International Women’s Day: 25 Black Trailblazers From Across The Diaspora To Know & Honor

25 Black Women Trailblazers To Know & Love

Written by Marjua Estevez

Published March 8, 2019

Some are little-known. Others have impacted generations around the world. All of them boast pioneering and influential resumes.


Back in February of 2017, during the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, Hollywood actress and producer Viola Davis was fêted as the Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences. Her speech, which later received a rousing chorus of applause, paid tribute to playwright August Wilson, whom she said to have “exhumed and exalted the ordinary people."

Her words, “the one place that all of the people with the greatest potential are gathered is the graveyard,” at once were urgent and poignant, making an imprint on the minds of us watching. In honor of International Women’s Day and, moreover, Women’s History Month, we do some unearthing of our own to celebrate the ones who came before us while honoring some of their most influential descendants of today's generation. 



Zelda Wynn Valdes  



Though Beyoncé has long been a proponent of the freakum dress, it was Zelda Wynn Valdes’ original signature low-cut, body hugging gowns from the mid-60s that defined an era of female seduction and allure. Before the iconic Dapper Dan Boutique could ever crop up on 125th Street in Harlem – ushering in an unprecedented wave of streetwear during the rise of hip-hop music – Valdes would own the first-ever Black-owned establishment on Broadway in present-day Washington Heights, Manhattan. Hers was a boutique tailor shop, where she would spend her days creating some of the most exquisite gowns for the likes of Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Diahann Carroll and many, many more. She mastered her craft of dressing women whose curves and stature were bodacious, yet unpopular in the world of high-end fashion—making each feel like a total goddess. Her pioneering creations caught the attention of Hugh Hefner, who ultimately commissioned Valdes to design the iconic Playboy bunny outfit: the strapless corset, complete with bunny ears, bow tie, cuffs, furry cottontail and pantyhose.  




Belkis Ayón  



Feminist legend Belkis Ayón for many years went unsung, as her works of art remained confined to the walls of her native Cuba. Today, years after she committed suicide at 32 and in the aftermath of her first U.S. museum exhibition at UCLA (2017), Ayón emerges a celebrated master printmaker whose craftsmanship is centered on the Abakuá, an exclusively male, Afro-Cuban secret society that originated in Nigeria and gained popularity in 19th-century Cuba. Ayón meticulously narrated through the eyes of her mouthless figures, often backdropped by a forest of blackness, highlighting the spirit of a female entity with which she'd greatly identified: Sikán, an African princess and the sole woman character in Abakuá mythology, credited for uncovering the magic associated with the fraternity. Both sinister and forthright, Ayón’s work is profound in such a way that it seems to always question what is human, as it simultaneously hinges on the spiritual—an evocation of her ancestors.



Octavia Butler  



“My books will be read by millions of people. I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood. I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops. I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons. I will help poor black youngsters go to college. I will get the best of healthcare for my mother and myself. So be it! See to it!" These are just some of Octavia Butler's self-inspiring affirmations from throughout her illustrious career, which were unveiled as the focus of a 2017 exhibit in San Marino, California. Butler’s literary work – like her pages of affirmations – ferociously wrote herself and other Black women into the future, via speculative/science fiction, during a time when the genre was dominated by white people. So much so that the publisher of Butler’s first edition of her earlier novel, Dawn, depicted two white women on the cover. Today, Butler remains a toast of the literary world, and is especially beloved by blerds all around for her contributions to Afrofuturism, which almost always saw the disenfranchised as the heroes in her stories. 



Alexandra Elle 



The post-Internet era ushered in a generation of artists who began to utilize the Web as the basis for their work. Poets, as it turns out, are no different. The Nayyirah Waheed's and Rupi Kaur’s of the world have helped introduce a poetic revival of sorts, carving new lanes for both the poet and the consumers of poetry. Alexandra Elle, a 20-somethings living in Washington, DC, is an author and wellness consultant, who discovered writing as a tool for healing when she fell pregnant at 17. Fast-forward to 2019, and Elle's words are being shared globally, across social media platforms like Instagram. Her fans are witnesses to life lessons via Elle’s passion for storytelling and poetry. A staunch advocate of self-celebration and community-building through language, Elle is the author of Words From A Wanderer, Love In My Language, and Neon Soul, as well as #ANote2Self Meditation Journal, Growing in Gratitude Journal: 150 Days of Giving Thanks, and Today I Affirm: A Journal That Nurtures Self-Care. For the more audibly inclined, Alex also hosts the hey, girl. podcast, where she sits down with women who inspire her.  



Melina Matsoukas 



Director and filmmaker Melina Matsoukas follows a historical tradition of using visual mediums to address or confront uncomfortable realities. Flipping existing narratives, however, and doing away with what is considered standard in approaching more controversial content, Matsoukas today dares to normalize the presence of people of color, namely women, in spaces where they are typically disallowed. Widely celebrated for her work with longtime collaborator Beyoncé alone (dating back to 2011), Matsoukas is a Grammy-winning artist with directorial credits in Issa Rae’s breakout HBO series Insecure and Netflix’s Aziz Ansari-featured series Master of None. Her flair of diverse storytelling spans the global campaigns of major commercial clients such as Adidas, Stella McCartney, Coca-Cola and Nike, to name a few.  






Quintessential to Rihanna’s evolution and career is the image and sound she’s come up with in the past two or three years. After the good girl turned bad for good, Rihanna emerged the ultimate femme fatale. A jack-of-all-trades and a master of personal branding that pledges allegiance to authenticity (naysayers be damned), Rihanna’s already forged her legacy as one of media’s most revered pop icons and one of the world’s best-selling music artists. Her dedication to musical integrity, cultural awareness, fashion entrepreneurship, philanthropic efforts and forthright diplomacy has earned her a global following that spans generations—new and old, black and white, male and female.



Harmonia Rosales  



Afro-Cuban visual artist Harmonia Rosales gained traction when media outlets picked up on her depictions of God: a Black woman. She radically reimagined Michaelangelo’s iconic “The Creation of Adam,” one of the most famous works of art ever created, to honor Black women. Based in Chicago, Rosales’ work largely concerns storytelling through the lens of a woman of color living in contemporary times. A huge source of her inspiration comes by way of her daughter: “What I do with my art contributes to the way she and all other little girls like her will come to recognize themselves," she explained to Buzzfeed. Moreover, she is intentional about reinterpreting a white heaven, and other traditionally white spaces and concepts, to depict black bodies and faces. 



Ingrid Silva 



For as long as we can remember, the world of ballet has long been a space aligned with the bourgeoisie, traditionally making little to no room for black bodies. By now many of us are well-acquainted with Misty Copeland of Kansas City, the first Black woman to be promoted to prima ballerina in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theatre, one of three leading classical ballet companies in the United States. Lesser known is the burgeoning Ingrid Silva, one of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s chief architects, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. Silva, by virtue of unwavering passion and resolution, pirouette’d her way out of poverty and onto the center stage of one of New York City’s most culturally significant and historically pioneering institutions, a multicultural artistic flagship of sorts that cropped up after the Harlem Rennaissance and during the Civil Rights Movement. Silva has graced many stages around the world on the strength of her limbs, but her work hardly stops at the stage. When she isn’t performing in world class venues, Silva is creating safe environments for women to gather and discuss their experiences, triumphs and tribulations without judgement, while promoting sisterhood and dialogue. Via EmpowherNY, Silva has reached women from all walks of life. What most beckons her, though, are the babies, taking time out of her arduous schedule to present lectures and demonstrations at various schools. “I want children to see me not just as a dancer but as someone they can relate to. What was possible for me can be theirs as well,” she told the Dance Enthusiast.


Zahira Kelly-Cabrera

Zahira Kelly-Cabrera, better known as @Bad_Dominicana on the Internet, is a visual artist, public speaker and award-winning sociocultural critic who uses social media forums to educate masses and help dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. A self-described Latinegra mujerista, Zahira – born in New York City and raised between Puerto Plata and the Bronx – has spent the last decade discoursing not only on the Black, femme experience from a Dominican lens, but on the varied experiences of Black people from around Latin America, thusly carving a unique lane for herself in the Digital Age, which in turn helped others like her create similar paths.

Antigua’s “Island Girls”  

On January 28, 2019, four Antiguan women – Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Kevinia Francis and Samara Emmanuel – made triumph out of a tragic legacy, becoming the world’s first all-Black team to voluntarily row across the Atlantic Ocean. As part of the annual Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, “the world’s toughest row,” Antigua’s Island Girls traversed the same route as their forbears, rowing 3,000 nautical miles from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to English Harbour, Antigua. BET traveled to Antigua just before the commencement of Black History Month to meet the athletes in person and discuss the details of their journey, which you can look into here


Cardi B 



Not only is Cardi B a social media mainstay with all the nuts and bolts of a superstar, but the television personality-turned-rapper is also the prototypical homegirl from around the way many of us know and love. A self-described “stripper hoe that's all about her shmoney,” Cardi B evaded a life of domestic violence and found solace while stripping for a living. The intersectional feminist who advises her cypher of besties on how to turn the tables on f*ck boys, long warned detractors not to underestimate her or her gangsta—turning 15 minutes of fame into a bonafied career of making history. Thanks to “Bodak Yellow,” Cardi went from Instagram persona to the first solo female MC to top the Billboard Hot 100 since Lauryn Hill did with “Doo Wop (That Thing)” in 1998. A string of other record-setting feats later, and the woman born Belcalis Almanzar also becomes the first-ever solo woman to earn a Grammy for Best Rap Album. Not too bad for a Trinidadian-Dominican shorty from the Bronx.


Jane Bolin  

On July 22, 1939, Jane Bolin became the first Black woman judge in the history of the United States. Reconfirmed by the next three New York City mayors, Bolin ultimately served for 10 years. Born in Poughkeepsie, Bolin devoted the better part of her life to community service, serving on the boards of the Child Welfare League of America, the local and national branches of the NAACP and the Neighborhood Children’s Center. Her passion for human welfare was also pronounced while participating in the Committee against Discrimination in Housing, Committee on Children of New York City, Scholarship and Service Fund for Negro Students, and the Urban League of Greater New York. What’s more, Bolin graduated with honors from one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Wellesley College, which served as a precursor to becoming the first Black woman to graduate from Yale Law School.


Loretta Lynch  



A Forbes List Power Woman, Loretta Lynch is the first African-American woman in U.S. history to be sworn in as Attorney General. She served as U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of New York from 1999 to 2001 under President Clinton, and in 2010, returned under appointment from President Barack Obama. Her time between tenures as U.S. Attorney was spent working for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, during which Lynch helped prosecute crimes related to the country's genocide. In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald (2014), Lynch announced Chicago police and the Justice Department agreed to negotiate a reform plan after a 13-month investigation proved Chicago PD unconstitutionally engaged in patterns of excessive force. 



Nina Turner  



A national surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders during the chaotic 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Nina Turner is a native Clevelander whose political aspirations landed her a seat on the Cleveland City Council from 2006 to 2008, and a seat on the Ohio State Senate from 2008 to 2014. A fierce advocate of the underrepresented and disenfranchised, Turner stands as a voice of truth in a political climate that sees the price of factuality a high cost. “I am not going to continue to let politicians use [Trump] as the excuse to deal with racism in this country. It’s been going on for far too long in the United States of America,” Turner said on CNN in the wake of the blackface controversies roiling in Virginia. “This is about racism in the DNA of this country. We are traumatized, and we are sick of it." Turner also has decades of experience as a college professor and motivational speaker, routinely traveling cross-country to galvanize newer generations into hopeful action. She's been named “Most Valuable State Senator” by The Nation, one of the top 100 most influential African-Americans in the U.S. by The Root and one of the top 25 most powerful people in Northeast Ohio by Cleveland’s Inside Business Magazine, to list a few. Today, she serves as president of Our Revolution, “an organization that Sanders created to revitalize American democracy, empower progressive leaders and elevate political consciousness.” 


La Lupe  

Born Guadalupe Victoria Yoli Raymond, La Lupe’s life was governed by instinct and rapture. While her legacy is one that often lives in the shadow of her then contemporary, the late Celia Cruz, La Lupe was a spearhead of Latin music in her own right, renowned for her emotional performances of boleros and guarachas, and later, other Afro-Caribbean genres like merengue and bachata. A rebel innovator, La Lupe (born in Santiago de Cuba) fled La Habana at the dawn of the Cuban Revolution, citing there was no room for both her and the revolution. A devout Santera (a practitioner of Santería, a Yoruba religion), La Lupe emerged in New York City during the late ‘60s and ‘70s as the Queen of Latin Soul, performing as part of the iconic FANIA All Stars, alongside peers such as Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente and, of course, Celia Cruz. She is remembered for her intensely passionate stage acts, and for being brazen in her blackness and womanhood. 


Odetta, née Odetta Holmes, was a Black American folk singer who, for many, became the voice of the Civil Rights Movement during the early 1960s. She was especially lauded for her personal spins on negro spirituals. A child of the deep south, Odetta powered her distinctive fusion of folk, blues and ballads, with visceral passion and a wide range in vocal style. Some of her biggest supporters at the time were the likes of Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger, while singer-songwriter Bob Dylan credited Odetta putting him on to folk singing. Odetta sang at the historic 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts—the highest award given in the arts in the United States. As of 2003, she’s named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.


Miriam Makeba  



Prized South African singer and human rights campaigner, Miriam Makeba was the first vocalist to put the Western world onto African music in the 1960s. Makeba is well known throughout the globe as “Mama Africa” and the “Empress of African Song.” By virtue of being a forthright black woman musician, whose songs served as autobiographical accounts, Makeba ultimately became a figure that represented anti-apartheid and, moreover, advocacy against the white-minority government in South Africa. “People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa. We always sang about what was happening to us—especially the things that hurt us,” she told the British Times, adding in her 2004 biography, “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising." After 31 years in exile, Makeba became a goodwill ambassador for South Africa to the United Nations, when a newly freed ANC leader Nelson Mandela welcomed her back home in 1990. 


Althea Gibson  

Before Serena and Venus Williams, there was trailblazing athlete Althea Gibson. The first African American to win a Grand Slam title in 1956, Gibson took home a numbers of American Tennis Association titles, before she was allowed admission into the major tournaments, becoming the first Black player to win Wimbledon, the French and U.S. Open titles. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, and at one point served as Commissioner of Athletics for the state of New Jersey. In addition to her tennis wizardry, Gibson was an equally gifted golfer, becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour in the 1960s. 

Audre Lorde  

A self-identified Black lesbian, warrior, poet and mother whose writings examine the Civil Rights Movement of her time, Audre Lorde’s emphasis on diversity within feminism and womanhood experienced through blackness made her a voice for generations to come. Lorde’s poetry promotes spiritual and sexual wakening, and brilliantly portrays the complexities of intersectionality by illustrating oppression at the hands of organized intuitions. Lorde – born to Caribbean immigrants in New York City – initially experienced staunch resistance to her radical notions of empowerment as a Black femme, but later emerged an indispensable component of the literary world and educator of the Civil Rights era.  


Mamá Tingó  



By now, it is common knowledge the narrative surrounding Dominican revolutionaries Mirabal Sisters, whom are considered martyrs for participating in clandestine operations aimed at overthrowing the heinous dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. What is seldom discussed (much less celebrated), yet crucial to Dominican history is the legacy of Mamá Tingó, a Black woman revolutionary who fought for working-class farmers. Born in 1921 in Villa Mella, Dominican Republic, to a family of poor farmworkers, Mamá Tingó dedicated the better part of her life fighting for the indigenous land rights of Dominicans like her. Scheduled to appear before the Monte Plata court on November 1, 1974, alongside the farmers of Hato Viejo, Mamá Tingó failed to show up on account of being told her animals had been set loose. When she ventured to gather them, she was met by the gun barrel of Ernesto Diaz, an accomplice of the man who was occupying the farmlands of Mamá Tingó and other campesinos. She absorbed two bullets—one to the head, dying at 52.




Sanité Bélair  



Like many women revolutionaries who fought or marched alongside their male contemporaries, Sanité Bélair’s name is lost to history around the world. One of the fiercest freedom fighters to come out of the Haitian Revolution, and an active member-turned-lieutenant in the army of Toussaint Louverture, Bélair remains a pillar of bravery and strength in Haitian folklore. She lived just a little over two decades—a valiant fighter until her death at just 21 years old, having been born an affranchi, or a mixed-race free person of color, whose life purpose was rooted in overthrowing France and freeing all Haitians. Sanité ultimately became a sergeant herself, and is remembered as a leveled-headed, yet spirited soldier in battle. Bélair was eventually captured by rival troops in 1802. According to, Sanité insisted on being shot like her husband rather than decapitated, something that she would become famous for, as she refused to be blindfolded during her execution. Her last words before departing: "Viv libète, anba esklavaj," or "Long live liberty, down with slavery!”  


Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner  

Born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was a self-taught inventor who created the sanitary belt and revolutionized the menstrual pad. A bearer of inherited innovation, Kenner’s grandfather, sister and father were also inventors, having created a tricolor light signal to guide trains, a patented family board game and a patented clothes presser—respectively. Kenner, a college dropout due to financial pressures, went on to save enough money to patent a belt for sanitary napkins. This was years before disposable pads were even a thing and women’s only other options were a piece of cloth or rag. Kenner's prized possession, according to Broadly, was an adjustable belt complete with a built-in moisture-proof napkin pocket, proving to be less likely to leak and soil clothes.


Dr. Mae Jemison



Born in Decatur, Alabama and raised in Chicago, Mae Jemison developed interests in anthropology, archaeology and astronomy at an early age thanks to uncle who introduced her to the world of science. She would go on to enroll at Stanford University at the age of 16 and in 1977 graduated with degrees in both chemical engineering and Afro-American studies, later earning a Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell University in 1981, practicing medicine as a volunteer in Cambodia and as a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa. When NASA selected her and 14 others for astronaut training, Jemison was working as a general practitioner in Los Angeles. After she completed training as a mission specialist with NASA in 1988, Jemison embarked on the journey of a lifetime aboard the Shuttle Endeavour, becoming the first African-American woman to enter space. Returning from NASA in 1993, Jemison’s core focus today revolves around healthcare in Africa and advancing technology in developing countries. 



Dr. Jessica Clemons  



Recently recognized by Forbes as a leader in mental health and wellness, Dr. Jessica Clemons is a NYC-based Psychiatrist who received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University. As part of her direct clinical care, Dr. Clemons’ mission aims to eradicate the stigmas associated with mental illnesses within the Black community. Her efforts call for the use of social media and community-building discourse to educate a following of 51.4K on Instagram, alone. As seen on VH1’s “In Session Live: With Dr. Jess,” the first-ever televised live therapy session, Clemons continues to engage a generation of Black and Brown youths with live Q&As and programs such as #BeWell, a “conversations series intended to inspire and encourage YOU to persevere so that you can thrive instead of simply survive."



Marsai Martin 



Marsai Martin, known for her breakout role on ABC's Black-ish and her Genius Productions company, signed a first-look production deal with Universal earlier this year. The feat made her the youngest person to get a first-look deal at Universal, and the youngest person to get a deal at any studio in recent memory, according to Hollywood Reporter. What’s more, when Martin signed on to Universal’s Little, Martin also became the youngest person to ever executive produce a studio film.