African-American history is full of female leaders who have made an impact on this country. From activists to artists to scientists to politicians, the list goes on and on. To kick off Black History Month, here are 15 inspiring women we are proud to celebrate.
1. Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath, Ph.D., is the first African-American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology at New York University. She is also the first black female doctor to receive a medical patent. Inventing the Laserphaco Probe in 1986, she was able to treat patients with cataracts with more precision and less pain.
2. Amelia Boynton Robinson
Amelia Boynton Robinson helped organize the 1965 Selma march. According to The Washington Post, she was the first black woman to run for Congress in Alabama. While she did not win, her campaign raised awareness about voting discrimination.
3. Alexa Canady, M.D.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Alexa Canady became the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981. Now retired, she is credited with saving thousands of lives during her 20-year career.
4. Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm became the first black congresswoman in 1968. She continued to break barriers when she ran for president in 1972, making her the first black candidate to run for a major party and the first woman to seek the Democratic Party's nomination.
5. Bessie Coleman
A pioneer for women in aviation, Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license and the first black woman to stage a public flight in the United States. Her specialty was stunt flying and parachuting.
6. Claudette Colvin
Most people know about Rosa Parks, but according to NPR, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat for a white person months before. In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, Colvin said her mother told her to remain quiet about her brave act. She shared: “She told me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her.’”
7. Althea Gibson
Those who do not follow tennis may not be familiar with Althea Gibson. She was the first black woman to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. Serena Williams has recognized Gibson as someone who “paved the way for all women of color in sport."
8. Dorothy Height
President Barack Obama once called Dorothy Height “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” and she received awards from three other presidents, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. She served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for more than two decades and was instrumental in the integration of all YWCA centers in 1946.
9. Lena Horne
Actress/singer Lena Horne was celebrated for her performances in the films "Stormy Weather" and "The Wiz." She worked closely with civil rights groups, and according to the Los Angeles Times, she refused to play roles that stereotyped black women.
10. Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the first black woman to enroll at the University of Georgia. She became an award-winning journalist after graduation, and she has worked for various outlets, including The New York Times, PBS and NPR.
11. Mae Jemison, M.D.
Mae Jemison, M.D., is the first black woman to be admitted into the astronaut training program and fly into space, in 1987. She also developed and participated in research projects on the hepatitis B vaccine and rabies.
12. Katherine Johnson
As told in the award-winning 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson overcame the prejudices while working as a “human computer” at NASA to successfully launch the first Americans into space. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2017.
13. Mary McLeod Bethune
A leading educator and civil rights activist, Mary McLeod Bethune believed education was the key to racial advancement. Among her many achievements, she founded the National Council of Negro Women as well as the college that is now known as Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
14. Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph overcame incredible obstacles when she was a child. She was born premature and then later contracted polio. Her doctor said she would never be able to walk without her brace, but she went on to become a track star. Nicknamed “the black gazelle,” Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, in 1960.
15. Sojourner Truth
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth escaped slavery (with her infant daughter) and then changed her name because she believed it was her religious obligation to go forth and speak the truth. She is best known for her speech delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851 titled “Ain’t I A Woman?”