14 Black Women We Should All Learn About In History Class

They say that winners write history and the losers – poetry. But in this case – where the following women were absolute winners – they were unfairly left out of the pages of history books. Or just mentioned in a sentence or two, failing to provide them the credit that they deserved. As so many marvelous inventions and creations can be credited back to these amazing people, Bored Panda feels the need for these names to be heard. Because as history and the media shows us – the voices of black women are the ones that usually get silenced. Well, we hope this norm is about to change and in the meantime, scroll down through this list of amazing black female inventors, scientists, businesswomen, and artists to inspire you. Let’s rewrite our history books and never fail to include the real pioneers anymore!

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#1 Gladys West – mathematician whose work became the basis for GPS

Gladys West is an American mathematician who contributed to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models. These models were later incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS), which we know and use every day. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, Gladys programmed an IBM computer that delivered precise calculations to model the shape of the Earth – an ellipsoid with irregularities, known as the geoid. By using extremely complex algorithms, she generated an extremely accurate model that took into account variations in gravitational, tidal, and other forces of nature that can impact the Earth’s shape. Gladys’ work ultimately became the basis for GPS.

Gladys West - mathematician
Gladys West – mathematician

Image credits: Adrian Cadiz

#2 Barbara Jordan – the first African American woman ever elected to the Texas Senate

Barbara was a lawyer, a congresswoman, and a scholar. She was one of the people who took the center stage in the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon and used her background in law and public speaking skills to fight for human and civil rights. In 1966, she became the first African American woman ever elected to the Texas Senate. As a senator, she worked to establish a minimum wage law, a Fair Employment Practices Commission, and anti-discrimination statements in business contracts. When she was elected president of the Texas Senate on March 28, 1972, she became the first black woman in America to oversee a legislative body. During this time, Barbara was also running for Congress and won by 81 percent. The activist then became the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from the South since 1898.

Barbara Jordan
Barbara Jordan – the first African American woman ever elected to the Texas Senate

Image credits: United States Congress

#3 Mary Kenner – inventor of an adjustable sanitary belt

Mary Kenner was an American inventor who credited her father for her interest in discoveries. Interestingly enough, her grandfather invented a light signal for trains (however, this invention was stolen from him), while her sister, Mildred Davidson Austin Smith invented and sold board games. Mary herself invented an adjustable sanitary belt with an inbuilt, moisture-proof napkin pocket – which was a precursor to modern sanitary pads. In 1956, the inventor saved enough money to get her first patent on it. However, the Sonn-Nap-Pack Company rejected it after discovering that Mary was African American. Sadly, she never made any money off the sanitary belt as her patent expired and became public domain allowed to be manufactured freely.

Mary Kenner - inventor of an adjustable sanitary belt

Image credits: unknown

#4 Sister Rosetta Tharpe – “the Godmother of rock and roll”

“The Godmother of rock and roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe inspired entire generations of musicians. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton and many others credit the musician as their main source of inspiration. She was a true pioneer in her guitar technique. The story goes that she was among the first artists to use heavy distortion on the electric guitar, which had a deep influence on the development of British blues in the 1960s.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe - "the Godmother of rock and roll"

Image credits: unknown

#5 Shirley Chisholm – the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Congress

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress (in 1968) and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties (1972). In Congress, the politician who was dubbed “Fighting Shirley,” introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation, spoke out for racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam war. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and in 1977 became the first black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee.

Shirley Chisholm

Image credits: Thomas J. O’Halloran

#6 Valerie Thomas – the pioneer behind 3D technology

Did you know that if it weren’t for Dr. Valerie Thomas, we wouldn’t have 3D movies today? Throughout her career, this American scientist and inventor held various high-level positions in NASA. She has authored many scientific papers and holds a patent for the illusion transmitter. The illusion transmitter is essentially a device that simulates a real-time, 3-dimensional viewing of an object through optical illusions with parabolic mirrors. Which means that Valerie was the pioneer behind 3D technology.

Valerie Thomas - the pioneer behind 3D technology

Image credits: NASA

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#7 Wangari Maathai – the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize

An eminent Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist, Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD. Wangari was also the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which she started in 1977. It was an environmental non-governmental organization that put their main focus on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. Before starting the Green Belt Movement, Wangari was an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1976–1987 and was its chairman in 1981–1987. Again, she was the first woman to attain these positions in the region.

Wangari Maathai - the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize

Image credits: Oregon State University

#8 Madam C.J. Walker – the first female self-made millionaire in America

Madam C.J. Walker, who was born in 1867, was an American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist, and later – patron of the arts. The Guinness Book of World Records indicates her as the first female self-made millionaire in America. The businesswoman made her fortune with Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company that developed and marketed a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women. Later, she became known for her activism and philanthropy, while her house in New York served as a social gathering place for the African-American community.

Madam C.J. Walker

Image credits: Scurlock Studio

#9 Mary Mcleod Bethune – helped create the Women’s Army Corps

Educator and activist, Mary McLeod Bethune was sometimes referred to as “The First Lady of The Struggle” due to her commitment to making fellow black people’s lives better. Born to slave parents, she took an early interest in education. When she was 30, Mary rented a small house in Florida, next to Daytona’s dump, and opened the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Later, it merged with a private institute for African-American boys and was referred to as the Bethune-Cookman School. In 1924, the activist was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and in ten years, she became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, which made her the highest-ranking African American woman in government at the time. In four years, Mary became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP). With her help, the Women’s Army Corps was created back in 1942 which she ensured would be racially integrated.

Mary Mcleod Bethune - helped create the Women’s Army Corps

Image credits: Carl Van Vechten

#10 Barbara Smith Conard – opera singer and civil rights pioneer

Barbara Smith Conard was an American opera singer and an educator. She was admitted to the University of Texas in 1956 where she sang opera. Her name became known back in 1957 when she unwillingly became a part of racial controversy. After Barbara got the lead in the University musical in a role opposite to a white performer, her role was revoked just three days before the scheduled premiere due to her being black. The students and the local media protested the decision and the story was even covered by Time. The national outrage made singer Harry Belafonte offer to pay for Barbara’s education at any institution she chose. However, she decided to remain at the University of Texas where she graduated with a Bachelor of Music in 1959. A mezzo-soprano, the singer later performed in such prestigious venues like the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, and Teatro Nacional in Venezuela among many others.

Barbara Smith Conard - opera singer and civil rights pioneer

Image credits: Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

#11 Shirley Ann Jackson – responsible for the technology behind caller ID and call waiting

An American physicist and the eighteenth president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Shirley Ann Jackson is the first African American woman to have earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Also, she is the second African American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics. Shirley joined the Theoretical Physics Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1976, where she conducted research in theoretical physics, solid state and quantum physics, and optical physics. Her breakthrough scientific research led to the invention of the portable fax and touch tone telephones and she was also responsible for the technology behind caller ID and call waiting.

Shirley Ann Jackson

Image credits: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

#12 Daisy Bates – played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957

After having learned at 8 years old that her mother was brutally raped and murdered by three white men, Daisy Bates dedicated her life to fighting inequality. She was an American civil rights activist, journalist, lecturer, and a woman who played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957. When she was just 15, Daisy met her future husband and settled in Little Rock, Arkansas where they started their own newspaper, The Arkansas Weekly. It was one of the only African American newspapers solely dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. Daisy, naturally, also worked with Civil Rights organizations. She was the President of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for many years. After the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional back in 1954, Daisy began gathering African American students to enroll in white schools. Those who didn’t want to accept black students were published in her newspaper. Even though she faced a lot of rejection, Daisy never backed down.

Daisy Bates

Image credits: unknown

#13 Alice Coachman – the first black woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal

Born in 1923, Alice was an American athlete who specialized in high jump and became the first black woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal. She was also the only American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics in 1948, that was presented by King George VI. In 1952, Alice became the first African-American woman to advertise an international product when she was signed as a spokesperson by the Coca-Cola Company. The athlete supported other young people in sports and helped them achieve new heights in the athletic world. Most importantly, Alice is credited with opening the door for future African-American track stars.

Alice Coachman - the first black woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal

Image credits: unknown

#14 Fannie Lou Hamer – member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation

Voting and women’s rights activist and leader in the civil rights movement, Fannie was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 for all of her lifelong work. The activist was a co-founder of the Freedom Democratic Party, organized Mississipi’s Freedom Summer, and was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus that was aimed to train and support women (no matter their race) who wish to seek election to the government office. In 1964, Fannie co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). MFDP confronted the local Democratic Party for their efforts to block the participation of African Americans. That year, she and other members of the party went to the Democratic National Convention, hoping to get recognized as the official delegation. When Fannie spoke before the Credentials Committee about the need for mandatory integrated state delegations, President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference so that Fannie couldn’t get any airtime. Finally, by 1968, Hamer’s dream for racial equality in delegations came true and she became a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.

Fannie Lou Hamer - member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation

Image credits: Warren K. Leffler

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