UPDATED: March 19, 2021 —
Let’s be clear: women rule the world. We are passionate, well-educated listeners and individuals who make the world go around. One study examined governors in the U.S. and found that states with female leaders had lower fatality rates.
More to the point, a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, discovered that countries led by women had “systematically and significantly better” outcomes related to Covid-19. This was a result of “proactive and coordinated policy responses” that women spearheaded. We’re honestly not surprised. Women are truly dynamic.
That’s why #TeamBeautiful remembers the phenomenal women who paved the way for us to enjoy the lives we have today. These women are politicians and activists who fought for everyone’s human rights, educators who taught us our history and how to think bigger, writers who captured our experiences, style innovators, civil rights leaders who paved the way for us to have a brighter future and entertainers who shaped pop culture. We salute these powerful leaders who are arguably the greatest Black women leaders of all time.
To note, this list isn’t exhaustive by any means. There are many, many other Black powerful women leaders who are just as significant. Thousands of women not on this list continue to shape and mold our civilization, leading with respect, empathy, and dignity. In fact, real leaders can be found in our neighborhoods, schools, communities and even within us.
1. Vice President Kamala HarrisSource:Getty
Kamala Harris is currently the Vice President of the United States. She is the first African American and first Asian American to hold this office. Previous to her victory in the 2020 Presidental Elections, Harris served in a number of State offices.
Harris began her career after graduating from Howard University and then the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She worked at the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, followed by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and then later the City Attorney of San Francisco’s office. In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco. And then United States senator in California from 2017 until she was elected VP in 2021.
While senator, she supported healthcare reform, federal de-scheduling of cannabis, the DREAM Act, bans on assault weapons, and tax reform—all issues she advocates today.
2. Pearl CleageSource:Getty
Pearl Cleage identifies as a feminist writer, playwright, essayist, novelist, and poet who writes about the intersection of racism and sexism, serving as a beacon of hope and wisdom, particularly for Black women. Writing critically acclaimed books, including What Crazy Looks Like On An Ordinary Day and I Wish I Had A Red Dress, Cleage is also active in spreading awareness on the AIDS epidemic.
Her most noteworthy playwriting includes Puppetplay, Hospice, Good News and Essentials, Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky and Bourbon at the Border. By mid-1990s, Cleage started writing novels. Her novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day landed in Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998. Her other works include articles published in major newspapers and magazines, like Essence and The New York Times Book Review.
3. Robin KellySource:Getty
Robin Kelly is an accomplished force to be reckoned with in Illinois state politics. She’s most noted for serving as chief of staff for Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias until 2010. Robin was also the first African American woman to serve as the head of staff of a constitutional officer and has served as the U.S. Representative from Illinois’s 2nd congressional district since 2013.
She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in psychology and her Master of Arts in counseling from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. She is also a proud member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority through the Zeta Phi Chapter.
4. Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)Source:Getty
Chances are, if you’re a writer or consider yourself even close to one, you’ve been inspired by Toni Morrison.
Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. Two years later she earned a master’s degree in American Literature from Cornell University. From there, she became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House publishing company.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller is known for famous works, including Beloved and The Bluest Eye, and is also a Nobel Prize recipient. By 2000, she was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. In June of 2019, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders released a documentary of her life called Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
5. Zora Neale HurstonSource:Getty
An acclaimed author and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston contributed greatly to what was known in the world of literature as the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a pioneer for black involvement in the Republican party, a staunch conservative and Republican party favorite.
Hurston was the daughter of two formerly enslaved people, but because of her intelligence, was able to graduate from Barnard College in 1928. Her masterpieces include Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1934, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937; Tell My Horse in 1938; Moses, Man of the Mountain, in 1939; Dust Tracks on a Road in 1942; and Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1948.
In 1995 the Library of America published a two-volume set of her work, and by 2018, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo was released.
6. ZaneSource:Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images
Best known for her erotic book Addicted, Zane made waves as a pioneering erotic fiction writer. No matter what your stance is on her books (or the genre itself), it’s safe to say that Zane is one of the top Black erotic fiction writers in the market.
Zane attended Howard University, where she majored in chemical engineering, but opted to move into publishing. Zane is the author of steamy titles such as Afterburn, The Heat Seekers, Dear G-Spot, Gettin’ Buck Wild, The Hot Box, Total Eclipse of the Heart, Nervous, Skyscraper, Love is Never Painless, Shame on It All, and The Sisters of APF, I’ll be Home for Christmas and Everything Fades Away.
In 1999, Zane founded her own publishing house, Strebor Books. And by 2014, Addicted became an erotic thriller film with Lionsgate Films directed by Bille Woodruff and starring Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe, Tyson Beckford, Kat Graham, and William Levy.
7. Unita Blackwell (1933 – 2019)Source:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Unita Blackwell is an American civil rights activist who was the first African-American woman, and the tenth African American, to be elected mayor in the U.S. state of Mississippi. Blackwell was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize voter drives and integration in schools for African Americans across Mississippi—ultimately leading to extensive marches, lawsuits and even jail time.
At the age of 50, Blackwell began studying at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1982. In 1983 she graduated with a master’s degree in regional planning. By 1992, she won a MacArthur “genius” grant, a very prestigious award not given to many women of color.
In 2006, Blackwell published an autobiography, Barefootin’, which documents her activism. She was also named a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the recipient of the For My People Award, presented by Jackson State University.
8. Rebecca WalkerSource:Bettmann/Getty Images
Rebecca Walker (born Rebecca Leventhal) may have a legendary last name, but that doesn’t mean Alice’s daughter hasn’t made her mark. The Yale grad and New York Times Bestselling writer has written memoirs, including Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence and One Big Happy Family, also has a non-profit called The Thirdwave Foundation and was named one of the 50 Future Leaders of America by Time Magazine. She also has a book on feminism, titled, To be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism.
Walker has won countless awards, including the Women Who Could Be President Award from the League of Women Voters, and even produced film and television projects with Warner Brothers, NBCUniversal, Amazon, HBO, and Paramount.
9. Wilma Rudolph (1940 – 1994)Source:Bettmann/Getty Images
Rudolph is a true survivor and American sporting hero. Despite having suffered from polio and a range of other life-threatening sicknesses, she became a triple Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.
After competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics (and also briefly dating boxing superstar Muhammad Ali) Rudolph became an educator and coach, helping younger black women and men achieve their professional and athletic goals.
She eventually graduated from Tennessee State University in 1963, and is now remembered and celebrated in many ways, including a U.S. postage stamp, documentary films, and books for children.
Rudolph has two daughters, Yolanda and Djuanna, and two sons, Robert Jr. and Xurry.
10. Sonia SanchezSource:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Sanchez is a poet known for her involvement in the Black Arts Movement, the artistic component of the Black Power movement during the ’60s. A writer known for her play on mixing the Blues with haikus and other poetic forms, Sanchez has penned several poetry collections, including We a Baddddd People, Autumn Blues and Does Your House have Lions.
She is also the author of many books including Homecoming, We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, I’ve Been a Woman, A Sound Investment and Other Stories, Homegirls and Handgrenades, Under a Soprano Sky, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Does Your House Have Lions?, Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, Shake Loose My Skin, and Morning Haiku.
Sanchez is also featured in “Freedom Sisters,” an interactive exhibition in the Cincinnati Museum Center
11. Terry McMillanSource:Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images
McMillan is known as much for her contemporary writing as for her feisty public persona. As the writer behind (arguably) one of the most popular novels of the ’90s, “Waiting To Exhale,” (which spawned a hit movie and killer soundtrack), is a book that many black women say they related to the most. She also a host of New York Times bestsellers, including A Day Late and A Dollar Short, The Interruption of Everything, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Getting to Happy, Disappearing Acts, Who Asked You? and I Almost Forgot About You.
In 2008, Terry was awarded an Essence Lifetime Achievement Award for her excellence in writing. McMillan is set to publish It’s Not All Downhill From Here in March. The novel tells the story of one woman’s plan to free herself out of her midlife rut and embrace the opportunity to find a second chance at love.
12. Terri SewellSource:Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A Democrat, Terri Sewell is the representative in Congress for Alabama’s 7th district. She is an accomplished attorney and was educated at Princeton, Harvard and Oxford University. Sewell was the first African-American woman elected to represent Alabama in Congress.
Currently, in the 117th Congress, she sits on three subcommittees: the Subcommittee on Health; the Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures; and the Subcommittee on Social Security.
But more than that, she’s a huge advocate for jobs creation, workforce development, skills training—especially for people of color. She is also a proud Silver Star and life member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
13. Suzan Lori-ParksSource:Matthew Eisman/Getty Images
This Pultizer Prize-winning screenwriter made waves with her Broadway drama, Topdog/Underdog and even received the MacArthur Grant, known as The Genius Grant, in 2001. Although many may not know Parks by name or face, this woman is responsible for penning Spike Lee’s sexy joint, Girl 6 and even worked on screenplays for Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Great Debaters.
Other popular plays include The Sinner’s Place, Betting on the Dust Commander, Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World A.K.A., The Negro Book Of The Dead, and Devotees in the Garden of Love.
Currently, she teaches playwriting at Tisch School of the Arts.
14. Susan RiceSource:Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
As Director of the United States Domestic Policy Council, Rice has had quite an impressive resume. Politics is in her blood. Rice comes from a long line of politics. Her father was governor of the Federal Reserve System and her mother is an education policy researcher and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Madeleine Albright was a recurring guest in her childhood home and helped shape her career as an adult.
Rice earned a Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy at New College, Oxford. Rice served as the 27th U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and as the 24th U.S. national security advisor from 2013 to 2017.
15. Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883)Source:Photo12/UIG via Getty Images
A preacher, gender and racial equality activist born into slavery, Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) spread the word of God and equality throughout her lifetime.
She never learned to read or write, but in 1850, she dictated her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, to Olive Gilbert. She eventually received an invitation to the White House for helping freed slaves find jobs and build new lives in the nineteenth century. And of all her achievements, she is best known for challenged notions of racial and gender division and her 1851 speech titled, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’
In 1970 The Sojourner Truth Library was named in honor of her hard work and dedication to fighting for the truth.
16. Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2005)Source:Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, winning in New York in 1968. She campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 but is best known for her work on several Congressional committees throughout her career.
Her autobiography, Unbossed and Unbought, highlights her fight for justice for women and minorities during her terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Brooklyn-native never gave up, even as she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. By 1983 she retired from Congress and taught at Mount Holyoke College in an effort to help the next generation.
Before she died in 2005, Chisholm once said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.” Indeed she will always b remembered. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
17. Ruth SimmonsSource:Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images
In 1995 Ruth Simmons became the first African-American woman to head a major college or university when she was selected as president of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
By 2001 Ruth Simmons became the first African-American to take the office of president at Brown University, an Ivy League university in Providence, Rhode Island where she improved Brown’s budget and its reputation abroad and has also been recognized on several occasions for her work in education. She is currently the president of Prairie View A&M University, serving as the first woman and first Texan in that position. Aside from having prestigious titles, Simmons also received numerous honors, including Brown Faculty’s highest honor, the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal; she was named a ‘chevalier’ of the French Legion of Honor; and received the Fulbright Fellowship to France, the 2001 President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, and the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal.
18. Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005)Source:U S News & World Report Collection/Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
As the ‘Mother of Freedom’ and a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks is almost unmatched in recognition and respect. An act of bravery in 1955 on a Montgomery bus eventually led Parks to the forefront of national attention, giving way to several improvements in the lives of ordinary African Americans.
In December of 1943, Rosa became the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Rosa Parks died in 2005 at the extraordinary age of 92 becoming the first woman in history to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.
19. Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)Source:GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
You may not see Wheatley’s books at Barnes and Noble or Amazon, but this writer paved the way for every novelist on this list.
As the second published African-American poet and first published African-American woman to make a living from her passion, Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral garnered international attention in England and America when it was published in 1773.
She was celebrated by many scholars and leaders including then-president George Washington, who told her, “the style and manner [of your poetry] exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.”
In 2012, Robert Morris University named their School of Communications and Information Sciences after Phillis Wheatley, and UMass Boston named Wheatley Hall after her.
20. Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006)Source:Malcolm Ali/WireImage via Getty Images
For sci-fi fiction fans, especially those of color, Octavia Butler is a pioneer for many who liked the genre. As the first science writer who received the MacArthur Award, she wrote the highly-popular Kindred, along with Fledgling and Parable of the Sower in the 1990s that solidified her role in the writing industry. Her work dealt primarily with fantasy and the future, but had an undertone of commentary on race and gender politics.
By 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to be awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship and won a prize of $295,000 for her excellence.
She eventually began teaching at Clarion’s Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop at the University of California, San Diego until she died at the age of 58. Her work is held in the research collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
21. Ntozake Shange (1948 – 2018)Source:Ilir Bajraktari/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Ntozake Shange’s work deals primarily with Black women’s issues, including racism, sexism, and domestic violence, and her most famous work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, touches on these topics in a mind-blowing, poignant drama and was nominated for an Emmy Award, Tony Award, and Grammy Award in the 1970s.
Her father, Paul T. Williams was a surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was an educator and social worker who encouraged Shange to pursue an education in the arts. Well-known guests like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois frequently visited their home.
Eventually, Ntozake Shange obtained a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and then a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Southern California.
She’s also known for writing Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane, and Betsey Brown, landing her a Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize.
22. Nikki GiovanniSource:Kris Connor/Getty Images
Known primarily for her stance against violence, racism, and social issues, Nikki Giovanni’s most famous poetry collections deal with the matter of injustice against both men and women. Love Poems, a book of poems, was written as a tribute to Tupac. In 2004, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
“I wanted to be a writer who dreams or maybe a dreamer who writes but I knew one book does not a writer make,” she wrote in her biography.
Throughout her lifetime Giovanni authored three New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestsellers, a move she claims to be “highly unusual for a poet.” Additionally, she’s the recipient of seven NAACP Image Awards and she is a professor at Virginia Tech. Oprah Winfrey named her one of the 25 Living Legends.
23. Michelle ObamaSource:Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images
Mother, wife, First Lady and public servant, Michelle Obama wears many hats flawlessly. Aside from marring the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, she’s a fashion icon, role model for women and an advocate for poverty awareness, LGBT rights, women’s rights, nutrition, and healthy eating.
In 2008, she immersed herself in then-Senator Obama’s campaign (reducing her professional workload by 80%) eventually leading her to become the first African-American First Lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017. Michelle also campaigned for her husband’s re-election in 2012. She’s also known for delivering powerful speeches at the 2012, 2016, and 2020 Democratic National conventions.
Michelle grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
In 2018, she released Becoming a memoir that sold 11.5 million copies and in 2020, she launched The Michelle Obama Podcast. She and Barack have two daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama.
24. Michaëlle JeanSource:Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images
Michaëlle Jean is an extraordinary example of overcoming adversity to rise to the top. She served as the Governor-General of Canada, the first Haitian Canadian and black person to hold this office. From 2005 to 2010 she linked the British Monarch with the Canadian government.
Jean was born in Haiti but fled the country during the dictatorship of François Duvalier, the man responsible for separating her father from his family for close to 30 years.
Before embarking into service as a Canadian stateswoman, she was a reporter, filmmaker, and broadcaster for Radio-Canada. She was the anchor for Le Monde ce soir, l’Édition québécoise, Horizons francophones, Les Grands reportages, Le Journal RDI, and RDI à l’écoute.
In 2020, Jean succeeded Jean Paul Gladu as chancellor of St. Paul’s University College.
25. Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)Source:Axel Koester/Corbis via Getty Images
Maya Angelou is a celebrated poet, author, activist, and educator. Her work in literature has won her critical acclaim both here and abroad.
During her lifetime she published many autobiographies, essays, books of poetry, most notable works include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, Gather Together in My Name and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.
She received dozens of awards and countless honorary degrees that granted her international recognition. Although she was a poet and memoirist, Angelou remained at the forefront of politics and racial empowerment by appearing at inaugurations, rallies, and sharing tales of discrimination and struggle with the world.
Angelou was influential in the civil rights movement and worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fighting for justice.
26. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 – 1955)Source:Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune did something almost unheard of in American society at that time: she began a school for African American girls in Daytona, Florida. That school would eventually flourish and merge with a boys’ school to become Bethune-Cookman University.
Aside from her work as an educator, she was also a stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, and influential civil rights activist.
Mary McLeod Bethune is also remembered for her innovative work in Civil Rights, including founding the National Council for Negro Women in 1935 in New York City.
By 1944, she co-founded the United Negro College Fund, giving scholarships and job opportunities to minority students at black colleges and universities. In 1949, Ebony magazine acknowledged her as the “First Lady of Negro America”
During her lifetime in activism, she was deemed a powerful force for the Black community. The Atlanta Daily World said her life was, “One of the most dramatic careers ever enacted at any time upon the stage of human activity.
27. Mary Church Terrell (1863 – 1954)Source:Corbis/Getty Images
As the daughter of former slaves, Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in 1884 from Oberlin College. Shortly thereafter she earned her master’s degree in education.
Later she taught modern languages at Wilberforce University, a historically black college and became an activist who led several important associations, including the National Association of Colored Women, and later formed the Federation of Afro-American Women.
Mary also worked tirelessly for Civil Rights and suffrage. She started the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
At Oberlin College’s centennial celebration, Terrell was recognized among the college’s Top 100 Outstanding Alumni.
28. Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965)Source:David Attie/Getty Images
Lorraine Hansberry was a famous playwright, primarily for becoming the first Black woman to have a play—A Raisin In The Sun—performed on Broadway. At the time she was 29 years old and was crowned the youngest American playwright and the fifth woman to be awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
The title of the play was taken from Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem and the play itself inspired Nina Simone to write To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
Lorraine Hansberry also spent much time working at Freedom, the Pan-Africanist newspaper, where she worked closely with civil rights activists Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois.
After her passing in 1965, her husband, Robert Nemiroff, donated her personal and professional belonging to the New York Public Library.
29. Karen BassSource:Maury Phillips/Getty Images
Karen Bass is currently the U.S. Representative for California’s 33rd congressional district. She is also the first black woman to hold the role of Speaker in any state Assembly.
In California, Bass has focused on improving education facilities, health care and the foster care system. Bass served as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which seeks to better understand California’s black population and their needs.
Bass earned a bachelor of science degree in health sciences from California State University, Dominguez Hills and later earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.
She also served as the 2nd vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus during the 115th Congress and was later elected chair of the same organization in 2018. Bass is also a big advocate for climate change initiatives, in fact, she supports the Paris Climate Agreement, and the Green New Deal.
30. Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931)Source:Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Ida B. Wells was a pioneer in the media and communication industries during the early 20th century. She is most remembered for her role in documenting the practice of lynching and for founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
She became editor and co-owner of The Free Speech and Headlight, a Black-owned newspaper in 1889. Almost five years later she organized The Women’s Era Club, a women’s civic club for African-American women in living Chicago. By 1908, she founded the Negro Fellowship League (NFL), the first Black settlement house in Chicago.
Posthumously, Wells received the Pulitzer Prize special citation “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
31. Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913)Source:Photo 12/UIG via Getty Image
As one of American history’s most prominent figures, Harriet Tubman was responsible for rescuing around 300 former slaves from the South and escorting them to freedom via the underground railroads that led to Maryland.
She played a pivotal role in American Civil War, serving as an armed scout, cook, nurse and spy for the Union Army. At one point, a $40,000 reward was being offered for her arrest. Tubman was also a spy during her life.
She died in New York in 1913, but her achievements have remained alive through the arts. There are several operas based on Tubman’s life, including Harriet, the Woman Called Moses; her life was dramatized on the CBS series The Great Adventure; and sculptures of her are in several American cities.
32. Gloria Naylor (1950 – 2016)Source:Getty
New York-born writer, Gloria Naylor quickly received national attention after the publication of her first novel The Women of Brewster Place in 1972. The book spawned a popular TV series of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Whitfield, Jackee Harry, Lonette McKee and Robin Givhans. Brewster Place was a pivotal work about seven Black women in one neighborhood who struggled with racism, sexism and rape.
Naylor’s most prized novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the 1983 National Book Award. It was later adapted into a television miniseries lead by Harpo Productions.
Gloria Naylor earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in 1981. Two years later she obtained a master’s degree in African American Studies from Yale University. Her other popular novels include Linden Hills, The Meanings of a Word, and Mama Day.
33. Ellen Johnson-SirleafSource:Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician who has tirelessly worked hard to improve the role of women within Liberian society.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2006 but had no family connection in politics to allow for an easy rise to power. Eventually, she became the 24th President of Liberia and the first black woman to win a presidential election in Africa. She was re-elected in 2011 and won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year.
After receiving an education from the College of West Africa, a preparatory school, and later earning a BA in economics from the Economics Institute of the University of Colorado Boulder, Sirleaf moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the World Bank. By 1981, she served as Vice President of the African Regional Office of Citibank.
34. Dr. Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010)Source:Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images
Dorothy Height was civil rights and women’s rights activist who will always be remembered and recognized for her ardent selflessness. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years where she worked closely with her colleagues Dr. Martin Luther-King Jr and Rosa Parks.
She earned an undergraduate degree in 1932 from New York University and one year later received a master’s degree in educational psychology. But her education didn’t end there, she furthered her education at Columbia University and then the New York School of Social Work.
By 1990 she launched the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom, eventually receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. In fact, former President Barack Obama named Height “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans”
35. Rep. Donna EdwardsSource:Getty
Donna Edwards is best known for serving as Congresswoman for Maryland’s 4th district, and the first black woman to represent Maryland in the House of Representatives. She defeated her Republican rival in 2008 with an amazing 85 percent of the vote.
Edwards earned a degree in English and Spanish from Wake Forest University, where she was one of only six black women in the class of 1980.
On a personal note, in 2017 Edwards announced that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I an effort to help others with the same condition, she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post and made a public appearance on MSNBC programs explaining how legislation can help persons fighting with the condition.
She currently sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.
36. Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks (1917 – 2000)Source:Bettmann/Getty Images
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was a poet who was named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985. She was also the first African American to win a Pultizer Prize in Poetry for Annie Allen, her second collection of poems.
Brooks began teaching American literature at the University of Chicago, but she didn’t stop there. She also taught at Columbia College Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago State University, Elmhurst College, Columbia University, and the City College of New York.
Her works include A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, Bronzeville Boys and Girls, The Bean Eaters, In the Mecca, In Montgomery, and Other Poems, Black Love and a host of others.
Gwendolyn Brooks died at her home in Chicago in 2000.
37. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977)Source:Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting rights activist and civil rights leader. She was also the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, to which she was invited to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and organized the Mississippi Freedom Summer along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Her soft-spoken manner and fervent belief in Biblical righteousness gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant activist of civil rights. During her fight for equal rights, she was threatened, harassed, and assaulted by whites but she continued to forge on.
In 1993 she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her leadership in community organization and a leader in the civil rights movement.
38. Dame Eugenia Charles (1919 – 2005)Source:PASCAL DELLA ZUANA/Sygma via Getty Images
Dame Eugenia Charles was the Prime Minister of Dominica for 15 years until 1995. She was the first female head of state in the Americas and is currently the longest-serving prime minister recorded in world history, followed by Indira Gandhi of India. She is also to date the first and only female prime minister.
Charles attended the University of Toronto then attended the London School of Economics. She later passed the bar and returned to Dominica and became the first female lawyer.
Charles is perhaps most known for her role in the United States Invasion of Grenada. While serving as chair of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, she appealed to the United States, Jamaica, and Barbados for the execution of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. During this time in the mid-1980s, Charles appeared on national tv with president Ronald Reagan to show support for the invasion.
39. Cynthia McKinneySource:Tim Grant/WireImage via Getty Images
Cynthia McKinney has served 12 years in the House of Representatives and was the first African-American woman to represent Georgia in the House. McKinney always steps up to be the voice of the people.
McKinney earned a B.A. from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In fact, McKinney served as a commissioner in 9/11 Citizens Watch where she signed the 9/11 Truth Movement statement, pleading for new investigations of the 9/11 events.
She ran for president in 2008 under the Green party and was even stranded in international waters and rescued by the Lebanese Navy after attempting to help the people of Gaza during a military attack.
40. Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006)Source:Ed Jenner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Coretta Scott King is best known for being the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., but she was also an author, activist, civil rights leader, a big advocate for the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and a participant in protests in an attempt to dismantle apartheid.
Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. married on June 18, 1953. Coretta recalled: “After we married… we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Martin was elected leader of the protest movement. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance. I came to the realization that we had been thrust into the forefront of a movement to liberate oppressed people, not only in Montgomery but also throughout our country, and this movement had worldwide implications. I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause.”
Coretta also played a large role in creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday that is observed all over the country.
41. Condoleezza RiceSource:Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images
Condoleezza Rice is no woman to mess with. As the first black woman to hold the position of Secretary of State she doesn’t play games. During her term, Rice was a well-known figure of the Bush administration both nationally and abroad. But in addition to her political experience, she is also a published scholar, concert pianist and academic.
In 1982, Rice changed her political affiliation from Democrat to Republican, because she disagreed with the foreign policy of then-president Jimmy Carter.
Four years later, Rice became special assistant to the Director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to work on nuclear strategic planning, which tapped into her love for the sciences.
As a seasoned pianist, she performed in the “Everything Sunny All the Time Always” episode of 30 Rock.
She is currently working at Stanford University as the director of the Hoover Institution.
42. Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieSource:Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was a big deal way before a Beyonce shout-out. The prolific writer already had a few top-selling books under her name, including Half of a Yellow Sun, Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck, all before 2013’s uber-popular Americanah novel. Adichie is also the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.
Adichie completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, in addition to honorary degrees from Amherst College, Université de Fribourg, and Haverford College.
She was listed among The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list, The New York Times‘ “Ten Best Books of 2013”, for Americanah and listed among the BBC’s “Top Ten Books of 2013”, also for Americanah. Chimamanda was also elected in 2017 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
43. Madame C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)Source:Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Orphaned at the age of 7, Madam C.J. Walker, who’s real name was Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, overcame all adversity to become America’s first black self-made millionaire. She achieved her wealth by developing a range of haircare products that led her across the country and abroad.
44. Cathy HughesSource:Pat Candido/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Cathy Hughes, is the founder and chairperson of Urban One, Inc. (formerly Radio One and parent company of iOne Digital), is a pioneer in business, media and entrepreneurship in America and the Black community. In 1979, Hughes launched RadioOne, which since then has become the largest radio broadcast network in the United States with 69 stations in 22 cities.
Her honors include, but aren’t limited to, the naming of Cathy Hughes Boulevard in Omaha, Nebraska; the 2018 Lowry Mays Excellence in Broadcasting Award; and the naming of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University.
She is also a champion for the needy, a mentor to Black women, and is a huge supporter of minority communities.
45. Bessie A. Buchanan (1902 – 1980)Source:Pat Candido/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Bessie A. Buchanan held a seat in the New York State legislature in 1954, making her the first African-American woman elected to the New York State Assembly.
In this role, Buchanan introduced over 150 bills dedicated to civil rights, public education and African American communities. Buchanan also served as the State’s Human Rights Commissioner under Governor Nelson Rockefeller, which was a banner moment in her career.
Because of her leadership, Rockefeller eventually appointed her to be State Commissioner of the Human Rights Division.
Political activism aside, Buchanan was also an accomplished singer, dancer, and actress. She performed with the Show Boat road company, recorded for Black Swan Records, and danced in the chorus line at the Cotton Club.
She died in 1980 at the age of 78.
46. bell hooksSource:Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
bell hooks, also known as Gloria Jean Watkins, is a passionate writer focused on dissecting racism, sexism, gender, class and societal oppression in many of her writings. She has published more than 30 books, including Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Feminism Is For Everybody. The writer says she chose to lowercase her name to keep the focus only on “the substance of her work.”
Throughout her career, she has published over 30 books. She won several awards including the American Book Awards/ Before Columbus Foundation, “One of the twenty most influential women’s books in the last 20 years” by Publishers Weekly, The Writer’s Award from the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Fund and a nomination for the NAACP Image Award.
In 2014, she founded the bell hooks Institute at Berea College.
47. Bebe Moore Campbell (1950 – 2006)Source:Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage via Getty Images
Bebe Moore Campbell, another Oprah Book Club favorite, wrote three New York Times bestselling books, Brothers and Sisters, Singing in the Comeback Choir and What You Owe Me. She also explored mental health throughout her work and wrote a children’s book, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry, about a young girl being raised by a mother who was mentally ill.
Campbell earned a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh, and by 1992 she released her first novel, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, which was inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955.
Her favorite quote on writing was: “Discipline is the servant of inspiration.”
Campbell’s archives are in the Bebe Moore Campbell collection at the University of Pittsburgh Archives Service Center.
48. Barbara Smith (1949 – 2020)Source:Brian Ach/WireImage via Getty Images
B. Smith is best known as a restaurateur, model, author, businesswoman who played such a major role in building and maintaining Black feminism in America. In 1976 she became the first African-American model to be featured on Mademoiselle magazine and she also modeled for Ebony Fashion Fair and Wilhelmina Models agency.
She owned and operated several restaurants called B. Smith. The first opened in New York City, followed by a location in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York.
Throughout her career, she wrote three books—B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends; B. Smith’s Rituals and Celebrations; and B. Smith Cooks Southern Style— that focused on her famous recipes and entertaining.
She also managed to launch a home collection, which debuted at Bed, Bath & Beyond in 2001.
Smith died in 2020 from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
49. Ayanna PressleySource:Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A former staff member of Congressman Kennedy and Political Director to Senator Kerry in Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley is currently serving as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district.
Before becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, Pressley was elected as an at-large member, and first Black woman, of the Boston City Council in 2010.
Pressley is an advocate of medicare for all and was a huge supporter of the impeachment of Donald Trump. Additionally, Pressley was one of four Democratic representatives to vote against the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act.
Several of her achievements include awards from the Aspen-Rodel Fellow in Public Leadership, the Truman National Security Project Partner, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Victim Rights Law Center, and she received Boston magazine‘s 50 Most Powerful People honor.
50. Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992)Source:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Audrey Geraldine Lorde was a Caribbean-American writer who chose to focus on fighting racism, sexism and homophobia through her words. As a woman who identified as bisexual, Lorde wanted to empower her readers to work against racism in their personal lives. Many of her pivotal works include From a Land Where Other People Live, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Chosen Poems: Old and New and The First Cities.
As a supporter of feminism, Lorde wrote in her novel, Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference: “Certainly there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation.”
After she died in 1992, there were several books published that highlight her works of art. They include, I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde and Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Essays and Poems.
51. Angela DavisSource:Jemal Countess/Getty Images
A nationally prominent counterculture activist and radical in the 1960s, Davis wears many hats. She was a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She was twice a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1980s.