According to James Brown, “this is a man’s world,” but the following 15 women prove feminine power is undeniable in shaping the world we live in today. These women have revolutionized everyday tasks with their inventions, smashed the glass ceiling to smithereens in the business world, fought for our freedom during the Civil Rights Movement and continue to push for further inclusion and diversity in the media for future generations to come. Let these ladies inspire you to think outside of the box and to find a window when it seems like all the doors are closed. Happy Women’s History Month!
Best known for her refusal to leave her seat for a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks sparked a citywide boycott of buses that led to a law desegregating buses across the nation. She was a trained civil rights activist, who worked as the secretary to the President of the NAACP until 1957. Her trial inspired further efforts to desegregate public places in a peaceful manner, solidifying her name in the history books as one of the most influential people in the fight for racial equality.
Rosa also worked with Planned Parenthood and founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which uses bus tours to educate young people about Black history. She has published two books and received numerous accolades for her work in the Civil Rights Movement. After her passing in 2005, she was also immortalised in a statue and postal stamp on the anniversary of what would have been her 100th birthday by President Obama in 2013.
Marjorie was a beauty salon owner, who changed the game of hair styling when she invented the “permanent wave machine.” Her perm machine simplified the process of straightening and curling hair for all women; it allowed women to achieve a long-lasting style without the hassle of heating up numerous rods in an oven. She also invented a scalp protector to make the experience less painful. The perm machine made Marjorie the first Black woman in history to receive a patent for her work, but unfortunately all the royalties and rights to her invention went to Madame C.J. Walker’s business, as a stipulation of her employment with her as a National Supervisor of her Beauty Colleges.
In addition to her inventions, Marjorie worked tirelessly to improve the lives of her fellow beauticians and hair stylists. She did this by co-founding the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association in 1945 with Mary McLeod Bethune. She also raised money for Black colleges and founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega sorority and fraternity to raise the standards for beauticians.
Mary received five patents in her lifetime for household items including the sanitary belt (maxi pads), the bathroom tissue holder, a back washer that mounted on the wall of the shower and the carrier attachment on walkers for disabled people. She worked as a florist and credited her father for encouraging her creativity during her childhood. Despite her major success, Mary maintained that she created these items because she enjoyed making life easier for people and it was never about the money.
Ruane was most notably the inventor of the toaster, but along with the help of Sheila Lynn Jeter, they created many items of stationery. This included sheathed scissors, the stapler, a staple remover and many multi-purpose office supplies. Her toaster had a digital clock that timed how long food should stay in depending on how well done you wanted it. This toaster could also be used for bagels, waffles and pop tarts, in addition to bread. They were prime examples of how to follow through on your ideas.
Alice designed a gas heating furnace, which led to the modern version of central heating that we use today. Her design negated the need to stock and burn wood in a traditional furnace for heat, making the system a lot safer for people to operate and regulate. She recognized the need for this improved design, when like the rest of us, she grew tired of being freezing and found the fireplace ineffective in warming the rest of her house.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary was a pioneer for education and a civil rights activist. She believed in the importance of education as a vehicle for racial advancement and worked hard to make sure that young people had the knowledge they needed to move forward. She founded Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, which later became the Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few places where African-Americans could get a college degree. She also worked with the National Association of Colored Women and eventually became its leader in 1924.
She aided several presidents and offered advice on child welfare and minority affairs. She started the National Council of Negro Women, worked with NAACP and went on to be the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, helping young people to find employment. After her passing in 1955, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, immortalized on a stamp and has her own council building.
Ellen is the world’s first elected Black female President and Africa’s first female Head of State. During her campaign for Presidency, she vowed to boost Liberia’s economy and get rid of the corruption and civil war plaguing the country. Liberia’s President also spoke out against Charles Taylor’s brutal regime of violence and worked towards getting him extradited in 2006. In 2011 she shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Coretta Scott King
Coretta is known as the wife of Dr Martin Luther King, but she was also a famed activist in her own right for civil rights, women’s rights and against war. She participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, worked to pass the Civil Rights Act and founded the Center for Non-Violent Social Change after her husband’s assassination. She was a talented singer and violin player with multiple degrees, which is how she met Martin, while studying at university in Boston.
After his death, she worked as a syndicated columnist writing about social issues and became a regular commentator on CNN. Coretta wrote a book and pushed for a retrial of Martin’s alleged killer, as well as ensuring that Martin’s birthday became a national holiday. She also fought hard for LGBT rights and left behind a legacy of peace and equality, similar to her husband’s: “I believe all Americans who believe in freedom, tolerance and human rights have a responsibility to oppose bigotry and prejudice based on sexual orientation.”
Condoleezza was the first Black woman to serve as the US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. She was also the first Black female to hold the position of provost at Stanford University, where she also worked as a professor and went back to after her time in the White House. She has written several political books and has broken down many typically male employment structures. Her heart lies in education reform, despite her childhood dreams of being the first female President, but who knows what is in store for her bright future.
As a dancer and singer, Josephine was one of the most popular and highest-paid entertainers of her time. She also toured France and the States as a comedian and Broadway actress. She performed in controversial, revealing outfits, such as a skirt made entirely out of bananas, which made her memorable to French audiences. In her home country of America, her performances were met with racist reactions and so she tended to embrace her French audiences more.
She married multiple times and earned military honours for her efforts during the French resistance. She had 12 adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds, who she referred to as the ‘rainbow tribe’, and used as an example of how different races can live together harmoniously. She participated in several boycotts and demonstrations against segregation, which the NAACP honoured by giving her her own day.
Media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, is one of the most influential people in the media industry and one of the few female billionaires in the world. She is a producer, philanthropist, actress, publisher and talk show host. She has her own television network and magazine and is one of the most respected interviewers in the world, often getting her subjects to reveal deeply personal stories. She has given authors a huge platform on her shows and has written many books about her experiences. She also inspired people with her weight loss journey and has raised more than $51 million for charity programs. She is a dedicated activist for children’s rights and in 2013 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama for her contributions to society.
Harriet was a true warrior in the battle against slavery. She risked her own freedom to help hundreds of people escape the cruel clutches of involuntary labour using the Underground Railroad. During her time as a slave, she endured permanent brain damage and physical health complications from the relentless beatings she suffered at the hands of her masters. She also had to deal with the mental slavery and reluctance of some slaves to escape to freedom.
Even when a law was made allowing escaped slaves to be returned to slavery in the North, she adjusted her plan and got them to safety in Canada. She used her role as a cook and nurse in the Civil War to gain intel on her enemies and led an armed expedition to liberate over 700 slaves. She was buried with military honors in 1913 and was commemorated with many schools, museums, plaques and statues for her efforts in the abolition of slavery.
Ella was a dedicated civil rights activist, who worked with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee among other organizations. Spurred on by her grandmother’s tales of slave master cruelty, Ella spent her life fighting for equal rights while single-handedly taking care of her niece. A documentary chronicled her story in 1981 entitled ‘Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker’. ‘Fundi’ was her nickname, which came from the Swahili word for a person who passes down her craft to the next generation. Ella definitely left an impressive legacy behind for us to be grateful for.
Actress and radio personality, Hattie McDaniel, was the first Black woman to win an Oscar in 1940 for her role in Gone With The Wind. She was also one of the first Black women on the radio. As one of 13 children and one of a handful of Black children in an all-white school, Hattie used her talents of singing and dancing to gain attention and make friends. She used these talents to make ends meet as a Blues singer and a Broadway performer before her career in radio and acting. In the mid-1940s Hattie was criticized by the Black community for accepting stereotypical roles that portrayed Black people in a negative light. This was something that plagued the rest of her career as an actress. Since she passed away, she was given two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Maya was a legendary poet and award-winning author. Her 1969 memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings made history as the first non-fiction bestseller by a Black woman. She won numerous accolades for her books, poetry, acting and essays over the years. She also worked as a dancer, actress, director and screenwriter after a tough childhood of sexual abuse, racial prejudice and family-member crime.
Her professional name was inspired by the surname of one of her ex-husbands ‘Angelopoulos’ and her childhood nickname ‘Maya’. She lived in Egypt and Ghana in the 1960s, writing and working in a University. In 1993 she recited one of her poems at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton and won a Grammy for the audio version of that poem. She was on the bestseller’s list for two years straight, which was the longest-running record in the chart’s history. She was close friends with MLK and Oprah; after Dr. King’s assassination on her birthday, she stopped celebrating it for many years.
Ida B. Wells
In the 1890’s Ida led an anti-lynching crusade with her work as a journalist. She wrote as a columnist for various Black publications detailing her experiences as a Black woman in the South, before owning and publishing two magazines of her own: ‘Memphis Free Speech and Headlight’, and ‘Free Speech’. She also worked as a teacher and ended up losing this position for her vocal criticism of the condition of Black schools in the city. After a few incidents of race-related murders involving local business owners and friends of hers, she decided to focus her writing fully on the injustice of white on Black murder, despite receiving death threats.
She lectured abroad to find further support from open-minded white people and took her complaints to the White House in an effort to spark legal reform to protect Black people from lynching. She also founded several civil rights organizations to help women, children and people of color and continued to write and protest until her death in 1931.
Way before Hillary Clinton had her sights set on being the first female President of the United States, Shirley Chisholm put in a bid for the role in 1972. She was the first Black congresswoman and the first major-party Black candidate to run for President. Her main passions were educational reform and social justice, which explains why she left politics in 1983 to teach.
Before her time in Congress, she worked with organizations concerning child welfare and education. In 1969 she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also wrote two books in her time and was known for her caring nature in paying attention to the needs of the individual. In 2015 she was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom nearly 11 years after her death.
Sojourner was a true feminist and fought tirelessly for women’s rights and to abolish slavery. After her escape from slavery with her infant daughter, Truth learned of the illegal sale of her son into slavery and successfully took his owner to court for his freedom. This was one of the first cases of its kind. She gave herself the name of Sojourner Truth when she decided to fully dedicate her life to activism and her memoirs were published in 1850.
She regularly protested and delivered speeches about human rights. Her main concerns included; prison reform, universal suffrage, women’s rights, criticizing capital punishment and property rights. Her most famous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention later entitled ‘Ain’t I A Woman’ earned her a place in the history books, as it is still frequently referenced today. She recruited Black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War and brought her beliefs to President Abraham Lincoln, whom she still had issues with even after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Academy Award nominee Diahann Carroll dominated Hollywood, the Broadway stage and the silver screen in the 1960s. Her leading role in Julia made her the first Black woman to star in her own television series and scored her an Emmy and Golden Globe. Before becoming a household name, Diahann was also a singer and model. She has been nominated for an Emmy three times and married four times. In recent years she has made some notable guest appearances on Grey’s Anatomy to prove that once a starlet, always a starlet.
Dame Eugenia Charles
The Caribbean’s first female Prime Minister, who held the position in Dominica for 15 years until 1995, was the longest serving female Prime Minister in world history. Before her time working in Parliament, she became the first Dominican woman to work as a lawyer. Not afraid to go toe to toe with the overbearing male politicians in her cabinet, she once arrived in a bathing suit to Parliament to make a mockery of her predecessor’s ridiculous dress code act. Affectionately dubbed ‘Mamo’, she used her big voice to give Dominica back its backbone after years of corruption and political excess. She survived many attempted coups, including one backed by the Ku Klux Klan. She improved the country’s infrastructure and living standards, but lacked popularity for her cold front and lack of empathy for women’s rights.
These women are just a handful of the many who have made a huge difference to the world through their work and hopefully they will inspire even more women to go on and do great things.