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10 Black Women Who Have Changed History

by Pascale Day Published on 25 February 2016

This month is Black History Month, and what better way to celebrate than learning more about the women who have helped us get to the position we are at now. In the face of extreme racism and sexism, these 10 beauties showed the world that nothing can hold back women of colour. These courageous ladies from the past and present have helped to shape the future of black women for the better. Bow down.

Angela Davis

Who is she?

​Born in 1944 in the segregated town of Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis was a political activist, scholar and author. In her biography she talks about living in "Dynamite Hill", a neighbourhood marked in the 1950s by whites bombing the houses of middle-class black people who had moved into the area. As a teenager, Davis organised interracial study groups, which were broken up by the police. She grew up to be a political activist and was considered a radical in the sixties for being the leader of the Communist Party. She also had close affiliations with the revolutionary black nationalist organisation Black Panther Party from her involvement in the civil rights movement. No matter what she was doing, her life centred around the liberation and civil rights of African Americans.

Why is she so important?

Davis' activism saw her name on the FBI's Most Wanted list in the 1970s on the orders of J. Edgar Hoover for purchasing a shotgun that was used days later in a courtroom kidnapping, leading to the deaths of a judge and three black men. In 1971 she was sentenced under California law for having participated in the fatal shooting, but an international campaign to release her from prison meant she was acquitted of the crime in 1972, but she continues to fight for criminal reform.

After her arrest, Angela Davis was openly supported by Aragon, Sartre, Prévert, The Rolling Stones - who dedicated the song Sweet Black Angel to her - and John Lennon who wrote her the song Angela.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Who is she?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician and economist. After studying in the United States, including at Harvard, she became Assistant Minister of Finance followed by Minister of Finance on her return to Liberia.

Why is she so important?

​In 2005 Sirleaf become the first woman to be elected president of an African state, following elections organised by the UN. By mid-October 2011 during new elections in Liberia, Ellen also came out ahead of other candidates in the first round, taking nearly half of the overall votes. It was around this time that she received the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shares with two other women, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman, "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."

Waris Dirie

Who is she?

The daughter of Somalian nomads, Waris Dirie fled her home to Mogadishu in order to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man, before later moving to London, where she stayed with and worked for her uncle, who had been appointed Somali ambassador. When his term in office ended, Waris stayed in London and worked at a McDonald's, learning English in the evenings. It was at this time she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, who secured her for the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. She soon began modelling and appeared in campaigns for Chanel, Levi's and L'Oreal, as well as appearing on plenty of catwalks and fashion magazines like Elle, Glamour and Vogue.

Why is she so important?

Dirie used her newfound fame to talk about Female Genital Mutilation, which she had been a victim of aged 3. In 1997 she became a UN ambassador for the abolition of FGM. She wrote an autobiography about her experiences, and the book was ​made into a film, Desert Flower, in 2010. In 2002, she created the Waris Dirie Foundation and continues to fight against FGM across the world.

Madam C.J. Parker

Who is she?

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Parker was the daughter of slaves from Louisiana. Orphaned at the age of 7, she soon found herself faced with the adult world: she was a servant at 10 and married by 14. But she was destined for greater things.

Why is she so important?

As was common with many black women at the time, Parker suffered from severe dandruff and baldness - an issue that occurred due to skin disorders and the use of lye in soap that was used to wash hair and clothes. She developed a formula to help the haircare issues many women were experiencing and, over a number of years, began running a highly successful haircare range. Her range of products was sold throughout America. She toured, attended conferences, trained her representatives and taught black women how to groom and style their hair. Parker became the first black millionaire business woman. As her wealth and notoriety grew, she became more vocal about her support of black people. She regularly donated money to fund projects that lobbied for the rights of African Americans, such as school scholarships, African churches, and the YMCA in Indianapolis's black community.

Michelle Obama

Who is she?

To give her her full name, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the First Lady of the United States (or FLOTUS for short). She is married to President Barack Obama, but is a star in her own right. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and spent the early part of her legal career working for law firm Sidley Austin, where she met Barack Obama.

Why is she so important?

Since becoming first lady, Michelle has made it her mission to get America's kids healthy - her nationwide initiative Let's Move! aimed to tackle childhood obesity. She also created Joining Forces, mobilising support for service members and their families.

Michelle also concerns herself with the rights of young women. She stated during the #HeForShe campaign: "It’s about whether fathers—and mothers—think their daughters are as worthy of an education as their sons." She also supported the effort to #BringBackOurGirls, for the Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by extremist group Boko Haram. Her strong-mindedness and sense of humour has made her a favourite all over the world.

Josephine Baker

Who is she?

​Born into poverty in Missouri in 1906, Josephine Baker was of African American and Apalachee Indian origin. Married at 13 and separated a few months later, she dedicated herself to her passion: dance. This led her to the cabaret in America and Paris, where she finally settled and obtained French nationality.

Why is she so important?

Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou (1934), and is often credited with being the first black world-famous female star. After experiencing poor treatment in America during the 1950s because she was black, Baker began writing articles on the racism she had encountered. Baker and actress Grace Kelly became good friends after Kelly showed solidarity with Baker after she was refused service in a nightclub in Manhattan on account of her race.

​She would refuse to play to segregated audiences in America, and is often recognised for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Following Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, Baker was asked to take over the movement by his widow, Coretto Scott King, but ultimately Baker turned down the offer, stating her "children were two young to lose their mother."

Rosa Parks

Who is she?

Born in the highly segregated state of Alabama, Rosa Parks grew up to be an African American civil rights activist whom the United States Congress referred to as "the first lady of civil rights".

Why is she so important?

Parks is known first and foremost for her refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus in the 1950s. Having grown up in the segregated state of Alabama, riding the bus as a black woman meant that Parks would have to sit in the back section of the bus, whilst the front was reserved for whites only. She made history on 1st December 1955 after she refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus for white passengers​ to sit down. She was arrested for the incident. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, she stated that when asking the officer "Why do you push us around?" He replied, "I don't know, but the law's the law, and you're under arrest."

Her action led to a mass protest led by leader of the Civil Rights Movement Martin Luther King. For 381 days, black citizens boycotted the bus company which tried to make Rosa move. The movement resulted in the abolition of segregation laws by the supreme court a year later.

Donyale Luna

Who is she?

Donyale Luna, born Peggy Ann Freeman made her mark in the fashion world by becoming the first black woman to be featured on the front of Vogue magazine. She was raised in Detroit, Michigan, with a troubled childhood. Her mother shot her abusive father in self-defence in 1965.

Why is she so important?

Luna moved to NYC after being discovered by photographer Richard Avedon to pursue a modelling career. She soon became the supermodel of the seventies, with Time magazine hailing 1966 "The Luna Year", and appearing on the front of British Vogue as the first black cover star, shot by the infamous photographer David Bailey. This landmark moment showed that fashion magazines were finally beginning to accept African cultures.

Oprah Winfrey

Who is she?

Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty in Mississippi, but later in life became the richest African American person of the 20th century and the first black woman to become a multi-millionaire.

Winfrey spent her earlier life living between her mother, father and grandmother in poverty. She was molested from a young age by two family members and a family friend. She became pregnant at 14 but her baby was born prematurely and subsequently died. She had a half brother and half sister, who both died; the former of AIDs-related causes, and the latter of a drug overdose. Her mother also had another child called Patricia who was given up for adoption, whom Winfrey only met in 2010.

Why is she so important?

Winfrey's success is so inspiring because it is completely self-made. After doing well in a government educational programme, she became an honours student. She won Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant, attracting the attention of a local black radio station, who took her on as a part-time news reader. In 1983, she began presenting a low-rated morning talk show and sent the ratings soaring to become the highest rating talk show in Chicago. The Oprah Winfrey show began airing in 1986 under the guidance of critic Roger Ebert, and she soon became the number one talk show host in America. ​The show finished in 2011.

Winfrey is also an actor, philanthropist, writer and entrepreneur. And, if that wasn't enough, she has been voted most Powerful Celebrity in the World in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. Don't mess with Oprah.

Beyonce Knowles

Who is she?

How could we not include Queen Bey in this list! Beyonce was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and found fame with her band Destiny's Child. But it's her later life which has cemented her as one of the most influential women of colour in recent times.

Where to start. In terms of music, she has won 20 Grammys and been nominated for a whopping 53. In 2006, she walked away with 6 Grammys, making it the most Grammys won by a female artist in one night, only to be overtaken by Adele in 2012. In 2015, Beyonce graced the cover of US Vogue, becoming the first black musician in history and only the third African American woman ever to appear on the front of the American fashion powerhouse magazine.

Why is she so important?

Beyonce has also been known for her strong stance on civil rights for black people. Perhaps most famously, Bey and husband Jay-Z paid the bail money ​for protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson after the riots against police brutality, apparently wiring 'tens of thousands within minutes' to help out those who had been jailed for protesting. In her latest single Formation and its accompanying video, from daughter Blue Ivy's hair to having hot sauce in her bag, is a celebration of being black. New York Magazine hailed it as the blueprint of what it means to be "unapologetically black".

Beyonce also has her own charity organisation called BeyGood, which aims to provide underprivileged school children in America with school supplies. The organisation supported the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, organises food drives for poor areas and currently runs a Haiti Humanitarian Mission.

How are you celebrating Black History Month? Let us know! @sofeminineUK

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