In honor of Black History Month, #TeamBeautiful remembers the phenomenal women who paved the way for us to enjoy the lives we have today. They are the politicians and activists that fought for everyone’s human rights, the educators who taught us our history and how to think bigger, the writers who captured our experiences, the style innovators and entertainers who shaped pop culture. We salute these leaders.
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From A-Z: Dynamic Black Women In History  was originally published on

1. Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Source:Fotosearch

An acclaimed author and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston contributed greatly to what was known in the world of literature as the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a pioneer for black involvement in the Republican party, a staunch conservative and Republican party favorite.

2. Zane

Zane Source:Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Best known for her erotic book “Addicted,” Zane made waves as a pioneering erotic fiction writer. No matter what your stance is on her books (or the genre itself), it’s safe to say that Zane is one of the top Black erotic fiction writers in the market. “Addicted” is getting the film treatment and will be released in theaters Sept. 2014. Boris Kodjoe is reportedly co-starring in the adaptation.

3. Unita Blackwell

Unita Blackwell Source:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Unita is an American civil rights activist who was the first African-American woman, and the tenth African American, to be elected mayor in the U.S. state of Mississippi. Blackwell was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and helped organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi.

4. Rebecca Walker

Rebecca Walker Source:Bettmann/Getty Images

Rebecca may have a legendary last name, but that doesn’t mean Alice’s daughter hasn’t made her mark. The New York Times Bestselling writer who has written memoirs, including “Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence” and “One Big Happy Family,” also has a non-profit called “The Thirdwave Foundation” and was named one of the 50 Future Leaders of America by Time Magazine.

5. Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph Source:Bettmann/Getty Images

Rudolph is a true survivor and American sporting hero. Despite having suffered from polio and a range of other life-threatening sicknesses, she became a triple Olympic gold medal winner in track and field.

6. Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez Source:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Sanchez is a poet known for her involvement in the Black Arts Movement, the artistic component of the Black Power movement during the ’60s. A writer known for her play on mixing the Blues with haikus and other poetic forms, Sanchez has penned several poetry collections, including “We a Baddddd People,” “Autumn Blues” and “Does Your House have Lions.”

7. Terry McMillan

Terry McMillan Source:Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

McMillan is known as much for her contemporary writing as for her feisty public persona. As the writer behind (arguably) one of the most popular novels of the ’90s, “Waiting To Exhale,” (which spawned a hit movie and killer soundtrack), is a book that many black women say they related to the most.

8. Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Chances are, if you’re a writer or consider yourself even close to one, you’ve been inspired by Morrison. The Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller is known for famous works, including “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye,” and is also a Nobel Prize recipient.

9. Terri Sewell

Terri Sewell Source:Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A Democrat, Terri Sewell is the representative in Congress for Alabama’s 7th district. She is an accomplished attorney and was educated at Princeton, Harvard and Oxford University. Sewell was the first African-American woman elected to represent Alabama in Congress.

10. Suzan Lori-Parks

Suzan Lori-Parks Source:Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

This Pultizer Prize winning screenwriter made waves with her Broadway drama, “Topdog/Underdog” and even received the MacArthur Grant, known as “The Genius Grant,” in 2001. Although many may not know Parks by name or face, this woman is responsible for penning Spike Lee’s sexy joint “Girl 6.”

11. Susan Rice

Susan Rice Source:Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

As the National Security Advisor, Rice has had quite the boastful resume. Politics is in her blood. Rice comes from a long line of politics. Her father was governor of the Federal Reserve System and her mother is education policy researcher & guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Madeleine Albright was a recurring guest in her childhood home and helped shape her career as an adult.

12. Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth Source:Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

A preacher, gender and racial equality activist born into slavery, Sojourner Truth spread the word of God and equality throughout her lifetime. She is best known for her 1851 speech titled, ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’

13. Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm Source:Leif Skoogfors/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, winning in New York in 1968 and retiring from office in 1983. She campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, but is best known for her work on several Congressional committees throughout her career.

14. Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons Source:Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images

In 2001 Ruth Simmons became the first African-American to take the office of president of an Ivy League university. She is currently the president of Brown University, the first woman and first Texan in that position. Simmons has improved Brown’s budget and its reputation abroad, and has also been recognized on a number of occasions for her work in education. 

15. Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks Source:U S News & World Report Collection/Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

As the ‘Mother of Freedom’ and a figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks is almost unmatched in recognition and respect. One seemingly simple act of bravery in 1955 on a Montgomery bus eventually led Parks to the forefront of national attention, giving way to a number of improvements in the lives of ordinary African Americans. She died in 2005 at the extraordinary age of 92. 

16. Robin Kelly

Robin Kelly

Robin Kelly is an accomplished force to be reckoned with in Illinois state politics and ran for the role of State Treasurer. Robin was the first African American woman to serve as the head of staff of a constitutional officer.

17. Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley Source:GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

You may not see Wheatley’s books at a Barnes and Noble or, but this writer paved the way for every other one on this list. As the second published African-American poet and first published African-American woman to make a living from her passion, Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” garnered international attention in England and America when it was published in 1773. 

18. Pearl Cleage

Pearl Cleage Source:Moses Robinson/WireImage

Cleage identifies as a feminist writer who writes about the intersection of racism and sexism. Writing critically acclaimed books, including “What Crazy Looks Like On An Ordinary Day” and “I Wish I Had A Red Dress,” Cleage is also active in spreading awareness on the AIDS epidemic. 

19. Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler Source:Malcolm Ali/WireImage

For sci-fi fiction fans, especially those of color, Octavia is a pioneer for many who liked the genre. As the first science writer who received the MacArthur Award, she wrote the highly-popular “Kindred,” along with “Fledgling” and “Parable of the Sower.” Her work dealt primarily with fantasy and the future, but had an undertone of commentary on race and gender politics. 

20. Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange Source:Ilir Bajraktari/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Shange’s work deals primarily with Black women’s issues, including racism, sexism and domestic violence, and her most famous work, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” deals with all of those topics in a mind blowing, poignant drama.

21. Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni Source:Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Known primarily for her stance against violence, Giovanni’s most famous poetry collections deal with the matter of injustice against both men and women. “Love Poems,” a books of poems, was written as a tribute to Tupac. In 2004, “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection” album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.

22. Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Source:Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images

Mother, wife, First Lady and public servant, Michelle Obama wears many hats flawlessly. She’s a fashion icon, role model for women and an advocate for poverty awareness, LGBT rights, women’s rights, nutrition, and healthy eating. In 2008, she immersed (reducing her professional workload by 80%) herself in then Senator Obama’s campaign and has ever since both his presidential wins.

23. Michaëlle Jean (Canada)

Michaëlle Jean (Canada) Source:Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Michaëlle Jean is an extraordinary example of overcoming adversity to rise to the top. She currently serves as the Governor General of Canada, the state role that links the British Monarch with the Canadian government. Jean was born in Haiti but fled the country during the dictatorship of François Duvalier, the man responsible for separating her father from his family for close to 30 years. She worked as a journalist

24. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou Source:Axel Koester/Corbis via Getty Images

Maya Angelou is a celebrated poet, author, activist and educator. Her work in literature has won her critical acclaim both here and abroad. Meanwhile, Angelou has remained at the forefront of politics and racial empowerment by appearing at inaugurations, rallies and sharing tales of discrimination and struggle with the world.

25. Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune Source:Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In 1904, Mary McLeod Bethune did something that was almost unheard of in American society at that time. She began a school for young African American girls in Daytona, Florida. That school would eventually flourish and merge with a boys’ school to become Bethune-Cookman University. Mary McLeod Bethune is also remembered for her innovative work in Civil Rights.

26. Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell Source:Corbis/Getty Images

As the daughter of former slaves, Mary was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in 1884! Now that’s impressive! She became an activist who led several important associations, including the National Association of Colored Women and formed the Federation of Afro-American Women. Mary also worked tirelessly for Civil Rights and suffrage.

27. Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry Source:David Attie/Getty Images

Hansberry was a famous playwright, primarily for becoming the first Black woman to have a play — “A Raisin In The Sun” — performed on Broadway. The title of the play was taken from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem” and the play itself inspired Nina Simone to write “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

28. Karen Bass

Karen Bass Source:Maury Phillips/Getty Images

Karen Bass is currently the U.S. Representative for California’s 33rd congressional district. She is also the first black woman to hold the role of Speaker in any state Assembly. In California, Bass has focused on improving education facilities, health care and the foster care system. Bass served as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which seeks to better understand California’s black population and their needs.

29. Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris

Harris is currently the Attorney General of California. Previous to her victory in the 2010 State Elections, Harris served in a number of State offices.

30. Ida B. Wells

Ida B. Wells Source:Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Ida B. Wells was a pioneer in the media and communication industries during the early 20th century. She is most remembered for her role in documenting the practice of lynching.

31. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman Source:Photo 12/UIG via Getty Image

As one of American history’s most prominent figures, Harriet Tubman was responsible for rescuing around 300 former slaves from the South and escorting them to freedom via the underground railroads that led to Maryland. At one point, a $40,000 reward was being offered for her arrest. Tubman was also a spy during her life. She died in New York in 1913.

32. Gloria Naylor

Gloria Naylor

New York-born writer, Gloria Naylor quickly received national attention after the publication of her first novel “The Women of Brewster Place” in 1972. The book spawned a popular TV series of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Whitfield, Jackee Harry, Lonette McKee and Robin Givhans. “Brewster Place” was a pivotal work about seven Black women in one neighborhood who struggled with racism, sexism and rape.

33. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia)

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia) Source:Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

Her country, Liberia, was named in recognition of its intriguing connection to African slavery and, as its President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made leaps and bounds in improving the role of women in aspects of Liberian society. She was elected in 2006 but had no family connection in politics to allow for an easy rise to power. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first black woman to win a presidential election in Africa.

34. Dr. Dorothy Height

Dr. Dorothy Height Source:Bettmann/Corbis/Getty Images

In 2010 the world lost one of its best, with the death of civil rights activist, Dorothy Height. Among many of Ms. Height’s colleagues were Dr Martin Luther-King Jr and Rosa Parks. While her passing evoked sadness, many celebrated her life in recognition of her ardent selflessness.

35. Donna Edwards

Donna Edwards Source:Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Currently serving as Congresswoman for Maryland’s 4th district, Donna Edwards is the first black woman to represent Maryland in the House of Representatives. She defeated her Republican rival in 2008 with an amazing 85 percent of the vote. She currently sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

36. Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

The poet, who was named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985, was the first African American to win a Pultizer Prize in Poetry for ” Annie Allen,” her second collection of poems.

37. Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer Source:Warren K Leffler/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Hamer was an American voting rights activist and civil rights leader. She was also the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity. Her plain-spoken manner and fervent belief in the Biblical righteousness of her cause gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant activist of civil rights.

38. Dame Eugenia Charles (Dominica)

Dame Eugenia Charles (Dominica)

Eugenia Charles was the Prime Minister of Dominica for 15 years until 1995. She was the first female head of state in the Americas and is currently the longest serving female prime minister recorded in world history.

39. Cynthia McKinney

Cynthia McKinney Source:Tim Grant/WireImage

This Democrat has served 12 years in the House of Representatives and was the first African-American woman to represent Georgia in the House. McKinney always steps up to be the voice of the people. She ran for president in 2008 under the Green party. She was even stranded in international waters and rescued by the Lebanese Navy after attempting to help the people of Gaza during military attack.

40. Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King Source:Ed Jenner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr., King became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights and Womens’ Rights Movement, advising the nation’s leadership and pursuing the causes of her late husband.

41. Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice Source:Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC via Getty Images

Condoleezza Rice is no woman to mess with. As the first black woman to hold the position of Secretary of State. During her term, Rice was a well known figure of the Bush administration both nationally and abroad. But in addition to her political experience, she is also a published scholar, concert pianist and academic. She is currently working at Stanford University.

42. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Source:Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Chimamanda was a big deal way before a Beyonce shout-out. The prolific writer already had a few top selling books under her name — “Half of a Yellow Sun,” “Purple Hibiscus” and “The Thing Around Your Neck” — before 2013’s “Americanah.” Adichie is also the recipient of MacArthur Fellowship in 2008.

43. Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker Source:Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Orphaned at the age of 7, Madam C.J. Walker, who’s real name was Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, overcame all adversity to become America’s first black self-made millionaire. She achieved her wealth by developing a range of haircare products that led her across the country and abroad.

44. Cathy Hughes

Cathy Hughes Source:Pat Candido/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Cathy Hughes, Founder and Chairperson of Radio One, Inc (parent company of Interactive One and, is a pioneer in business, media and entrepeneurship in America and the black community. In 1979, Hughes launched RadioOne, which since then has become the largest radio broadcast network in the United States with 69 stations in 22 cities.

45. Bessie A. Buchanan

Bessie A. Buchanan Source:Pat Candido/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Bessie became the first African-American woman to hold a seat in the New York State Legislature when she was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1954.

46. bell hooks

bell hooks Source:Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

bell hooks, also known as Gloria Jean Watkins, is a passionate writer focused on dissecting racism, sexism, gender, class and societal oppression in many of her writings. She has published more than 30 books, including “Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism” and “Feminism Is For Everybody.” The writer says she chose to lowercase her name to keep the focus on only on “the substance of her work.”

47. Bebe Moore Campbell

Bebe Moore Campbell Source:Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Campbell, another Oprah Book Club favorite, wrote three New York Times bestselling books, “Brothers and Sisters,” “Singing in the Comeback Choir” and “What You Owe Me.” She also explored mental health throughout her work and wrote a children’s book, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,” about a young girl being raised by a mother who was mentally ill.

48. Barbara Smith

Barbara Smith Source:Brian Ach/WireImage

This woman played such a major role in building and maintaining Black feminism in America. As Black Nationalism emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, she became extremely put off by the sexism she experienced in male-dominated groups, and turned to Black feminist politics

49. Ayanna Pressley

Ayanna Pressley Source:Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A former staff member of Congressman Kennedy and Political Director to Senator Kerry in Massachusetts, Pressley is currently a Boston City counselor. She is expected to reach higher positions in the next few years.

50. Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis Source:Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Mathis was barely two years out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when her debut novel, “Twelve Years of Hattie” made a splash in the literary world. Critics, and Oprah, who recommended it for her famous Book Club, lauded the effort as an “elegant” and “remarkable” work.

51. Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde Source:Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Lorde was a Caribbean-American writer who chose to focus on fighting racism, sexism and homophobia through her words. As a woman who identified as bisexual, Lorde wanted to empower her readers work against racism in their personal lives. Many of her pivotal works include “From a Land Where Other People Live” and “The First Cities.”

52. Asha-Rose Migiro (United Nations)

Asha-Rose Migiro (United Nations) Source:SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Migiro is currently the 3rd Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Along with Anna Tibaijuka, she is one of the highest ranked black women in the UN. Migiro was born and educated in Tanzania.

53. Anna Tibaijuka (United Nations)

Anna Tibaijuka (United Nations) Source:Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Anna Tibaijuka is the highest ranked African female in the United Nations, heading the UN-HABITAT program. She is a Swedish-educated, Tanzanian-born leader who has fought for the rights of women living in slums or without homes. Since becoming the Executive of UN-HABITAT, she has greatly increased its budget and function in the United Nations.

54. Angela Davis

Angela Davis Source:Jemal Countess/Getty Images

A nationally prominent counterculture activist and radical in the 1960s, Davis wears many hats. She was a leader of the Communist Party USA, and had close relations with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She was twice a candidate for Vice President on the Communist Party USA ticket during the 1980s.