Black women are some of the most foundational figures of both US and global culture. From Oprah Winfrey to Billie Holiday to Angela Davis, these Black female icons have created monumental change with their ingenuity and talent.
Whether you’re looking for inspiration or want to delight in the excellence of Black women, this list of icons is sure to brighten your day.
Oprah Winfrey, better known simply as Oprah, is the indisputable queen of daytime television. Her unique charisma, business sense, and drive to succeed place her far beyond the competition. To get a sense of the magnitude of her accomplishments, she was the 20th century’s richest African-American person.
What’s more, she had to struggle for every inch of her success. She grew up amid poverty and suffering, but her force of personality got her a job on the radio when she was in high school. She went from radio to the local evening news. There once again, her charisma gave her more success – she transitioned to daytime television with the Oprah Winfrey Show and the rest is history.
Now, she owns her production company and TV network, has won a presidential medal of freedom, and is estimated to be worth about $3 billion.
Madam C.J. Walker
While Oprah was the world’s first Black female billionaire, Madam C.J. Walker was the first African-American female millionaire. Her story is a familiar one: she grew up in truly unfortunate conditions as the child of sharecroppers then made her living as a washwoman.
Her journey into prominence began in the 1890s when she began to lose much of her hair. She desperately wanted to halt the process and perhaps regain some of the hair she had already lost, so she began experimenting. She tried herbal pastes, home remedies, newfangled pomades, exploring tirelessly until she found a recipe that worked for her.
Seeing its potential, she patented the formula and began working hard to sell it door to door throughout the Southern states of the US. By the 1910s, she had a thriving business with factories, a beauty school, and stores in several states. By the end of her life, she was a Black female icon.
Soul music is one of the major Black contributions to U.S. culture (frankly the world’s culture), and Aretha Franklin was one of its founding matriarchs. She started her music career at the extremely young age of 14 years old when she published her first album Songs of Faith.
Even though that album didn’t become well-known on its own, it acted as her career’s springboard. Whenever she released new tracks, new people became superfans. Her voice was like no other – it could waft with elegance, control, emotion, and power through melodies far beyond the capacity of other singers of her time.
Despite facing the twin adversities of racism and misogyny, she broke barriers even white women hadn’t been able to. She was the first woman ever inducted in the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame, she received 20 Grammy Awards, and in 2008, a Rolling Stone review of the top 100 singers of all time chose her as the “Greatest Singer of All Time.”
Angela Davis is arguably one of the most influential people of the 20th century – not only were her activism and philosophy foundational for the leftist movements of the 1970s and 80s, but they have also survived today to undergird much of the progressive shift of US politics.
She is a controversial figure, to be sure. She began her career in activism and philosophy in her undergraduate studies at Brandeis University, where she was one of three Black students in her class. She met and began studying under the renowned German-Jewish Marxist scholar Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School.
She used that education to begin advanced studies. Davis soon became a well-known philosopher, publishing classics like Are Prisons Obsolete? and The Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues. She has taught at UCLA (and been fired from that institution for her beliefs), been arrested, and traveled worldwide pursuing her ideals.
The world of contemporary tech entrepreneurship is dominated by the voices and presences of white men – Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and the like. But don’t let that fool you: there are Black female icons throughout the industry. You simply need to look past the first layer of the media.
One such woman is Marian Croak, one of the architects of today’s internet landscape. It used to be that if you wanted to communicate via voice to someone outside of radio range, you had to call them. Now, you can start a meeting with a colleague across the world with a click of a button.
That’s largely thanks to Croak’s work. She has more than 200 patents filed under her name, each one a new way she has innovated and contributed to the advancement of voice communication software. She was one of the first Black women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
There is a long and storied tradition of Black women creating seismic shifts for the direction of music as a whole, and Billie Holiday was one of the first to make this happen. She drew deep inspiration from the works of jazz musicians and was one of the first artists to bring their unique tempos and phrasings into the world of vocal performance.
She began singing as an older teenager around the Harlem nightclub circuit until her talents were noticed by the music-recruiting legend (and civil rights activist) John Hammond. From there, her career exploded as she began recording songs with other Jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson.
Holiday has been honored time and again for her contributions to the musical development of the 20th century, including by winning four posthumous Grammy Awards and induction into the Grammy, National Rhythm & Blues, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fames.
Coretta Scott King
Martin Luther King, Jr., is a Civil Rights movement hero – but his wife Coretta Scott King has had a similarly significant impact on it both during his life and after. During his life, Coretta Scott King was massively influential in her capacity to mobilize people under her husband’s leadership.
She incorporated her musical training and dreams into her activism in such a way that lent the Civil Rights Movement much of the musical undertones for which it would become famous.
But it was after her husband’s death that Correta’s influence was most deeply felt. She took up the banner leading much of the Civil Rights Movement and expanded her activism into working towards LGBTQ+ equality and against apartheid.
Harriet Tubman is one of the most recognizable black female icons in US history. She was born into slavery in 1822 in Dorchester County Maryland, but she escaped to Philadelphia at the age of 27.
Shortly thereafter, she decided to return to Maryland to bring her family out of slavery. After she did so successfully, she began rescuing other people, becoming a “conductor” on what became known as the Underground Railroad, a system for helping enslaved people to escape northwards.
By the end of her career as a conductor, she had rescued 70 slaves over 13 missions. She also worked with the abolitionist John Brown in preparing for his famous attack on Harpers Ferry and worked as a spy and scout for the Union Army. In that capacity, she became the first woman to lead an armed Civil War expedition, freeing countless more slaves in the process.
Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella, the First Lady of Song – Ella Fitzgerald has many names, all of them apt. She was set apart from others of her time in the distinctiveness of her voice, her unparalleled diction, and her improvisational wonderland of performance that made every song she sang a wholly new experience.
Fitzgerald first made her career in singing by lavishing her talents on Harlem’s rough-and-tumble streets. She transitioned from there to the professional world starting at age 17 at an amateur night at the Apollo Theater. She was intimidated away from performing the dance number she had planned, so she opted for her comfort zone – singing. She won first prize, but the theater never gave it to her.
Nonetheless, her voice was of such clear quality to everyone in the audience that the world couldn’t stop hearing it then. She ended up performing at a few similar evenings before being picked up by the Savoy Ballroom, where she recorded many of her classic hits like “Love and Kisses.” When the bandleader died, she took his place, renaming it “Ella and Her Famous Orchestra.”
From there, her career exploded into prominence, and she became known as the legend she is today.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
If you haven’t yet heard of Ida B Wells Barnett, you’ve been missing out on one of the most fascinating figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. She was an investigative journalist, an activist, and a co-founder of the NAACP. She was born into slavery, but she didn’t let that stop her I’m making her mark on the United States and the world.
He first became known for her work reporting on lynching in the United States. She wrote articles about the epidemic in the newspaper she co-owned, the Memphis Free Speech And Headlight, and published a pamphlet by the name Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. White southerners at the time frequently claimed that lynching was only used for Black criminals, and Wells-Barnett was suspicious. As her reporting found, it was not.
Beyond her success as a reporter, she was a renowned public thinker and speaker who made significant impacts on both women’s rights and African-American rights. Despite threats and opposition from many different directions, Wells-Barnett never backed down from doing what is right.
There are few figures so multi-talented and versatile as Maya Angelou in US history. She is best known as a poet, writer, and activist, but she has also worked as an actress, director, reporter, logistical organizer, teacher, academic, songwriter, fry cook, and more. Angelou has been awarded over 50 honorary degrees and uncountable awards for her work.
She first became known for her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which discussed her life experience leading up to when she turned 17. That text received praise and acclaim from all over the world.
Angelou also was the first Black woman to write a professionally-produced screenplay with her script Georgia, Georgia. Her poems are widely popular, especially “On the Pulse of Morning” and “A Brave and Startling Truth.”
Phillis Wheatley is one of the earliest figures on this list – she lived from 1753 to 1784 and was the first African-American to publish a book of poetry. Wheatley was not born into slavery, but sold. her first name came from the slave ship on which she was transported, The Phillis, and her last name from the wealthy Bostonian who claimed ownership of her.
She received education in English reading and writing from the family she worked for, particularly Mary Wheatley, one of their daughters. Her innate intelligence sparked in the unique education she was offered, and she took advantage of every resource she had to begin penning poems.
The Wheatley family supported both her poetry writing and publishing her work. They brought her to London to help her market her book to potential publishers. She met with various prominent members of British society at the time, one of whom ended up publishing it: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The Wheatleys emancipated her at the age of 20, and she continued to work until her early death in 1784.
Even though Rosa Parks was a talented and dedicated civil rights activist before her famous story of resisting being moved to the back of the bus, her story is notable because it wasn’t her brilliance that took her into the spotlight – it was her simple, quiet refusal to take part in a system that excluded her.
Before her arrest, she had spent years working with the NAACP focusing on anti-rape activism. She also helped organize protests for Gertrude Perkins and Emmett Till.
When she refused to move for white people boarding the bus and suffered an arrest because of it, the story garnered national news and she became a symbol for the firm insistence of the dignity of the Black person. She went on to do much more civil rights work in her time, leading a bus boycott and organizing for the freedom of political prisoners.
Sojourner Truth was an early civil rights activist who fought tirelessly for the rights of Black women. Her first note of prominence occurred in 1828 when she became the first Black woman to win a lawsuit against a white man in recovering her son from him. After she was emancipated from her former “owner,” he attempted to unlawfully sell her son to someone else – but she stood firm.
After obtaining freedom, she worked as a housekeeper for a Christian evangelist for many years until, one day, she heard the Spirit of God call on her to preach the truth about abolishing slavery. It was here that she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, reflecting her calling.
Truth went on to preach and teach all over the US, becoming known for her speech “Ain’t I A Woman?”, where she pleaded with her audience to recognize her as she was: a woman, and a person, like all others.
Shifting back to the contemporary world, Tyra Banks is one of the biggest Black female figures on the cultural scene today. She got her start as a model, breaking barriers as the first female African-American to grace the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (among other significant achievements).
She took that success and turned it into a whole series of businesses. She started the massively successful reality TV show America’s Next Top Model and founded a production company as a part of that. She created an online cosmetics shop tyra.com and the Tyra Beauty company. She’s written bestsellers like Modelland and Tyra’s Beauty, Inside and Out. She is, without a doubt, an icon.
Toni Morrison was a Nobel prize-winning novelist who was deeply influential on 20th- and 21st- century literature, especially political and civil rights literature. She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, but it wasn’t until her 1977 text Song of Solomon that she became world-renowned for her skill.
She was critically beloved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, but her works became a success among the general population in large part due to Oprah Winfrey, who fell in love with them and promoted them ceaselessly to her audience.
The harsh and cruel impacts of American racism are a significant theme in her work, but they aren’t her exclusive focus – she also explores family, folklore, existentialism, and more.
If there is one word to aptly describe Shirley Chisholm, it’s undeterred. Despite facing every barrier imaginable, she was determined to push through and fight for her rights and the rights of those like her. She was the first Black woman ever to be elected to U.S. Congress, the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and the first African-American to run for the US Presidency.
Her influence on the contemporary political landscape is significant – she broke down barriers at every turn and worked behind some of the most important legislation of the 20th century.
Like many women in history, Michelle Obama’s influence has been exuded primarily through her relationship with her husband, Barack Obama, the first Black president of the US. But that doesn’t make her contributions less meaningful. Despite falsehoods and controversies being thrown at her from all sides, she has stood strong and remains one of the most admired women in America.
Since her husband left office, she has continued working relentlessly to inspire and uplift the disenfranchised of the US and the world.
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is one of the most universally adored musicians and artists of recent years. Her genre-defying creativity fuses so perfectly with her virtuosic vocals, and the combination has led to her significant success.
Ever since she started her solo career collaborating with her now-husband Shawn Carter, who performs under the name Jay-Z, she has raked in an incredible amount of accolades. She is the most-awarded musician of Grammy Awards’ history, she’s sold 120 million records all over the world, and much more.
Cori Bush is a more recent figure on this list, but that doesn’t make her any less of an icon. She’s taken many roles in her life – a registered nurse, a pastor, a foremost activist of the Black Lives Matter movement – but she’s currently a U.S. Congresswoman for the city of St. Louis.
She started activism by using her nursing skills amid the Ferguson protests of 2014, and her career only continued upwards. She became known as a progressive who would fearlessly stand for the rights of the marginalized and was subsequently elected to Congress in 2020.
If Dr. Patricia Bath’s only accomplishment had been to become the first female African-American to have completed an ophthalmology residency, it would be incredibly impressive.
But she didn’t limit herself to that. Beth invented a new method of cataracts removal, she uncovered inequities in Black eye-car (she did that as an intern, no less!), and she created a whole new field of academic study in Community Opthalmology.
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner
Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner is one of the most intriguing personalities in 20th-century ingenuity. She was relentlessly inventive, filing five patents throughout her career while operating a successful chain of florist businesses.
Even though she isn’t a very flashy figure, her inventions make life easier for billions of people every day. She is the reason that period hygiene doesn’t involve simply stuffing a rag in your underwear – she invented a holster to attach sanitary napkins to you to maximize comfort and sanity in that stressful time. She also invented the toilet paper holder and the walker.
Even though she isn’t well-known, Kenner is a clear icon.
When it comes to Black entrepreneurs, there are few people as legendary as Sheila Johnson. She was the first Black woman to reach a net worth of $1 billion in the US and she was the co-founder of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network alongside her ex-husband Robert Johnson.
Johnson’s influence is vast in the world of contemporary entertainment, especially contemporary Black entertainment. The presence of BET allowed there to be a platform for Black entertainers to become successful when they were so frequently edged out of white spaces.
Queen Latifah is another wildly multi-talented Black female icon. She’s a rapper, an actress, a singer, and an entrepreneur. She’s called the Queen of Rap because she’s the creative mastermind behind classics like Black Reign and Nature of a Sista’.
Latifah is also an acclaimed actress and was the first hip-hop artist that the Hollywood Walk of Fame ever awarded a star. Her work as the partial owner of Flavor Unit Entertainment has also made her an accomplished entertainment executive – she can do it all.
If you’re looking at Black women in business, Cathy Hughes is a giant. She was the first Black woman to head up a publically-traded corporation in the US. She was also the first Black woman to start her media network in the US. She knocked out both of those incredible achievements with one move, by founding Radio One in 1999.
The network has become immensely influential since she founded it, promoting artists left and right and making Hughes the second-richest Black woman in the states.
Noëlle Santos’ journey started at a protest. She’s passionate about literacy, and in 2014, the only book store in her neighborhood (the Bronx, New York) was on the edge of closing. Bronx residents refused to accept this, protesting the decision as vigorously as they could.
But in 2016, the store closed nonetheless. So Santos decided to start her bookstore. Called the Lit. Bar, Santos’ independent bookstore opened in 2019 as a community center focused on developing literacy throughout the Bronx.
Even though Santos isn’t as well-known a figure as many on this list, icons don’t always result from global impact. They’re also made from one person’s steadfast dedication to their community – like Santos.
Audre Lorde was a poet, philosopher, librarian, and civil rights activist of the 20th century. The distinctive ways in which she fused masterful technique with raw emotionality made her a respected poet.
That respect and emotion combined with her deeply philosophical themes made her a figure that engendered a significant change in questions of LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and racial equity.
Best Black Female Icons, Final Thoughts
For centuries, Black women have been creating immense change with their creativity, ingenuity, and determination. These icons are well worth reflecting on, and well worth taking inspiration from. Whether the goal is to change geopolitical realities and bring freedom to the oppressed or to make communities into better places, Black women are more than up to the task.