11 Black Women Who Changed Our World
In honor of Black History Month and its transition into Women's History Month, we wanted to highlight some of the amazing black women who have changed history.
We know, of course, that we cannot possibly write about all of the black women who have changed history, but here are just a few astounding ladies who we think you should know.
This article kicks off our Women of History series which seeks to showcase different women whose names you have to know. (Herstory, you know what we mean?)
After spending over a decade running early-childhood education organizations, Shirley Chisholm decided her leadership skills might serve her well in the political world. She began volunteering at the white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn, as well as the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters. She soon took a seat at the New York State Assembly as a Legislator, pushing for civil rights legislation surrounding literacy laws and unemployment benefits. When she eventually ran for Congress, her campaign slogan was “Unbought and unbossed,” (sound familiar?). In a major “upset,” she defeated her opponents, going on to play a critical role in food stamp expansion, the development of WIC, veterans affairs, and, later, Education and Labor. Chisholm hired exclusively women to work in her office, at least half of which were Black. She went on to continue her streak of trailblazing by becoming the first ever black candidate to run for a major party’s nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. It really doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Fannie Lou Hamer
You’ve probably heard the famous quote “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” but did you know that it was Fannie Lou Hamer who said it?! Born the daughter of sharecroppers in Montgomery County, MS in 1917, Hamer spent her early life working the fields. In the Summer of 1962, Hamer made the life-changing decision to go to a protest meeting, where she was inspired to dedicate the remainder of her life to fighting for African American voting rights. She spent years working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to implement civil disobedience acts, many of which were met with violent responses by police and local opposition groups. Hamer became the founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which served as the opposition to the state’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention. Hamer also ran for Congress in Mississippi (unsuccessfully) and spent years organizing to help increase business opportunities and family services for minorities. Hamer’s inspirational work has been lauded by the likes of Stokely Carmichael, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height, and more. She is truly a civil rights hero.
Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign during the late 1800s in the United States. After the end of the Civil War, Wells aggressively pursued her education, enrolling herself at Rust College before becoming a teacher to sustain her family. In 1884, Wells filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis after she was thrown off a first-class train despite having a ticket. After winning the local-level court case, Wells eventually lost when the case was brought to the federal court. The loss did not deter her, and soon Wells had turned her attention to a larger injustice: white mob violence. Wells investigated several lynching cases and published her findings in pamphlets and the local newspaper. Her published works enraged locals so much that she was driven from her home and forced to migrate to Chicago, IL. From there, she continued her activism whilst balancing it with motherhood. Wells eventually took her platform to a global scale, traveling the world to shed light on lynching and publicly opposing the racism of the white women’s suffrage movement. She is an absolute badass.
In 1965, at 17, Ruby Sales was marching in the Selma to Montgomery marches. She was arrested in August of 1965 for picketing a whites-only store in Alabama, as the 1964 Civil Rights Act had already prohibited segregation. Sales was jailed for 6 days. Following her release, she was threatened by a construction worker who was wielding a shotgun. One of her fellow marchers - a white man named Jonathan Daniels - pushed her out of the line of fire and took the bullet that had been headed for her. Daniels died instantly, and Sales went on to continue her activism in his name. She attended a divinity school similar to that of Daniels and went on to found The SpiritHouse Project, a non-profit dedicated to Daniels. Based in Washington D.C., Sales continue to push for justice to this day.
The Founders of Black Lives Matter
If you haven’t heard their names, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (Opal is a great name, don't you think??) are the three founders of the organization Black Lives Matter. The women live in Los Angeles, Oakland and New York, respectively, but have managed to create this globally recognized organizing movement that focuses on combating anti-black state-sanctioned violence and the systemic oppression of all black people. In addition to BLM, each woman has contributed individually to an array of organizations that are working to create a more equal and just society. Khan-Cullors is the founder of Dignity and Power and the winner of a Fulbright scholarship as well as the Sydney Peace Prize award. She is also an artist, and most recently toured the country performing her multimedia art piece “POWER: From the Mouths of the Occupied.” Garza is a writer, public speaker, the current Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a Queer activist. She seeks to challenge the idea that only cisgender Black men encounter police and state violence. Tometi is a writer, strategist, and community organizer. She is responsible for a lot of the initial online platform and social media strategizing that went in to Black Lives Matter, and is also a leader of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. These three ladies have launched an internationally recognized civil rights organization and they will most certainly go down in history.
Dame Mary Eugenia Charles
A groundbreaking politician, Dame Mary Eugenia Charles served as the Prime Minister of Dominica from 1980 to 1995. She was Dominica’s first (and so far only) female prime minister and remains the only female prime minister the nation has ever seen. After Lucina da Costa Gomez (Prime Minister of the Netherlands Antilles 1977), Charles was the second female prime minister to serve a Caribbean nation. She was also the first female head of state in the Americas to be elected to a head of government position. Charles thwarted two separate coup d’etat attempts during her time as Prime Minister, the first from an internal military official and the second from a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated American and Canadian mercenary group. By the end of her term, Prime Minister Charles was well-known as the Iron Lady of the Caribbean for her uncompromising stance on social welfare and freedom issues.
Alice Walker is an American author and activist best known for her book The Color Purple (1982). Walker spent her life alternating between pursuing a career in writing and pursuing social justice during the Civil Rights Movement. Her short stories, poems, and novels told stories of the people in her life, sharing the black experience pre-Civil Rights and throughout the 1960s movement. She also served as an editor for Ms. magazine, the only magazine of its time that was written for women, by women. Her work The Color Purple told the story of a young black woman who is fighting her way through white racism and black patriarchal society. The novel won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie featuring Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. When she wasn’t writing, Walker was fighting for the greater good. She spent years on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, advocating for a feminism that included women of color. She participated in marches in Gaza and advocated for not just her own people but all people across the globe that were facing injustice.
The theory of intersectionality may be well known today, but when Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the theory to the academic world of feminism in 1989 it was anything but ordinary. Crenshaw’s initial introduction of the concept came in her essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” in which she argued that black women are discriminated against in ways that too often do not compactly fit into the categories of “racism” or “sexism” but instead as a combination of the two. Since that time, Crenshaw has become a leader in Critical Race Theory. She has published two books on the matter and splits her time as a professor of the topic at University of California Los Angeles Law School and Columbia School of Law. In 1991, Crenshaw also served as part of the legal team for Anita Hill, the woman who accused then- Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. The case was divisive - white feminists supported Hill, whilst many members of the African-American community supported Thomas - and pointedly illustrated Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality. In recent years, Crenshaw has published several books, including one entitled Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over Policed and Under Protected.
You didn't really think that we were going to forget about Michelle Obama, right? Michelle Obama is an American lawyer and writer who is the wife of former U.S. President Barack Obama. She is the first African American First Lady. She was raised on the South Side of Chicago, and graduated Princeton University and Harvard Law School, which makes her the most educated First Lady in the history of the United States! She worked at the law firm Sidley Austin, as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago and the Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Medical Center. When she was First Lady, Obama became an amazing role model for women, an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating.
By: Sofie Wise
Head Image: Writer Alice Walker poses at her Berkeley, Calif., home in this file photo. (AP Photo/Noah Berger,File)