Dr. Shirley Jackson (1946-)
Dr. Shirley Jackson is an American physicist and the 18th President of the private research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York. She has conducted breakthrough scientific research that enabled others after her to invent the portable fax, touch tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID. These things would not exist without her.

Bessie Blount Griffin (1914-2009)
Bessie Blount Griffin was a physical therapist and inventor. During World War II, she invented a feeding tube after working with wounded soldiers and wishing for amputees to have an easier way of feeding themselves and recognising that they wanted independence. She went on to invent an electronic feeding device in 1951, an invention that was not accepted by the American Veterans Administration, so she sold it to the French government. 

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)
Fannie Lou Hamer spent years of her life were spent in Mississippi, picking cotton, until she was fired for trying to register to vote. She felt passionate about fighting racism, due to her own personal experiences with discrimination and so soon became an American voting rights activist. She was shot at, extorted, threatened, harassed and even assaulted by white supremacists and police whilst trying to register to vote. After much resilience, she led thousands of African-Americans in Mississippi to the polls, allowing them to exercise their voting right.

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Marsha P. Johnson was an African-American gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen. She was a leader of the Stonewall Riots and, according to many eyewitnesses, Marsha was the one who "really started it." She was "in the middle of the whole thing, screaming and yelling and throwing rocks." She dedicated her life to activism, co-founding the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, (later renamed Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries) she ensured that young drag queens and trans women were fed, clothed and housed off the streets and was involved in AIDS activism with Act Up. If it wasn't for her, many LGBTQ+ people wouldn't have the freedom they do today. 

Ella Baker (1903-1986)
Civil rights activist Ella Baker became involved in political activism in the 1930s. She played a key role in some of the most influential organisations of her time, such as the NAACP, Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership. Ella Baker is known for criticising the racism within American culture and also the sexism and classism that exists within the Civil Rights Movement.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Shirley Chisholm was an African-American politician who began her career as a teacher. Then, in 1968, she became the first African-American to earn election to Congress. She went on to make history again in 1972, when she became the first black woman of a major party to run for a presidential nomination.

Lyda D. Newman (1885)
Lyda D. Newman was a hairdresser and inventor. She patented an improved model of hairbrush in 1898. Her design included several new features which made the brush more efficient and hygienic. It had evenly spaced rows of bristles and a back that could be opened at the touch of a button for cleaning out the hair. As well as that, she was an important figure in women's battle to gain the right to vote.

Claudette Colvin (1939-)
We all know the story of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the bus, however, little of us know of Claudette Colvin, who actually did the same thing... nine months prior to Rosa Parks' arrest. Claudette Colvin was arrested on several charges and sat in jail, terrified, for many hours. In court, she opposed the segregation law by pleading not guilty. The court, on the other hand, put her on probation. The public branded her a troublemaker and she had to drop out of college, her reputation making it impossible for her to find a job. 

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde is best known for her poems which express her anger toward the social injustices she experienced throughout her life. Her poems explore civil rights issues, feminism and black female identity. Speaking about non-intersectional feminism, she famously said: "Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support."

Mae C. Jemison (1956-)
Mae C. Jemison is the first African-American female astronaut. In 1992, she flew into space aboard the Endeavour, making her the first African-American woman in space. She has received several awards which honour her achievements. 

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Sojourner Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape with her young daughter in 1826. She devoted her life to the abolition of slavery and became a women's rights activist, famous for her improvised speech, titled, Ain't I A Woman? which was delivered at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in 1851. 

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental political activist. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organisation which focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women's rights. She also became the first African woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
As well as being a civil rights activist, Josephine Baker was a singer and dancer, who found success after spending her younger years in poverty before learning to dance and getting her big break on Broadway. She was extremely popular in France during the 1920s and became one of Europe's highest-paid performers. She worked for the French Resistance during World War II and devoted much of her life to fighting segregation in America. 

Hattie McDaniel (1895-1952)
Hattie McDaniel was an American actress, singer-songwriter and comedian. She was the first African-American entertainer to win an Academy Award, which she won for Best Supporting Actress for her most famous role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind in 1939. Hattie McDaniel was also the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Ella Fitzgerald was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. Over the course of her career, she recorded over 2,000 songs, she won over 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million records. 

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatley was brought into Massachusetts on a slave ship in 1761, before being purchased to be a personal servant. The couple for whom she worked educated her and she quickly perfected Latin and Greek. She went on to write famous poetry, her first poem being published when she was just 13 years old. Phillis Wheatley then became the first African-American, and one of the first women, to publish a book of poetry in the colonies in 1773.

Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Mary Seacole helped British soldiers during the Crimean War. She was refused from the War Office due to prejudice, when she approached them, asking to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse. Consequently, she funded her own trip to Crimea. There, she nursed the sick and wounded, gave out food, blankets and clothes, using nursing skills which she acquired from her mother. She was a traveller, too, and travelling was something few women of her time were able to do. 

Lilian Bader (1918-2015)
Lilian Bader was one of the first black women to join the British Armed Forces and, by the end of the 20th century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Forces. No one would employ her as a result of racial prejudice, therefore, she was raised in a convent up until the age of 20. She later found employment in domestic service before joining the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (NAAFI) at Catterick Camp. She was enjoying herself until she was asked to leave after her father's West Indian heritage was discovered. She remained determined, however, and was enlisted with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941.

Olive Morris (1952-1979)
Olive Morris was an activist in the feminist, black nationalist, and squatters' rights campaigns during the 1970s. After leaving school without qualifications, Olive Morris became a founding member of the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent in London. She also established the Brixton Black Women's Group, was a member of the British Black Panther Movement and helped found the Manchester Black Women's Cooperative and Manchester Black Women's Mutual Aid Group.

Margaret Busby (1944-)
Margaret Busby started out as the editor of her college's literary magazine before going on to publish her own poetry. Later on, she became Britain’s youngest and first black woman book publisher after co-founding publishing house Allison and Busby, in London, in the 1960s. 

Mary Prince (1788-1833)
Mary Prince was a British abolitionist and autobiographer. Whilst living in London in 1831, she wrote The History Of Mary Prince, which became the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom.

Claudia Jones (1915-1964)
Claudia Jones was a journalist and activist. She was born in Trinidad before moving to New York as a child. In 1955 she was deported from the US and given asylum in England. Here, she founded and edited The West Indian Gazette, however, she is most famous for helping to launch the Nottinghill Carnival in 1959, as an annual showcase for Caribbean talent. 

Kanya King 
Kanya King's father died when she was 13 and she became a mum at the age of 16, causing her to drop out of school. She also experienced racism her whole life. This didn't stop her, however, as she later founded the MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards, the first of which took place in 1996 and has since become one of Europe's biggest music events. The awards celebrate black excellency in music and have become extremely influential in the hip-hop, grime, RnB, soul, reggae, jazz, gospel, and African music fields. Kanya King was made an MBE in 1999.

Waris Dirie (1965-)
Waris fled her home to avoid an arranged marriage. She moved to London where she soon began modelling for huge brands, such as Chanel and L'Oreal, as well as walking down the catwalk and appearing on the cover of magazines like Vogue and Elle. After becoming famous, Waris Dirie used to platform to speak about female genital mutilation, something she became a victim of at just three years of age. In 1997 she became a UN ambassador for the abolition of female genital mutilation and went on to write an autobiography about her experiences, which was ​made into a film, Desert Flower, in 2010. 

Diane Abbott (1953-)
Diane Abbott is a British Labour Party politician. Her career began in 1982, when she was elected to Westminster City Council. She then became the first black woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons in 1987, when she was first elected as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the General Election. She has experienced racist and sexist abuse, both in person and online for the entirety of her career and speaks openly about her experiences. 


Who are the black women in your lives that inspire you? <3

Love, Emily

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