The 2016 Summer Olympics are officially here. This year, I’ll be glued to my screen to watch two badass black women on the U.S. gymnastics team — Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles. While their incredible athleticism is reason enough for me to be a fan, I also admire their support for each other even while in fierce competition.
When my team at LeanIn.Org launched Together Women Can, a campaign celebrating the power of women supporting each other, Gabby and Simone immediately came to mind. While they’re both striving for the gold, they’ve also reiterated their commitment to the team and the inspiration they draw from each other. This dynamic duo prompted me to think of other badass black women who have accomplished amazing things while supporting each other.
Of course, leaning in and supporting each other looks different for different women. Black women have to contend with biases based on our gender and our race. Some people call this “intersectionality” or “double jeopardy.” No matter what you call it, the reality is that many women face intersecting forms of discrimination because of race, sexual orientation, class, religious beliefs and more.
Black women have long understood how hard it is for other black women — and we’ve worked just as hard to advocate for each other. Let’s celebrate the countless black women (there are way more than ten) who have lifted up black women in their lives and everywhere, starting with these badass ladies:
- Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles
Gabby and Simone have been called “sisters in competition,” but perhaps sisters in badassery (or sisters in blowing our collective minds with gravity-defying #blackgirlmagic) is more appropriate?
Gabby is the veteran gymnast who dazzled everyone at the 2012 Olympics in London and took home the all-around gold medal. She’s the first black woman to win the all-around gold in the history of the Olympics. Though Gabby had some trouble during the 2016 trials, she says she’s ready to defend her all-around title at the games this year.
Simone is the newcomer who has already won three straight world championship all-around titles — she’s the first female athlete to do this! Simone wowed the crowd and judges at this year’s trials and will be leading the U.S. team in Rio. When a reporter interviewed the women together and asked them about their rivalry, Simone and Gabby set the record straight. Rivals? “Eh, not so much,” Simone said, while Gabby nodded in agreement with her. Yes! Gabby and Simone for the gold!
- Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Daisy Bates
Hear “civil rights heroes” and think MLK, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks? Add Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Daisy Bates to that list! Anna made sure black women were heard and celebrated during the 1963 March on Washington — and Daisy gave them a voice. Anna was the only woman invited to be on the planning committee for the march.
When Anna learned that the plan to acknowledge the work of black women civil rights leaders during the iconic speeches at the Lincoln Memorial was to have black women stand while male leader, A. Philip Randolph, said a few words about them, Anna wasn’t having it. She protested the exclusion of women speakers, calling out the tremendous efforts of black women freedom fighters, and because of her efforts, civil rights leader Daisy Bates was included to give a few remarks. In her speech, Daisy honored five other black women activists, making sure black women went from the background to the foreground on one of the most historic days of the movement!
- Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington
This power pair has redefined television’s portrayal of black women, and together they show black women and girls that they can be anything they want. Shonda Rhimes writes for women of color with this in mind. When she won this year’s Producers Guild Norman Lear Award for Achievement in Television, she said, “It’s not trailblazing to write the world as it actually is. Women are smart and strong.”
And referring to defying stereotypes of people of color, she said “People of color are not sassy or dangerous or wise.”
Kerry is also no stranger to hard work. She has one daughter, a baby on the way, and since 2012, she’s played one of Shonda’s badass lead female characters — Olivia Pope. Kerry and Shonda work closely together, and they have a tight relationship. Calling Shonda an amazing leader, boss, and friend, Kerry says that she doesn’t know where she’d be without her.
Watch Kerry talk about Shonda’s support and see other notable women talk about the women who’ve supported them. (Pssst: Serena Williams makes an appearance.)
- Marley Dias and all black girls
Seriously, Marley Dias is here for all black girls. Marley is eleven years old and loves reading books. But at some point, she realized that she was rarely reading about characters like herself — a young black girl — and she was tired of it. Marley set out to fix this for other black girls by collecting one thousand young adult and children’s books about black girls. With the hashtag #1000blackgirlbooks, she has exceeded her goal, collecting more than four thousand books! She told NPR she wants to “set up a black girl book club and pressure school districts to change which books are assigned to students.”
- Angelica and Sophia Sweeting
When badass mom Angelica Sweeting realized that her daughter didn’t see herself reflected in children’s media and pop culture, she took matters into her own hands. Angelica’s daughter, Sophia, was three years old when she told her mom that she didn’t like her skin tone or facial features and wanted to look like her dolls — Barbie and Elsa. Angelica was crushed. Knowing that positive role models in media and toys are important for girls’ self-esteem, she searched for a doll that looked like her daughter. When she couldn’t find one, she decided to make one!
After months of research and testing, Angelica launched Naturally Perfect. Naturally Perfect’s dolls have curly and kinky textured hair, different brown skin tones, and facial features common to women of color. They’re not only gorgeous but they also come with careers! The Kickstarter page for Naturally Perfect (by the way, they more than tripled their original fund-raising goal) says: “Let’s not just tell the next generation of women that they can do anything. LET’S SHOW THEM! . . . The Angelica Doll is a courageous, bold entrepreneur full of self-belief, natural beauty, and perseverance.”
- Misty Copeland and Raven Wilkinson
Misty Copeland has made headlines and history as the first black principal dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. When asked how she got there, Misty often cites the influence of her mother, a single parent, and the personal values she instilled, such as hard work and courage. But Misty also gives credit to her mentor, Raven Wilkinson. Raven was the first black ballerina to tour the U.S. with a ballet company. She faced overt racism, threats of violence and discrimination, and yet she persevered.
Raven’s courage in the face of such hardships inspired Misty to continue her journey and stand up to the difficulties she faced as she climbed her way to the top of the ballet world. Misty wrote a children’s book called Firebird. The book is based on her relationship with Raven, except this time, Misty is the mentor, and she’s giving the advice and encouragement to a young brown girl who wants to be a dancer but is having a difficult time.
- Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King
Oprah and Gayle’s relationship showcases the power of black female friendships. They’ve been friends since their early twenties, and they support each other personally and professionally, through ups and downs and intensely busy schedules. From Gayle’s position as editor at large for O, to her appearances on Oprah’s show and their epic road trip from New York to California, Oprah shares the limelight and her business with her bestie.
And in turn, Gayle who is also an award-winning journalist, co-anchor of CBS This Morning, and correspondent on Entertainment Tonight, still makes time to support her friend. Oprah has said that she and Gayle talk all the time and that “there is not a better human being in the world.” As true best friends, they only want the best for each other. Oprah and Gayle really give us all BFF goals.
- Ava DuVernay and her all-female directorial team
Next up, a woman who is so badass that Oprah actually threw a party just to meet her. You know Ava DuVernay as the director of Selma, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. She’s the first black woman to win the U.S. Directing Award for a dramatic film at Sundance, and she’s also the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director. As if that weren’t enough, Ava’s television series, Queen Sugar, is set to debut on Oprah’s network, OWN, this year.
Understanding the importance of mentorship and creating opportunities for women of color in the entertainment industry, Ava hired an all-female directorial team for her show. She told Essence, “We’re hiring an all women directorial team, so a lot of women that we know from the Black independent film space that I won’t announce yet but it’s an exciting time to just invite women into the show.” Ava, it’s an exciting time for us to watch your work!
- Y-Vonne Hutchinson and Project Include
Y-vonne Hutchinson supports black women, especially in tech, but she takes it even further with Project Include, “an open community working toward providing meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for tech companies.” And diversity for them isn’t just code for “woman” or “underrepresented minority.”
Project Include emphasizes all diversity: sexual orientation, gender, race, disability, class, and more. They provide case studies, tools, and practical ways to increase diversity and inclusion. Project Include also boasts an all-star team of women founders: Erica Joy Baker, bethanye McKinney Blount, Tracy Chou, Laura I. Gómez, Freada Kapor Klein, Ellen Pao, and Susan Wu.
- Beyoncé and . . . her all-black female Formation drumline; her all-black female backup singers; her all-female band; and ALL of Lemonade
And for the grand finale: Beyoncé. I could just stop there, but I won’t. Beyoncé gave us all life this year with Lemonade. She sparked a national conversation on the history of black women in America and black women’s public and personal lives. She called attention to the long lineage of black women filmmakers, authors, artists, poets, and musicians whose amazing work often gets neglected in mainstream pop culture.
The Lemonade visual album honored black women with beautiful and compelling imagery, featuring a multigenerational lineup of black women and girls from Blue Ivy, Zendaya, Serena, and Quvenzhané to the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown. As if the album wasn’t enough, the woman showed up to Super Bowl 50 — no, actually she rocked the sh*t out of Super Bowl 50 — with her all-black, all-female Formation drumline.
Oh yeah, and then way before that she toured with her all-female band the Sugar Mamas, featuring many women of color and led by badass guitarist Bibi McGill, who has been called a female Jimi Hendrix. What was her reasoning for having an all-female band? Beyoncé said, “When I was younger I wish I had more females who played instruments to look up to. I played piano for like a second but then I stopped. I just wanted to do something which would inspire other young females to get involved in music so I put together an all-woman band.” Thank you, Beyoncé. Thank. You. Beyoncé.
Alexis Charles, PhD is the Education Lead for Lean In, a nonprofit and online community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions.