Every single one of us can make a difference, but some were born to be trailblazers. There are many famous Black women who 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 was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist well-known for her powerful oratory and unwavering commitment to justice. She is best known for her speech often titled “Ain’t I a Woman?,” delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, where she powerfully challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality. Her legacy continues to inspire movements for equality and justice.
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. Unfortunately, many don’t know that Claudette Colvin did it first. At just 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
There are many Black women who are activists, but Ruby Bridges is one of the most famous. At just 6 years old, she 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 bell hooks 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 woman to win a national tennis title (back in 1917!), but 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 as one of the most famous Black women 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
Sheila Johnson co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET). She was the first Black female billionaire included on a Forbes list. She 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 the 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
Diana Ross 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 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, taking 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. Now worth about $1.7 billion, she’s also focused on philanthropy by championing inclusion, diversity, and climate justice.
Learn more: Rihanna
28. Maya Angelou, Author/Poet
An influential writer, Angelou rose from a challenging childhood in the segregated South to become a renowned poet and author. Her seminal work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a powerful, autobiographical account that addresses complex themes like racism, identity, and resilience. Also an active figure in the Civil Rights Movement, she worked alongside leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Her eloquent recitation at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 showcased her as a cultural icon, using her voice to inspire and advocate for equality.
Learn more: Maya Angelou
29. Harriet Tubman, Activist
Harriet Tubman was a heroic abolitionist and political activist, best known for her role in guiding enslaved Blacks to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends. Her courage, strategic skill, and dedication to fighting for freedom and equality made her an iconic figure in American history and the broader struggle for civil rights.
Learn more: Harriet Tubman Biography
30. Toni Morrison, Author
A Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning American author, Morrison is celebrated for her profound exploration of the Black experience in novels like Beloved and Song of Solomon. Her work, known for its powerful narrative and rich, poetic language, delved deep into themes of identity, race, and history.
Learn more: Toni Morrison Society
31. Michelle Obama, Lawyer/Former First Lady
Michelle Obama is an accomplished lawyer and the first Black first lady of the United States. She is also renowned for her advocacy in education, health, and poverty. Her tenure alongside President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017 saw the launch of impactful initiatives like Let’s Move! for childhood obesity and Joining Forces for military families. A Harvard Law School graduate, her memoir Becoming and public engagements have emphasized her dedication to public service, women’s rights, and a broad range of social issues.
Learn more: Michelle Obama, The White House
32. Rosa Parks, Activist
Rosa Parks was a pivotal figure in the American Civil Rights Movement, famously known for her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. While she wasn’t the first, her act of defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a landmark event in the fight against racial segregation and injustice. Parks’ courage and resilience made her an enduring symbol of dignity and resistance in the struggle for civil rights.
Learn more: BIOGRAPHY | Rosa Parks
33. Ella Fitzgerald, Singer
Known as the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald was an iconic American jazz singer. She is one of the most famous Black woman singers because of her pure tone, impeccable diction, phrasing, improvisation, and scat singing. Over her six-decade career, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.
Learn more: Ella Fitzgerald Biography
34. Alice Walker, Author
Walker is best known for her novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her work often explores themes of race, gender, and identity. Walker has also been a vocal advocate for human rights and civil liberties. Walker’s contributions to literature and social activism have made her a prominent figure in championing the rights and stories of Black women.
Learn more: Alice Walker
35. Aretha Franklin, Singer/Activist
The “Queen of Soul” was celebrated for her powerful voice and emotional depth. Franklin began her career singing gospel in her father’s church and achieved commercial acclaim in the late 1960s with hits like “Respect” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” which became anthems for the Civil Rights and feminist movements. Franklin’s influence extended far beyond music; she was a symbol of Black empowerment and women’s liberation. Franklin received numerous awards, including 18 Grammy Awards. She was also the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Learn more: The Official Site of Aretha Franklin
36. Zora Neale Hurston, Author
Hurston was a prominent writer and anthropologist whose novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was central to the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her portrayal of racial struggles in the early 20th-century American South, Hurston’s work celebrated Black culture and heritage.
Learn more: Zora Neale Hurston
37. Katherine Johnson, Mathematician
Johnson was a pioneering mathematician whose work was crucial to the success of NASA’s space missions, including the Apollo moon landing. Her calculations of orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. manned spaceflights. Johnson’s story gained widespread recognition with the film Hidden Figures, highlighting her vital role in space exploration and breaking barriers in a male-dominated field.
38. Lorraine Hansberry, Author
Lorraine Hansberry was a groundbreaking Black playwright and writer best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun. This seminal work, the first by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway, addresses the complexities of racial identity and family conflict. Although she kept her sexual orientation relatively private during her lifetime, Hansberry contributed anonymous letters to The Ladder, a lesbian publication, in the 1950s. Hansberry’s legacy today is recognized not only for her contributions to Black literature and civil rights activism but also for her role as an early LGBTQ+ figure.
Learn more: Lorraine Hansberry
39. Gwendolyn Brooks, Poet
Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the most famous Black women poets, was the first Black poet to win a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Annie Allen, which explores the experiences and struggles of growing into womanhood in Chicago. Her work is celebrated for its technical mastery, lyrical beauty, and its powerful, often political, engagement with issues of race, class, and gender.
Learn more: Gwendolyn Brooks
40. Billie Holiday, Singer
Known as “Lady Day,” Billie Holiday was a legendary jazz and blues singer renowned for her emotive, soulful voice and pioneering vocal style. Her most famous song, “Strange Fruit,” a haunting and powerful protest against the lynching of Blacks, exemplified her ability to channel music as a tool for social change.
Learn more: The Official Billie Holiday Website
41. Coretta Scott King, Activist
Coretta Scott King was a prominent American civil rights activist and the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement, often working alongside her husband and, after his death, carrying on his legacy. She was instrumental in the founding of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, serving as its president and CEO. Coretta Scott King also championed various causes, including women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and economic issues.
Learn more: About Mrs. Coretta Scott King
42. Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice served as the 66th United States secretary of state. She was the first Black woman to hold this position. She played a pivotal role in shaping American foreign policy in the early 21st century, particularly during the Iraq War and the broader War on Terror. Before her tenure as secretary of state, she served as the National Security Advisor, the first woman to hold this post. Her career has also included roles in academia as a professor and, later, Provost at Stanford University.
Learn more: Condoleezza Rice
43. Bessie Coleman, Pilot
A pioneering aviator, Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman to hold a pilot’s license, breaking barriers in a field dominated by race and gender constraints. She traveled to France to earn her international pilot’s license, as American flight schools denied her entry due to her race and gender.
Learn more: Bessie Coleman
44. Halle Berry, Actress/Director
Halle Berry joined the ranks of the most famous Black women when she made history by becoming the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Monster’s Ball. Over the years, Berry has built a diverse career, encompassing roles in film genres ranging from drama to action and superhero movies. Berry is also recognized for her activism related to domestic abuse and cancer awareness.
Learn more: Halle Berry
45. Angela Davis, Political Activist
Angela Davis, an American political activist, scholar, and author, has made significant contributions to civil rights and social justice, gaining wide recognition for her work. Davis gained prominence in the 1960s as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a member of the Communist Party USA and the Black Panther Party. Her activism for racial justice, prison reform, and gender equality has made her an iconic figure in the fight against oppression. Davis’ work as a professor and her numerous books on class, feminism, and the U.S. prison system have influenced social and political thought worldwide. In fact, in 2024 some are still saying that we need this 80-year-old leader more than ever.
Learn more: Angela Davis
46. Lupita Nyong’o, Actress
Born in Mexico City to Kenyan parents, Lupita Nyong’o rose to fame with her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave. She has since become known for her versatility as an actress and her choices of roles that often celebrate African heritage and challenge traditional narratives, as seen in her performance in the groundbreaking film Black Panther. Beyond acting, Nyong’o actively advocates for women’s rights and representation in the media, especially for women of color.
Learn more: Lupita Nyong’o
47. Marsha P. Johnson, Activist
An activist and a prominent figure in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, Marsha P. Johnson played a key role in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. She was a co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and a vocal advocate for gay rights, transgender rights, and AIDS activism, making significant contributions to social justice and the visibility of transgender people.
Learn more: Marsha P. Johnson
48. Megan Thee Stallion, Rapper
An American rapper, singer, and songwriter, Megan Thee Stallion is known for her energetic flow and empowering lyrics. Rising to fame with her freestyle videos on social media, she gained significant attention with her hit song, “Savage,” which won Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song Grammy Awards. Her music often celebrates female empowerment and body positivity, resonating with a wide audience and solidifying her place in the modern hip-hop scene. Megan’s influence extends beyond music; she’s an advocate for Black women, using her platform to address issues like violence against women and racial inequality.
Learn more: Megan Thee Stallion
49. Dr. Patricia Bath, Ophthalmologist
Dr. Patricia Bath was a trailblazing ophthalmologist and inventor, best known for developing the Laserphaco Probe, a revolutionary device for cataract treatment. She was the first Black female doctor to receive a medical patent and the first Black woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology. She was also a pioneer in advocating for equitable eye care, founding the discipline of community ophthalmology to address eye health needs in underserved populations. Her groundbreaking contributions have left a lasting impact on both medical technology and public health.
Learn more: Dr. Patricia E. Bath
50. Cicely Tyson, Actress/Humanitarian
With a career spanning more than seven decades, Cicely Tyson was best known and loved for her portrayal of strong Black women. She received critical acclaim for her performances in television, film, and theater. Her role in Sounder earned her an Academy Award nomination, and she won two Emmy Awards for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Tyson was also celebrated for her recurring role in How To Get Away With Murder. In 2016, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded to Tyson in recognition of her contributions to the arts and her humanitarian work.
Learn more: Cicely Tyson
51. Oprah Winfrey, Media Mogul
Talk show host, television producer, actress, author, and media proprietor Oprah Winfrey made her mark with her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which she ran and hosted for 25 years. She broke from the mold of shock TV by instead informing the public on numerous important social issues, having tough conversations, starting a book club that had a national impact on reading, and, of course, conducting the celebrity interviews for which talk shows are known. Oprah also started the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, educating Black girls there to be leaders of tomorrow.
Learn more: Oprah Winfrey