Bow Down! 65 Boundary-Breaking Black Women Who Have Paved the Way

It's International Women's Day, and we're taking a look back at some African-American women who haved paved the way for both us and future generations. From legendary icons like Madame C.J. Walker and Nina Simone to 21st century trailblazers like Michelle Obama and Ava DuVernay, here are 65 dynamic women who have inspired us to achieve greatness.

Taylor Lewis Mar, 08, 2016

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The late activist and wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., often referred to as the First Lady of the Civil Rights Movement, would have been 90 on April 27.

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Michelle Obama will go down in history as the ultimate First Lady. She has singlehandedly brought education to millions of girls worldwide, revamped the education system’s food plan and show’s us what #BlackLove is all about. 

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In her lifetime, political activist and retired professor Angela Davis has been a champion for racial equality and women’s rights. She has penned numerous books, including The Angela Y Davis Reader.

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Since their debut in the early 90s, the Williams sisters changed the face of tennis by becoming the first African-Americans to be ranked as No. 1 in 2002. Since then, they have made several achievements, including sharing five Wimbledon titles between them. Last year, Serena became the first Black woman in more than 50 years to clinch the crown at the U.S. Open.

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Last year, Viola Davis achieved what no other Black woman has done: She took home the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role in How to Get Away With Murder.

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Rosa Parks

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Tubman was an abolitionist responsible for the “Underground Railroad” to help free enslaved African-Americans. She was also a humanitarian and a Union spy during the American Civil War.

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An American activist for children's rights, Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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Whitney Houston

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In 2002, Berry became the first Black actress to earn an Academy Award in a lead role for Monster’s Ball.

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In 2001, Rice became the first African-American woman in U.S. history to be appointed National Security Advisor. She made history again when she was appointed Secretary of State in 2005.

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Johnson, who made her fortune with her ex-husband Bob Johnson as co-founder of the BET cable network, became the first African-American female billionaire in 2001 when they split the profits of selling the company for a whopping $2.3 billion.

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One of the greatest wordsmiths of our time, Maya Angelou gave us literary classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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Known as the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Height was an educator, social activist, and the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) from 1957 until 1997. In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom award.

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The “Queen of Soul” is one of the giants of modern American music. Her achievements include becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

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As president of Brown University from 2001 to 2011, Dr. Simmons was the first Black person at the head of an Ivy League institution.

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In 1983, Williams became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America. There have been seven Black Miss America’s since her.

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Carroll was the first Black woman with her own television series—the show, Julia, ran between 1968 and 1971.

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The world cheered in 2014 when Nyong’o took home the 2014 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years a Slave. Two years later, and she continues to wow us.

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The first closed-circuit television security system was patented to Marie Brown on December 2, 1969. The system was a forerunner to home security systems.

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Considered the first Black supermodel, Sims was the first woman of color to appear on the cover of Life magazine in 1969.

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Singing and acting her way to the history books, Beyonce has broken numerous boundaries including being one-third of the best-selling girl group of all time, winning 20 Grammys, and having five chart-topping albums. All hail Queen Bey! 

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Collins was a ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s and became prominent in American classical ballet.

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In 2014, Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe for Selma. And her #BlackGirlMagic doesn’t end there: Last year, a Barbie doll was created in her likeness, and it sold out within minutes.

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Diagnosed with polio at a young age, Rudolph went to the Olympics in 1960, setting a world record in the 200-meter race and winning not one, but two gold medals.

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In 1993, Morrison became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature for her novel, Beloved.

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In 1992, Jemison became the first Black female astronaut to travel into space.

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Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of the 20th century in African-American literature.

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Her talk show was one of the highest-rated programs in history, and now she is the second African-American woman to run her own cable channel (TVOne’s Cathy Hughes is the first). Winfrey has also broken barriers with her humanitarian efforts.

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Also known as the mother of Blues, Rainey was first woman to use blues in her performance routine.

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In the early 20th century, Madame Walker made her fortune by developing and marketing the first successful line of beauty and hair products for Black women. She is also said to have been the first Black female millionaire.

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In 1972, Wattleton became the first African-American and youngest President ever elected to Planned Parenthood, where she served until 1992.

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In 2009, Rice became the first Black woman to become United States Ambassador to the United Nations. In 2013, President Obama appointed her as National Security Advisor. 

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Holiday’s bluesy vocal style ushered in a new sound to for jazz vocalists.

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The granddaughter of slaves, Hamer dedicated her life to fighting for voting and civil rights in the 60s.

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Misty Copeland twirled into ballet history last year when she became the first Black principal dancer in the history of the American Ballet Theater.

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An American singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist, Simone was never afraid to speak her mind about social issues. Through music, she tackled issues like the Civil Rights Movement and Black pride.

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In 1993, Price started selling homemade body creams at church, which evolved into Carol's Daughter. In 2014, she sold her company to L'Oreal USA. 

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As journalist, newspaper editor, civil rights leader and, with her husband, newspaper owner, she documented the extent of lynching in the United States, and was also active in the women’s rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement.

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Gibson became the first Black woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956.

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After founding Act-1 Group, a worldwide staffing agency, Janice Bryant Howroyd went on to become the first Black woman to own a billion-dollar business—her company is worth an estimated $2.3 billion.

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The legendary singer, actress and civil rights activist broke many boundaries in Hollywood including becoming becoming the first African-American actress to be signed by a major studio in the early 1940s.

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McDaniels was the first Black performer to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone with the Wind in 1939.

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Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black woman to run for president in 1972.

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Braun became the first Black woman elected to the United States Senate in 1992. She served until 1999.

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In 1955, Anderson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African-American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

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Mo’ne Davis knows no boundaries. The 14-year-old was the first girl in Little League History to throw a complete shutout in the 2014 world championship, and she has already signed a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters. But first, she has to finish high school!

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In 1950 poet Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize. She was appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.

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Collins was an educator, founder of Westside Preparatory School in Chicago.

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Allen is a famed American actress, choreographer, television director, television producer, and has served as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

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Ruby Dee has made history as an actress, poet, playwright, screenwriter and activist.

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Franklin made history when she was elected as Atlanta’s first Black female mayor in 2010.

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McMillan is one of the most important American novelists writing today—she gave us the classic that is How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

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After writing A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black playwright to have a play performed on Broadway in 1959. In 1965, Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at age 34.

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After a lengthy confirmation process in 2015, Loretta Lynch was appointed as the first Black female attorney general in American history.

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Hailing from Texas, Jordan served as a congresswoman in the United States House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979.

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Bree Newsome literally climbed to new heights last summer when she ascended a flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse to remove the Confederate flag. 

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After escaping from slavery, Sojourner Truth dedicated her life to fighting for women's rights and racial equality. Her stirring speeches, including "Ain't I a Woman," still resonate today.

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After founding hair care line Naturalicious, Gwen Jimmere became the first person to score a patent for a natural hair product. Love! 

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The daughter of slaves, Bethune spent her childhood working in the fields. In 1904, she opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls, a school that eventually taught 250 Black children. She went on to found Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few universities open to Black students.

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Charged and convicted with the murder of a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, Shakur, a member of the Black Pather party, escaped prison and fled to Cuba, where she has resided ever since.

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It was the victory heard ‘round the world when, in 2012, Gabby Douglas became the first Black woman in Olympic history to clinch the Individual All-Around gymnastics championship.

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We have Henrietta Lacks to thank for modern medicine. After she died of cervical cancer at the young age of 31, her cells were used for groundbreaking medical research.

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Dangerous curves ahead: Tyra Banks flaunts her shapely figure in this body-hugging dress.