We’re often fed exaggerated images of women being catty, competitive and unkind to each other, but this Women’s Month we want to champion those around us who not only make room for other sisters but also uplift their efforts, every step of the way.
Below is a list of 15 Black women who make it a point to enlist, work with and advocate for other Black women. Be it in the media, on stage, on the tennis court, or even in a science lab, these ladies are their sisters’ keepers and they do it in a way that challenges us all to do the same.
It’s impossible to have a list like this without including Oprah. In the 25 years she spent masterfully hosting the iconic Oprah Winfrey Show, Lady O became the epitome of “paying it forward.” And there are legions of young women who have been inspired to go into broadcasting specifically due to her influence.
Even now with her network OWN, she continues to give women a seat at the table and create opportunities for young creatives on the journey to self discovery. Her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa has also provided hundreds of young women with a stellar education over the last 11 years.
“My hope was that I would give them an opportunity to see the best of themselves reflected through an open mind, an open heart, to what is possible,” Winfrey said of her girls during an interview with Variety. “And I can honestly say I have achieved that.”
It’s also worth noting that Winfrey – who the young women refer to as “Mama O” – has spent approximately $150 million dollars of her own money to pay for all their expenses.
2. Glory Edim
After Oprah’s book club cultivated a generation of book lovers, Glory Edim took that torch and kept it alive with the creation of Well-Read Black Girl, a book club turned online community and literary festival that specifically caters to women of color.
And last year, her first book, Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (Ballantine Books), hit the shelves. It features a bevy of Black women from different generations and backgrounds writing about their relationship with literature.
“I think so much about the origin stories of our lives. What do you see that teaches you what it means to grow into a woman? The term Well-Read Black Girl is open to interpretation. It’s about the power of Black female identity in the world,” said Edim in an exclusive interview with theGrio. “It’s an homage to the Black women before us: Toni, Alice, Maya, Mary Helen Washington. So many voices who have paved the way to Black womanhood. A Well-Read Black Girl reads across genres with heart and intent to grow.”
3. Ava DuVernay
Not only is Ava DuVernay the first Black woman to direct a movie that grossed over $100 million, she’s also the first Black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe. And ever since Hollywood let her into the room, she’s made it a point to always save a seat for other women coming up behind her.
In 2010, DuVernay founded ARRAY, a grassroots distribution, arts and advocacy collective focused on films by people of color and women. And a few years ago the director raised some brows when it was revealed that all the episodes of her hit OWN series Queen Sugar had been directed by women and only women.
During last year’s Gloria Awards, the 46-year-old recalled the moment she found out men in the Director’s Guild of America took issue with her ladies first approach.
After she was told about the “complaints” by a director friend, she responded by saying, “I invite you to tell whoever is feeling discriminated against to sue me so that I can sue every studio that has left women out.”
4. Renae Bluitt
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It has often been stated that when it comes to television and film, we are currently experiencing a Black Renaissance, with Black women right at the forefront. One of those women, whose made it her business to shout out her peers is newly minted filmmaker Renae Bluitt.
Bluitt, who is the founder of Crush Media, first gained notoriety with In Her Shoes, a blog a decade ago to highlight and uplift women entrepreneurs. Last year, Bluitt made her debut as a filmmaker with She Did That, a documentary that celebrates Black women business owners who are building impressive empires and legacies in their industries. Screenings across the country have also featured insightful panel discussions full of gems about the realities of and resources for women entrepreneurs. If you’re looking for a jolt of inspiration, we highly recommend you check out the official She Did That website for updates on screenings in a city near you.
5. Serena Williams
Serena Williams is not only a champion on the tennis court but, also a beacon of strength for Black women everywhere. As a vocal advocate for the rights of female athletes, Williams has always taken her responsibility as a role model seriously. And after nearly dying during childbirth, the first-time mother has now been inspired to speak up for women’s reproductive issues as well, alerting the public to the disparity in care Black women often receive when it comes to childbirth-related complications.
She even wrote an in depth op-ed for CNN, that sparked an important national discussion about the places where racism and sexism converge in the medical community.
Additionally, when Williams was robbed of her ranking at the French Open due to her maternity leave, she spoke out about how this practice essentially punishes female athletes for having children. As a result new WTA rule changes have been implemented to reduce penalties for women moving forward.
6. Kathryn Finney
Kathryn Finney is the mastermind behind Digital Undivided, a venture that helps Black and Latina female navigate the startup pipeline. Founded in 2013, the venture has already helped 2,000 founders raise over $25 million in outside funding.
In 2015, Finney’s data project, #ProjectDiane – which was named after civil rights icon Diane Nash – was created to actively collect information about black and latina women startup founders. Through #ProjectDiane it was discovered that only 11 Black female founders had raised more than $1 million, and this sobering reality ultimately inspired the launch of DID’s Big Incubator, a 30-week program in Atlanta for creative businesses run by women of color.
Not only does Finney give women the tools to “secure the bag,” once they’ve done so she urges those success stories to circle back and help other women do the same.
“If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, share your time and expertise as a mentor to these amazing women,” she advised during a recent interview with Forbes.
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Who runs the world? Well, some would say Beyoncé.
But what many don’t realize is that even though she may have been crowned Queen, Mrs. Carter has never had a problem making room on her throne for other women seeking to also live a life of passion and purpose.
In addition to sparking many debates about the role of feminism in pop culture, writing countless girl power anthems and mentoring child prodigies Chloe and Halle in their musical careers, Beyoncé is also the co-founder of Chime for Change with actress Salma Hayek.
Chime for Change describes itself as “a global campaign to raise funds and awareness for girls and women around the world,” and has a long-term partnership with Global Citizen to create change for girls and women around the world.
In addition to her work with Chime and GC, Beyoncé has also been known to use her platform to highlight the International Day of the Girl which was created by the United Nations in 2012. Her music has also been used in their PSAs. Beyonce’s foundation #BeyGood also has a “Women Making History” feature that regularly spotlights women and girls who are doing their fair share to make the world a better place for all of us.
8. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama is arguably one of the most gracious First Ladies this country has ever seen, and made it a point to mentor the youth well after her days at the White House came to an end. Like Beyoncé, she is also a huge supporter of the International Day of the Girl, and in 2018 she specifically chose that day to announce her first major project from the Obama Foundation called, The Global Girls Alliance.
The alliance’s mission is to empower adolescent girls around the world through education, giving them the tools to support their families, communities, and countries. There are currently 98 million school age girls around the world who are not in school, but with help from their communities, Obama intends to tackle that alarming statistic head on.
During her time at the White House Obama spearheaded the Let Girls Learn, initiative, which sought education equity for girls around the globe. After leaving her post as First Lady, Obama broke records with her best-selling memoir Becoming. The book inspired millions of women as she shared her journey from the south side of Chicago to taking up residence 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her book tour also sold out at arenas all over the country as women gathered up their mothers, daughters, best friends and colleagues to listen to Obama drop gems about how to motherhood, marriage, and self discovery.
9. Jedidah Isler
Even though the film Hidden Figures briefly brought STEM to the forefront for many of us, when you think of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, Black women are seldom the first group of people to come to mind.
Fortunately, Jedidah Isler is doing her best to change that.
Dr. Isler is one of the few Black women in astrophysics (she is the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale), and as Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College, she very openly advocates for inclusivity in STEM.
“Being a Black woman in astrophysics, is unique. And so there are different challenges, there are different goals, all kinds of wins and losses that I go through just being in this body doing this work,” she explained during a sit down with PBS. “I want to make sure that we’re having conversation around that. I want to make sure that the support and culture and community is there to support one another.”
Isler also started The STEM en Route to Change Foundation (or The SeRCH Foundation, Inc.) – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as a tool for social justice. The foundation’s signature program is Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM, which is essentially an online platform and monthly web series specifically focused on women of color in STEM.
10. Tarana Burke
In 2006, Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in our culture.
More than a decade later, following the 2017 use of the #MeToo hashtag as a response to the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Burke’s brainchild suddenly blew up into an international women’s right’s movement that has inspired countless women to speak up about things they’d previously left unspoken.
Which is why it made all the sense in the world when Time magazine honored the Bronx native, along with a group of other prominent activists dubbed “the Silence Breakers“, as the Time Person of the Year for 2017.
In any space where we applaud women who fight for other other women, Burke’s name is a necessary addition.
11. Yaba Blay
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Dr. Yaba Blay isn’t just a renowned professor, activist and cultural critic, she’s also the creator of Professional Black Girl, a video series that celebrates everyday Black womanhood, while confronting outdated ideas of “respectability” that are often rooted in racism and misogyny.
“The terminology that is often used to describe and define Black girls—such as bad, grown, fast, ghetto, and ratchet—are non-affirming and are words that are intended to kill the joy and magic within all Black girls,” says Dr. Blay. “We are professional code-switchers, hair-flippers, hip-shakers, and go-getters. We hold Ph.Ds and listen to trap music; we twerk and we work. We hold it down while lifting each other up, and we don’t have to justify or explain our reason for being. This is us.”
In addition to the video series, the Professional Black Girl Instagram page is filled with the beauty and awesomeness of Black women every single day, providing a daily dose of melanin magic.
12. Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland doesn’t just use dance to impress audiences all over the world, she also uses it as a tool to help empower youth.
In 2015, Copeland pirouetted her way into the history books as the first African-American woman to earn the title of principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. Since then she’s used her platform to bolster youth-oriented organizations. Her work with the Boys and Girls Club is near and dear to her heart as she belonged to the program as a kid. In 2015, she co-launched the MindLeaps Girls Program (it had previously been only for boys) in Rwanda. the program provides a safe space full of dance instruction, academic help, and other resources for under-resourced youth.
Copeland also hopes to empower women with the fashion and accessories line she has with Under Armour. “I wanted a line where we could feel fierce in the gym, and at the same time, feel confident wearing the same look out to dinner, running errands or living our everyday lives,” she said about the versatile line.
On and off the stage, Copeland has maintained a level of grace and poise that serves as an inspiration to all women.
13. Jada Pinkett Smith
The relationship between mother and daughter can be a tricky one, but Jada Pinkett-Smith has inspired her female fans to examine and perhaps even heal intergenerational wounds, as she bravely navigates the world with both her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones and her daughter, Willow Smith by her side.
The stunning trio hosts the critically acclaimed digital series Red Table Talk, where they tackle issues that effect young women and girls such mental health, body image issues, sexual assault, and navigating oppressive beauty standards that often appropriate Black womanhood while still leaning in favor of our white counterparts.
Pinkett-Smith has even used the show to repair her own female relationships; breaking bread with everyone from her husband’s ex-wife to fellow actress (and former nemesis) Gabrielle Union.
The space that she’s created shows that despite what we see on sensational reality shows, Black women really can show up for themselves AND each… other even in Hollywood.
All types of women are invited to have a seat at The Red Table, which explains why it’s been such a therapeutic and thought provoking “must see” for the last two seasons.
14. Anita Hill
Before there was a #MeToo….. there was Anita Hill.
In 1991, the whole nation was transfixed to their television screens as senators questioned Hill about her accusation that Clarence Thomas – who at the time was a nominee to the Supreme Court – had sexually harassed her.
The way Hill was treated by the media was brutal, and the the tasteless questions and remarks that lawmakers made during the hearings are now considered a low point for the Senate.
In this age where social justice movements have emboldened survivors of sexual assault to stand together in solidarity, it’s important to remember the trailblazers, like Hill, who stood up and spoke up, all by themselves, well before the world was ready to listen.
Almost 30 years later when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford found herself in a similar position during the Kavanaugh hearing, history is just now beginning to give Hill the respect she’s deserved all along.
In 2017 Hill was called to lead the Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, an initiative spearheaded by Kathleen Kennedy, to tackle widespread sexual abuse and harassment in the media and entertainment industries.
“It is time to end the culture of silence,” Hill said in a statement. “I’ve been at this work for 26 years. This moment presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to make real change.”
15. Regina King
We’ve been rocking with (and rooting for) Regina King since her days playing Brenda on the hit 80’s sitcom 227. So in February, when the industry vet finally won her first Oscar, both Black Hollywood and Black Twitter celebrated her long deserved moment in the spotlight.
But during her current winning streak, King hasn’t just used her time at the podium to make acceptance speeches and thank her agent, and instead leveraged it as an opportunity to speak up for women and girls everywhere.
During the 2018 Golden Globes, after she won her award for best supporting actress in a motion picture, the 48-year-old issued a challenge to everyone watching, stating, “Time’s Up, times two!”
“In the next two years, everything that I produce, I am making a vow – and it’s going to be tough – to make sure that everything that I produce, that it’s 50% women,” she announced to everyone’s surprise. “And I just challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power … I challenge you to challenge yourselves and … do the same.”
King’s bold declaration and commitment to pull up other women who work tirelessly (if at all) for only a fraction of the pay their male counterparts receive, was a HUGE hit. And not only did it bring many women in the room to their feet in applause, it also prompted others to make similar commitments, including If Beale Street Could Talk director, Barry Jenkins.
King’s sentiments about actively and intentionally paying it forward are what connect all the women on this list; when they win, they bring us with them, because deep down they know: when you uplift a woman, you uplift a nation.