The following is a list of truly marvelous black women who are marvelous not because of the vastness of their accomplishments, but because their life stories go beyond their race and gender. Everything from science to music to politics wouldn’t be the same without these women, and one can safely say they’ve changed the world. They are a key part of our history, though they may not be featured in our textbooks (yet).
1Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Born Marguerite Johnson, Maya Angelou was many things—an author (with seven autobiographical books), a poet, a singer, a songwriter, a director, a producer, a dancer, and a civil rights activist. Angelou also learned six languages and made Tupac cry (without even trying!). At 16, she became a mother to her son, Guy, and regardless of the fact that she’s never been to college, Angelou has over 50 honorary degrees. She was the first black woman to direct a major motion picture (Down in the Delta). With the encouragement of Martin Luther King Jr., she took on the role of northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
During his time in office, Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before she died, Angelou said she wanted this simple yet goosebump-inducing sentence engraved on her tombstone: “I did my best, I hope you do the same.” She’s a trailblazer whose words have gotten us all through tough times.
2Founders of the Black Lives Matter movement (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi)
The untimely death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the trial of his killer, George Zimmerman, was the catalyst for what eventually grew into the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It started with Alicia posting on Facebook and using the phrase “black lives matter.” Patrisse, an L.A. community organizer, saw her post and put the hashtag in front and #BlackLivesMatter was born. The movement eventually expanded when Patrisse and Darnell L. Moore organized the BLM ride to support the movement in St. Louis after Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The phrase entered the mainstream, and was even on Law and Order SVU.
3Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace (Crystal Roh Gawding, Leymah Gbowee, and Comfort Freeman)
In 1999, when the Second Liberian Civil War hit, systematic rape and violence were rampant in Liberia. In response, women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee brought together a multi-faith group of women called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Movement. This collective of Muslim and Christian women used many non-violent strategies, such as pray-ins and protests, in hopes of reviving negotiations for peace. One method that didn’t work but garnered a lot of attention was the famous sex strike, in which women chose to stop having intercourse with their partners until the fighting stopped.
President of Liberia Charles Taylor was later exiled, and this paved the way for Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to become president of Liberia, the first woman president on the continent.
4Shonda Rhimes (1970-Present)
She’s a self-proclaimed titan whose shows—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and The Catch—when combined, make up 70 hours of TV, with 45 of those hours being shows that she has not only produced, but also created. Rhimes will often juggle three or four shows in production at the same time, which air in seven languages to 30 million people. Her production company, Shondaland, employs 550 actors, writers, producers, and crew members. Did I mention she’s a single mother with three kids?
The Golden Globe winner started off at the University of Southern California. A brilliant student, she earned the Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship. Before her massive TV success, Rhimes wrote films like Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, and the Britney Spears masterpiece that is Crossroads. She’s not just breaking ground for herself, she’s also creating parts for people of color—and leading roles at that. Her shows are a reflection of the world we actually live in, and they make us wonder why more network television showrunners don’t follow her lead.
5Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919)
She was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation and became the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S. In 1905, Walker created a line of hair care products for African Americans, after losing her hair due to a scalp ailment. The Southern native was also the sole owner of her million-dollar business, and worked to bring the Walker Building (an arts center) to life. Located in Indianapolis, it is now considered a National Historic Landmark.
6Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-Present)
With time, cataracts can lead to blindness. It’s thanks to Dr. Patricia Bath that millions of people no longer live with this condition. Specifically, she invented the Laserphaco Probe which, unlike previous procedures, has few negative side effects. Before co-creating the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (with the belief that sight is a human right), Dr. Bath was the first female member of the Department of Ophthalmology at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA.
7Moms Mabley (1894-1975)
It is believed that Moms Mabley is one of the first stand-up comics, inspiring legends like Lenny Bruce. She starred in numerous films, headlined the Apollo, and had many critically acclaimed and commercially successful comedy albums (including the gold-certified The Funniest Woman Alive, Moms Mabley at The U.N., and Moms Mabley at The Playboy Club).
She was born Loretta Mary Aiken, and survived a traumatic childhood. Both of the North Carolina native’s parents died when she was young—she lost her firefighter dad when she was 11, and lost her mother in a truck accident on Christmas. She survived rape twice, and when both attacks left her pregnant, she gave the children up for adoption. Despite these horrific obstacles, at 14, she left home to pursue her showbiz dreams. This woman was fiercely dedicated to her work. Nothing illustrates that more than when she famously kept working on the 1974 film Amazing Grace, even after having a heart attack during filming.
Ultimately, Mabley is a comedy pioneer who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.
8Mary Fields (1832-1914)
Fields was the first black female route mail carrier in America, and while she led an overall ordinary life, her accomplishments are truly extraordinary. She was known for her masculine attire and keeping a revolver hidden underneath her clothes. After ending her mailing career, Fields led a quieter life in the town of Cascade, Montana, where she made her living as a laundress.
At one point, Fields had a restaurant that wasn’t profitable because she didn’t make the poor pay for their meals. Keep in mind, this woman (whose nickname was Black Mary) was born a slave. The fact that people in a small town in Middle America loved her so much that her birthday became a town holiday (and school was even closed on that day) speaks volumes about who she was as a person.
9Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Tharpe blended blues and folk, making her one of the early catalysts for rock and roll. Legends like Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash have spoken openly about how Tharpe influenced them, and yet most people aren’t familiar with her work.
Born Rosetta Nubin, she got her stage name from her ex-husband Thomas A. Thorpe, changing “Thorpe” to “Tharpe.” “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” one of her standout hits, made it to the second spot on the Billboard R&B charts. This was huge, since it was the first gospel song to do so. Known as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” she went on a European tour with Muddy Waters and Otis Spann. Unfortunately, a stroke in 1970 forced Tharpe to slow down and she died three years later, leaving a noteworthy legacy behind her.