15 Unforgettable Black Women Who Make Us Want to Stand Up & Get Something Done

Women of Black History

To celebrate Black History Month, we thought of many different ideas for how to honor the women who came before us, making change in the world through art; through the written word; through activism, industry, and civil disobedience. The list is legion. So here, we focus on just a few of those incredible women, women who made some kind of personal, indelible impression on us. Women who sparked us to understanding, or who opened our minds, or who moved us to our core. Women for whom we are so grateful.

From Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Maya Angelou; from Zora Neale Hurston to Billie Holiday, we honor you, we thank you, and we will always be inspired by you.

 

Images via © JazzSign/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Lebrecht Music & Arts/CORBIS; Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS; CORBIS; Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Zora Neale Hurston: American Folklorist and Writer

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    It's hard to fathom that a writer of such genius like Zora Neale Hurston could have published several great works only to find herself later in life struggling to keep steady work or pay the bills, then die mostly forgotten by the general reading public. Anyone who has ever read Their Eyes Were Watching God can tell you what a travesty this fact is. Thankfully, though, for the literary world -- or, really, the world in general -- Alice Walker wrote an essay in the early '70s called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" and described seeking out Hurston's unmarked grave, where she left an inscribed gravestone in which she called Hurston "a Genius of the South.” And with that, a new era in the study and teaching of Their Eyes was born -- and the essentially lost work of a black female writer was rediscovered. We are all the better for it. Mary Helen Washington wrote that Their Eyes "represents a woman redefining and revising a male-dominated literary canon." Can you imagine if such a powerful, brilliant voice had been kept buried? It is such a haunting thought that has stayed with me since learning about the history of the book -- and it's so important for everyone to remember. —Jamie Snider, Copy Editor

  • Mildred Loving: Civil Rights Activist

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    One summer night in 1958, police burst in on Mildred Loving and her husband, Richard, who were asleep in bed, and carted them off to jail. The charge? Being married to one another. At the time, the Lovings' home state of Virginia was one of 24 that barred marriages between races. But thanks to their activism and their landmark civil rights case nearly a decade later, the laws standing in the way of interracial marriages were invalidated. 

    Mildred Loving's bravery helped make my own marriage and family a possibility — and that’s a life I couldn't imagine any other way. I’m grateful to her for paving that path, and am inspired by the power of the love she had for her husband. It’s not lost on me how hard-won her own fight for marriage equality was, and how important it continues to be for others today. —Dria de Botton Barnes, SVP of Editorial 

  • Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist and Women's Rights Activist

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    Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery in 1797. She renamed herself Sojourner Truth in 1843 and worked her entire life as a writer,  abolitionist, and women's rights activist. Whenever I get too up in my own white-lady head about how hard I have it, or how hard it is being a feminist (especially a white feminist), I remind myself of Baumfree, and how she was sold with a flock of sheep for $100; how she was beaten daily and treated with a savage cruelty; how she had five children, worked tirelessly to advance the rights of all people, and was one of our very first suffragists. Not only was she a true hero, but for me personally her story is also a gentle reminder of how good I have it as a white woman living in the 21st century. —Eve Vawter, Deputy Editor

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  • Marsha P. Johnson: Transgender Activist

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    There's always someone who has to go first, and that person is never me. It's Marsha P. Johnson. It takes such a particular brand of calculated fearlessness and bad-ass-ness to throw the first punch, especially when you're a trans woman of color in 1960s New York, and you have to fight the police who are trying to arrest you and your friends for existing as you are while you're just trying to celebrate your 25th birthday.

    But Marsha threw the punch, and the fight she started snowballed into the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which snowballed again into the modern LGBT movement. She's loved for being herself in a world that didn't want her, and she's loved for being an artist and a queen. She's loved for giving what little she had to the young people in her community. But I love her for being first, and for being bold, and for being the spark that history needed. —Caroline Olney, Staff Writer

  • Ruby Bridges: Civil Rights Activist (& Child Hero!)

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    Ruby Bridges's story serves as such a powerful reminder that young women and men have the ability to effect change -- even if they happen to be in the first grade. Every time I think about influential black leaders throughout history, and their contributions, I see an image of a young child who stared adversity and racism in the face so she could get her education -- just like the rest of those students at the all-white elementary school. Ruby is one of the youngest Civil Rights activists, whose bravery gave my mother courage to stand up to discrimination while attending her school in West Virginia. Even if you feel like you're standing alone, you have the power to make such a difference in this society. —Tanvier Peart, Staff Writer

  • Maya Angelou: Author, Poet, and Civil Rights Activist

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    As a writer, I’m inspired and deeply humbled by the work of Maya Angelou. I remember well, as a kid, watching excitedly as she read "On the Pulse of the Morning" at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration. Her words paint such vivid, raw images and evoke real emotion.
     
    It wasn’t until I was older that I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and learned more about Angelou, her tumultuous upbringing, and her work in the Civil Rights movement. To me, all that makes her even more of a hero.
     
    I'm sure I'll never write anything as eloquent, touching, and influential as Maya Angelou’s poetry, but it makes me want to try. –Elena Mauer, Content Lab Editor

  • Marian Wright Edelman: Activist, Lawyer & Champion of Children

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    Marian Wright Edelman is one of those people who makes you want to do something. Something big. Something good. Something worthwhile. And, to be honest, after hearing her speak, you also feel like a bit of a loser -- because you know you'll never achieve anything close to what she has in her lifetime. 

    I know this because I was fortunate enough to meet her and hear her speak. (And to feel like the aforementioned loser.) I worked at a magazine that honored women who have made a difference in the world. Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, was one of them -- for her life's work of improving the lives of disadvantaged children. At the awards event, she gave her acceptance speech and she was magnetic. America's children could have no better advocate on their side. 

    And I was inspired. While Edelman's made more of her life's work than most of us will, we can all heed what she said: Never work just for money or for power. They won't save your soul or help you sleep at night.

    Yes, we've got to pay the bills, but there's always time to volunteer or help a child or another mom or even make a donation to a cause, no matter how small. You can even find ways to take action over at the Children's Defense Fund

    Do it as a thank-you to Marian Wright Edelman, who has done so much for our country's kids. -- Suzanne Murray, Editor in Chief

  • Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Actress, and Civil Rights Activist

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    As a photography student interested in learning the history and technique of early celebrity portraiture, I remember being fascinated by the photos of Josephine Baker. Early black-and-white portraits of her have such an ethereal and magical quality to them. As I worked to perfect my skills using studio lights, backdrops, and posing models, I often referenced her publicity shots as inspiration. Her vivacious energy and wacky style made her in my mind both an aspirational figure and completely relatable. I learned only later that she wasn’t just a dancing beauty who exemplified the jazz age of the 1920s but also a major force in the American Civil Rights struggle. She refused to perform in American clubs to segregated audiences and was the only official female speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. In the face of threats from the KKK, she announced publicly that she wasn’t afraid of them. Her fearless spirit and whimsical disposition are exactly the characteristics I hope to capture with my photos, and her badass efforts toward social justice will always be a personal inspiration. —Anne Meadows, Photo Editor

  • Alice Walker: Author and Activist

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    Author and activist Alice Walker, best known for her critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, is an inspiration to anyone who identifies herself as a writer and a feminist. Not only a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a poet, and a contributing editor of Ms. magazine, Walker is also credited with being an outspoken activist for environmental causes and international women's rights. I admire her strides to define the much-needed "womanist" movement, which she explains is "simply another shade of feminism. It helps give visibility to the experience of black women and other women of color who have always been at the forefront of the feminist movement yet marginalized and rendered invisible in historical texts and the media." Bravo to that. —Maressa Brown, Contributor

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  • Rosa Parks: Civil Rights Activist

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    I've always had great admiration for Rosa Parks. When you think about the courage it must have taken for her to quietly protest giving up her seat on that Alabama bus back in 1955, it's no wonder she's considered the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. As my children have learned about her in school, we often discuss her as a role model. In speaking up for herself and against prejudice and injustice, she empowered the voiceless masses. 

    She really rises off the pages of the history books and comes to life for [children] when they are witnessing bullying on the buses they ride to and from school. I like to think that by her amazing example, they would also have the courage and character to speak up. —Elizabeth Alterman, Lifestyle Writer

  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Gospel Singer, Guitar Virtuoso, 'The Mother of Rock & Roll'

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    We tend to associate the birth of rock 'n' roll with Chuck Berry and Elvis, but guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was shredding solos as far back as 1944. She was deemed the Mother of Rock and Roll; it's so important to me that we acknowledge how Tharpe basically created the genre. In fact, she basically invented the term "rock star" after branching out from gospel music to the mainstream. Just watching her incredible skill in this 1964 performance, it's clear that we should be giving Tharpe a whole lot of credit and an eternal round of applause for her contributions to 21st-century music. —Maressa Brown, Contributor

  • Billie Holiday: Jazz Musician and Singer-Songwriter

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    Whenever I hear a Billie Holiday song, I'm immediately transported back to a particular time and place in my life. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and I'm 20 years old, working in a bookstore, wondering when my life would start. I remember first hearing her voice as a teenager -- so unusual, so gripping, so completely wonderful. And, I remember finally understanding what Billie sings about in "Strange Fruit"  ... Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Like all great artists, Billie reached across time and space to open my mind, my heart, and my eyes a little bit wider. Her life was too short, and what she endured as a woman of color in that life -- living through the Great Depression, through segregation, though accepted discrimination and hate -- will always be part of the legacy of pain in her voice. Her voice that bore witness; her voice that still made beautiful art, singing of darkness and heartbreak, but of love and moonlight, too, even so. Her voice that lives on, forever. —April Hussar, Senior Editor

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  • Toni Morrison: Novelist, Editor, and Professor

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    Toni Morrison, the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is often regarded as a literary staple in many high school and college English classes. I can remember devouring Song of Solomon and Beloved, drawn to their themes of identity, loss of innocence, and self-discovery, as well as the concept of reconciling the past and the present, both collectively and personally. Years later, I was moved seeing my own college students — many of whom were young black adults exploring their own identities and forging their own experiences — captivated by the timeless and universal messages inherent in her writing. She is a black force and a feminist force (even if she has rejected the notion that her works are feminist), and a talent worthy of our praise. —Barbara Kimberly Seigel, Senior Editor

  • Harriet Tubman: Abolitionist, Humanitarian, and Union Spy

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    Abolitionist Harriet Tubman is a personal hero of mine, not just for having a conviction that all people were created equal in God’s image, but also for putting her own freedom, safety, and life on the line to do something about it. A century after she made 19 trips to the south to rescue slaves on the Underground Railroad, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” and I believe that she was the embodiment of that.

    Here was a woman who was born into slavery, who managed to escape. Instead of never looking back, she went back again and again to help people still caught in that same brutality of slavery. Her bravery is an inspiration to me to not just speak truth, but also to live it as well. —Jenny Erikson, Staff Writer

  • Faye Wattleton: Champion of Women's Health & Reproductive Rights

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    I worked as a counselor at a women's health clinic during Faye Wattleton's tenure as president of Planned Parenthood (she was the youngest president and the first African-American), so she was front and center in my life for a time. She is brilliant, eloquent, and, yeah, she hit the jackpot with the gorgeous gene DNA pool. Above all, Wattleton is fierce.

    It is she who turned the non-profit into the politically engaged entity it is today. It is she, a former nurse, who led its growth as a provider of health services. It is because of her that you can get affordable health care and birth control. It is because of her that Planned Parenthood can keep you from getting pregnant -- if you don't want to be. 

    Today, Planned Parenthood is under constant attack and in danger of being defunded. Don't let that happen. Wattleton did so much for all of us (she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame) -- stand by her and Stand With Planned Parenthood. It's the least we can do to keep her legacy alive. —Suzanne Murray, Editor in Chief

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