10 Remarkable Black Women You Should Absolutely Know About
From Simone Biles to Ava DuVernay to Andrea Jenkins, Black women have played an indelible role in building and shaping America. And, lest some of our politicians forget, they are what makes this country great.
There are too many remarkable Black women to cover in a short post (listen to our podcast for all the latest). But here are 10 historical Black women figures—both living and departed—who inspire us.
Best known for: America’s first female, first African American, and first South Asian vice president, former US senator
Why she’s extraordinary: Kamala Harris’s remarkable ascent from California’s attorney general to US senator to America’s first Black, South Asian, female vice president started with a young girl in Berkeley, CA who was bused to an elementary school in a more prosperous neighborhood as part of the city’s desegregation program. A decade and a half later she graduated from Howard University with a degree in political science and economics. In her history-making vice presidential acceptance speech, Harris acknowledged the many women who paved the way for her. “I stand on their shoulders,” she said, adding, “While I might be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”
In her words: “What I want young women and girls to know is: You are powerful and your voice matters.”
Best known for: First African American congresswoman, first woman and African American to run for US president
Why she’s extraordinary: Speaking of women who paved the way… Shirley Chisholm is one of the 20th century’s trailblazers, making her mark as an “unbossed and unbought” feminist icon. In 1968, she became the first African American woman to win a seat in Congress. She ran for US president in 1972—the first woman and African American from a major political party to do so. After retiring from Congress in 1983, Chisholm co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women to promote the participation of women of color in the educational, political, economic, and social arenas. A state park in her honor is expected to be completed in 2021.
In her words: “I want history to remember me…not as the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a Black woman who…dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”
Best known for: Black academic, activist, feminist icon
Why she’s extraordinary: For more than 50 years, Angela Davis has unapologetically fought against racism, sexism, the abuses of capitalism, and the prison-industrial complex. In 1998, she founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. Criticized and even branded a “terrorist” for her revolutionary approach to justice, Davis has weathered decades of tumult and come out on the other end as one of the most lauded Black women in history.
In her words: “Racism cannot be separated from capitalism.”
Best known for: Producer, screenwriter, author
Why she’s extraordinary: Shonda Rhimes exudes courage, tenacity, and confidence. She makes success look easy, but she’ll be the first to tell you how much work it takes. Rhimes is the first Black woman to create and produce a top 10 network series (Grey’s Anatomy). Her production company, Shondaland, is behind a profusion of hit series, including Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, and she’s basically creating her own sub-genre on Netflix.
In her words: “I am not lucky. You know what I am? I am smart, I am talented, I take advantage of the opportunities that come my way and I work really, really hard. Don’t call me lucky. Call me a badass.”
Best known for: Abolitionist, Underground Railroad “conductor”
Why she’s extraordinary: Having endured brutal abuse and grueling work by slaveholders during childhood, Harriet Tubman committed her life to freeing others from bondage. She personally led dozens of enslaved Blacks to freedom via the “underground railroad,” an elaborate secret network of safe houses. And her actions ultimately helped hundreds of people escape slavery. Tubman was a cook and a nurse, a scout and a spy, a freedom fighter, and an incredibly courageous soul. The Biden administration has been working to accelerate the process of getting Tubman’s face on the $20 bill.
In her words: “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Venus and Serena Williams
Best known for: Professional tennis players
Why they’re extraordinary: The Williams sisters are powerhouses on the tennis court, having won nine Olympic medals between them. Serena has won an astonishing 23 Grand Slam titles and more prize money ($88 million) than any other female athlete. And yet, no amount of money or celebrity has shielded the sisters—especially Serena—from racism and sexism throughout their careers. Still, they persisted.
In their words:
“I don’t like to lose—at anything… Yet I’ve grown most not from victories, but setbacks. If winning is God’s reward, then losing is how he teaches us.” –Serena Williams
“Some people say that I have an attitude. Maybe I do. But I think that you have to. You have to believe in yourself when no one else does. That makes you a winner right there.” –Venus Williams
Best known for: Co-founding Black Lives Matter, author
Why she’s extraordinary: In 2013, Patrisse Cullors put a hashtag in front of three words—Black Lives Matter—and helped start a movement against police brutality. She co-founded BLM with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, who, together, made Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020, and in February 2021 the movement they began was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Cullors is also a best-selling author, artist, and educator who has played a central role in fixing the broken jail system in Los Angeles, her hometown.
In her words: “Racism has its boot squarely wedged on the neck of Black communities, and we don’t want to be told that hard work and responsibility are the answer.”
Best known for: Poet, memoirist, civil rights activist
Why she’s extraordinary: Maya Angelou is one of America’s most influential poets and memoirists, often tackling subjects like racism, sexual violence, and personal identity through metaphor in her autobiographies. She recited one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993 and won numerous awards throughout her life, including a Grammy for an audio version of her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”
In her words: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Best known for: Run for governor of Georgia, voting rights activism
Why she’s extraordinary: Most people know Stacey Abrams for her gubernatorial run in Georgia. The first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party, Abrams lost the race by 55,000 votes in a hotly contested election marred by allegations of voter fraud. But she didn’t let that defeat cast her into the shadows. Instead, she has become a champion for voting rights, launching Fair Fight in 2019 to ensure all votes are counted in elections. In February 2021, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her voting rights work.
In her words: “My being a Black woman is not a deficit. It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.”