9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight

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When we talk about important Black women in history, it’s easy to think about contemporary figures whose work we are familiar with—the likes of Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. However, many other Black women came before them and dealt with the same struggles if not more to elevate our voices. 

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From academia, media, and science to literature and sports, these women went the extra mile. In this post, we’re recognising their achievements and importance in the advancement of Black women’s place.

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Spotcovery-9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight
Former Liberian President Sir Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-2.0

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first female president. She first ascended to power in 2006 after a closely contested election against the current president George Weah in 2005. Sirleaf won with 59% of the votes to Weah’s 40%. 

She also won a second term in office and served until 2016 and later supported Weah in his bid in 2017. After relinquishing power, she founded the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development and was appointed as UN Goodwill Ambassador. 

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Cicely Tyson

Spotcovery-9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight
Actress Cicely Tyson. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-Zero

Cicely Tyson was born to West Indies immigrant parents who moved to the United States. She started as a fashion model after an Ebony Magazine photographer scouted her. Tyson later transitioned to acting at a time when roles for black women were few and far between. Despite that, she appeared in some of the biggest shows like “Roots,” “The Help” and various Tyler Perry movies, in which she portrayed the struggles of African Americans.

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Mae Jemison

Spotcovery-9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight
Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space. Source: Wikimedia licensed by No known copyright restrictions

In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black woman to go to space. She was aboard the Endeavour on the STS47 mission. Her dream of pursuing astronomy came later after her medical career. Jemison worked as a general practitioner and conducted research in different areas. 

Afterwards, she pivoted to astronomy and became the first African American woman to join the NASA astronaut training program and later acquired the title of science mission specialist. She spent 190 hours in space during which she experimented on weightlessness and motion sickness. This makes her one of the most important black women in history.

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Miriam Makeba

Spotcovery-9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight
South African singer Miriam Makeba. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

Miriam Makeba remains to be one of South Africa’s most powerful musicians. She was the first African to win a Grammy Award in the Best Folk Recording for her collaboration with Harry Belafonte. 

Makeba produced several hit songs that have become classics and still get people dancing today. Some of them include Pata Pata, The Click Song, Malaika and Saduva among others. Additionally, Makeba was an activist and used her platform to speak against apartheid.

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Octavia Butler

Spotcovery-9 Important Black Women in History That Deserve the Limelight
Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledgling after speaking and answering questions from the audience. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-SA-2.5 

Butler was the first science fiction writer who receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Her journey there wasn’t easy as she wasn’t able to earn. The fiction space was dominated by white and male writers which made it difficult for a young black woman to achieve success. 

That said, attending writing conferences gave her the chance to showcase her work and she impressed those who were in the industry. “Crossover” was Octavia Butler’s first published work and went on an published several other books including “Kindred”, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” 

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Sadie Alexander

Sadie Alexander’s life. Video Credit: Noire History

Sadie Alexander joins our list of important black women in history. She was an accomplished academic practitioner having been the first black woman economist in the United States and the second to get a Ph.D. 

Alexander was also the first to earn a law degree at Pennsylvania Law School and practise law in the country. From 1919 to 1923, Sadie Alexander was the first national president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Apart from her academic pursuits, she was also a civil rights activist and served under the Commission for Human Relations. 

Tarana Burke

Tarana Burke’s TED Talk on the MeToo Movement. Video Credit: TED

Tarana Burke coined the term #MeToo movement before it blew and became a national and global phrase. Burke is a feminist and has been using the phrase since 2006 to capture the difficulties of addressing sexual abuse and assault. 

The slogan is now widely used after it blew up after former Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein was exposed for sexual harassment. Burke has received several accolades including the Time Magazine Person of the Year, and USA Today’s Women of the Decade. 

Wangari Maathai

A review of Wangari Maathai’s life. Video Credit: Nobel Peace Center

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in environment conservation. She was the brainchild of the Green Belt Movement which continued her work in conservation. Apart from that, she fought against political leaders who wanted to demolish the famous Uhuru Park in central Nairobi to put up highrise buildings.

Shirley Chisolm

A review of Shirley Chisolm. Video Credit: HISTORY

Shirley Chisolm, born in New York City, was of Guyanese and Bajan descent. She was the first black woman to get elected to the United States Congress, to represent the New York 12th Congressional District. 

She was also the first black woman to go into a major party nomination and vie for a Presidential seat under the Democratic Party endorsement. Chisholm used her platform to highlight political, social and economic injustices. 

She’s regarded as a pioneer for black women and people of color in the political arena and that makes her one of the most important black women in history.

Our list of the most important black women in history highlights pioneers from different industries. They paved the way for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today and it’s paramount that we keep their legacy alive.

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