Every single one of us can make a difference, but some were born to be trailblazers. There are many famous Black women have shaped, and continue to shape, our history. Sharing their stories with students helps teach Black history and women’s history, as well as spark discussions about innovation and grit, throughout the year. While there are certainly many more famous Black women who aren’t included on this list, it features a broad group of influential females, both historical and contemporary, from around the world. You’ll also find links to websites where students can go to learn more about each woman.
1. Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist
Once enslaved, Sojourner Truth went on to become one of the most influential and important leaders of the abolitionist movement. She was also a fierce champion for women’s rights.
Learn more: Sojourner Truth
2. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Journalist
Born into slavery, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was a strong women’s suffrage advocate dedicated to exposing the atrocities of lynching in this country. She went on to become one of the most well-known, respected journalists in U.S. history. Wells-Barnett was a founding member of the NAACP, Alpha Suffrage Club, and the National Association of Colored Women.
Learn more: Ida B. Wells-Barnett
3. Claudette Colvin, Civil Rights Activist
We’ve all heard about Rosa Parks’ brave refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, but many don’t know that Claudette Colvin did it first. Although she was only 15 years old, she was among the first Black activists to openly defy and challenge the law.
Learn more: Claudette Colvin
4. Mary McLeod Bethune, Educational Activist
Recognizing the struggle Black children experienced in getting an education, particularly in the segregated South, Bethune became an educator and founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Girls.
Learn more: Mary McLeod Bethune
5. Madam C.J. Walker, Entrepreneur
Widely considered one of the first self-made female American millionaires, Walker created hair-care products that were sold door-to-door to Black women. The company grew and she went on to hire 40,000 brand ambassadors to sell her popular hair treatments.
Learn more: Madam C.J. Walker
6. Ruby Bridges, Activist
At just 6 years old, Ruby Bridges needed to be braver than any child should when she became the first Black student to racially integrate an all-white school in 1960. The crowd of racists was so angry that she needed to be escorted by four federal marshals.
Learn more: Ruby Bridges
7. bell hooks, Author
Her work as a feminist writer, professor, and critic ensures she deserves a spot on any list of famous Black women. She helped shine a light on how patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism silenced Black women while empowering them to fight back.
Learn more: bell hooks
8. Shirley Chisholm, Politician
In 1968, Chisholm was the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. Four years later, she became the first Black candidate to run for a major party nomination when she ran for president as a Democrat.
Learn more: Shirley Chisholm
9. Audre Lorde, Author
Lorde’s incredible work as a Black lesbian poet helped increase America’s awareness of how the intersectionality of gender, race, and class leads to discrimination, particularly with her 1973 collection From a Land Where Other People Live.
Learn more: Audre Lorde
10. Mae Jemison, Astronaut
After becoming the first Black woman admitted to the astronaut training program in 1987, Jemison boarded the space shuttle Endeavour just five years later and went on to become the first Black woman to fly into space.
Learn more: Mae Jemison
11. Lucy Diggs Slowe, Tennis Pioneer
Long before Serena, Naomi, and Coco, there was Lucy Diggs Slowe. Not only was she the first Black women to win a national tennis title (back in 1917!), she also championed civil rights, became the dean of women at Howard University, and helped found Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the first Greek society for Black women.
Learn more: Lucy Diggs Slowe
12. Debbie Allen, Choreographer
There are few hats Debbie Allen hasn’t worn. While she definitely made a name for herself as a choreographer, especially during her time on the hit series Fame, she’s also taken on the role of actor, producer, and director.
Learn more: Debbie Allen
13. Viola Davis, Actor
Overcoming a very difficult childhood, Viola Davis is considered one of the greatest and most famous Black women actors of our time. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012, 2017, and 2020, was ranked ninth on The New York Times list of the greatest actors of the 21st century, and is one of the few to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award, known as EGOT status.
Learn more: Viola Davis
14. Tarana Burke, Activist
While some Hollywood stars have been associated with it, the true founder of the #MeToo movement is Tarana Burke. Back in 2006, the feminist activist coined the term more than a decade before the hashtag created a watershed moment, bringing down serial abusers like producer Harvey Weinstein.
Learn more: Tarana Burke
15. Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States
Harris graduated from Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of Law, before making history by becoming the first woman and person of color to be both district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. She didn’t stop there, of course. She went on to become the first woman and the first Black and South Asian American to become vice president of the United States.
Learn more: Kamala Harris
16. Lena Waithe, Producer
An LGBTQIA advocate, this actor, producer, and screenwriter was the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing – Comedy Series for her work on Master of None in 2017. The following year, she was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
Learn more: Lena Waithe
17. Sheila Johnson, Co-Founder of BET
The co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Johnson was the first Black female billionaire included on a Forbes list, in 2000, and is also the only Black woman to have a stake in three different professional sports teams—the Washington Wizards (NBA), the Washington Capitals (NHL), and the Washington Mystics (WNBA).
Learn more: Sheila Johnson
18. Shonda Rhimes, Producer
For more than 20 years, Shonda Rhimes has been a trailblazer in the film and television industry as a screenwriter and producer, having developed popular series such as Grey’s Anatomy, How To Get Away With Murder, and Bridgerton.
Learn more: Shonda Rhimes
19. Simone Biles, Gymnast
Not only is Biles the most decorated gymnast of all time, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, but she’s also the first American woman to win seven national all-around titles and the first female gymnast to take home three consecutive world all-around titles. It’s not surprising that she was even given her own Special K cereal box! She became an unexpected mental health advocate when she withdrew from the Olympic final individual all-around competition to focus on her mental health.
Learn more: Simone Biles
20. Misty Copeland, Ballerina
After joining the American Ballet Theater at just 13, Misty Copeland became a member of Corps de ballet. She went on to become the company’s second Black female soloist as well as the first to be promoted to principal dancer.
Learn more: Misty Copeland
21. Diana Ross, Singer
She rose to fame with the Supremes in the 1960s and became a cultural icon when she launched her solo career the following decade. She was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Barack Obama in 2016.
Learn more: Diana Ross
22. & 23. Venus and Serena Williams, Tennis Legends
The Williams sisters became two of the most famous Black women when they changed the face of tennis as soon as they stepped onto the court. Together, they’ve earned 122 combined career singles titles and nine Olympic medals. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, which is more than any other tennis player in history. She’s also the highest-paid female athlete, having taken home more than $94.8 million in prize money.
Learn more: Venus and Serena Williams
24. Amanda Gorman, Poet
A Harvard graduate, Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet in inaugural history when she recited “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration at just 22 years old. She’s also published three books.
Learn more: Amanda Gorman
25. Beyoncé, Singer-Songwriter
We’re on a first-name basis with Beyoncé, otherwise known as Queen Bey. She’s the most nominated female recording artist of all time, delivers show-stopping performances, and is also a successful entrepreneur—all while raising three kids. She’s also performed at the Super Bowl twice!
Learn more: Beyoncé
26. Angela Bassett, Actor
We’ve loved Angela Bassett in film and on television since the 1980s and, four decades later, her career continues to flourish. Her performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It? earned her her first Golden Globe Award, and most recently she was nominated for an Oscar, making her the first Marvel Cinematic Universe actor to be nominated.
Learn more: Angela Bassett
27. Rihanna, Singer/Entrepreneur
While she may have launched her career as a pop star, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, best known as Rihanna, is much more than that. With ventures such as her lingerie brand Savage x Fenty and the endlessly popular Fenty Beauty line, Forbes named her among America’s Richest Self-Made Women, making her one of the most successful and famous Black women in business. With a worth of about $1.7 billion, she’s also focused on philanthropy by championing for inclusion and diversity as well as climate justice.
Learn more: Rihanna