Celebrating Ten Influential Black Women In History
A member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and founder of the National Association for Colored Women, despite other gender restrictions in her time, Terrell was a strong advocate for a woman’s right to vote.
Zora Neale Hurston
(1891 – 1960)
Writer of the most notable, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a novel that attempted to address intra-racial discrimination within the black community. Hurston examines privilege through the main protagonist in the story, a black woman who’s trying to find access to free will. But she’s conditioned into believing that her light skin and long hair were of utmost importance for social mobility — and in more ways than one she’s constantly combating reality and expectation.
Through this particular novel, Hurston raises a valid point that continues to be discussed as a problematic social construct: That lighter skin and wavy hair texture are supplemental necessities that make black women desirable. Discrimination within black ethnic groups was nothing new in Hurston’s time. And despite the criticism she received for revealing intraracial injustices in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” from other acclaimed black writers like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Hurston’s work is powerful because she’s experienced it.
(1903 – 1986)
“Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” Baker once said. And in many ways she lived by the mantra, working extensively behind the scenes during the civil rights movement when some of the most notable men in charge waved her aside because she was a woman. Although Baker had her differences with Martin Luther King Jr. over his style of leadership in Southern congregations, she kept her community organizational skills empowered when she worked in the Southern Conference Education Fund for blacks and whites who wanted to fight for civil rights.
(1906 – 1975)
By renouncing her American citizenship to become a French citizen, Baker made her followers in the black and white communities aware of the social differences between the United State and Europe. In Paris she was allowed to perform in mixed venues, and was treated appropriately as an artist and entertainer. But in the United States, she was regarded as a second-class citizen and had to abide by race-separatism.
Because Baker changed citizenships, she was one of the few black artists who celebrated France as a much more socially progressive nation in the 1930s
(1934 – 1992)
Lorde was instrumental in recognizing the boundaries within the rhetoric found in women’s rights. Through her public speaking she used words as her toys, modifying language to reaffirm her desires for civility and equality.
When Lorde wrote “The Cancer Journals,” an account of her battle with breast cancer, she left nothing unsaid about the insecurities women face when they deal with the reality of having a breast removed. Having a part of her body amputated gave her a voice to redefine what attachments were truly important for women to consider themselves women.
Lorde had an incredible vision about the female anatomy. She considered the body to be an integral part of ourselves that had to be accepted and embraced. Whatever happened to its form, the shape of the body was not something that could detract from the identity of a woman. Lorde offered the importance of body-acceptance to her readers before her death. And she is paramount in all observations of historical black women.
Mildred Jeter Loving
(1939 – 2008)
Mildred Jeter made history when she and her husband appealed, before the US Supreme Court the criminal convictions against them in Virginia, because of their marriage. Her husband was white, and she was not. And in the state of Virginia in 1958, race-mixing and marrying outside one’s race was illegal.
A year before her death, Loving made an eloquent statement expressing how unjust it was for the government to impose their decisions on who can and cannot marry. Love is fair. And fairness in marriage was a civil liberty that she publicly advocated.
(1941 – Present)
Eckford was part of the Little Rock Nine, and was the very first to arrive at the infamous, prestigious all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The selection process for her integration was extremely thorough – Eckford had to abide by certain protocols of conduct when enduring potential acts of violence and verbal abuse if she were to ever integrate into Central High. She was told to “turn the other cheek” no matter what. As the center of attention in a monumental moment in history – a black student integrating into an allwhite school in Arkansas – Eckford was an important figure in Civil Rights in 1957.
(1944 – Present)
An author and lecturer known worldwide, Davis was adamant about providing an awareness of not only racial injustice, but other disparities in gender and class politics. She aimed to combine all ailments within contemporary social constructs and exposed them through literature and lecture. And to this day, Davis is still an active participant in discussions about class discrimination, misogyny and racial prejudice.
(1945 – Present)
A law professor and one of the front faces of the Black Panther Party during its operation, Cleaver was an advocate for natural hair; one of her least talked about accomplishments. On camera she explained to a curious reporter why the natural hair movement was spreading, even amongst whites, and she entertained the belief that because she was born this way then she was going to wear her hair naturally; without any chemicals or heat to straighten it.
For Cleaver and for so many others who take comfort in natural hair, she became the Black Panther Party ‘poster girl’ for it at a time when the glass ceiling for women in positions of power was very low.
(1952 – Present)
It is appropriate to write her name in all lowercase letters, because that is how she prefers it.
A writer, feminist, and “cultural critic,” bell hooks promotes the importance of feminism in her literary work, “Feminism Is for Everybody.” Even in the present day there is a common misconception that feminism is a kind alternative used to describe women who hate men, and bell hooks has responded to that by supplying more ammunition to the importance of feminist-thinking across gender lines. Any man or woman who recognizes a patriarchal dominance in any social platform and finds it problematic, is a feminist. Any person who demands an end to gender discrimination, is a feminist. Anyone who empathizes with the victim and not the male perpetrator in cases of abuse and domestic violence, is also a feminist. And by changing the expectations and the dialogue of what it means to be male and female, bell hooks is considered to be one of the most influential women in the black feminist movement.