Two black women hugging. One is taller than the other, so we can't see her eyes, but she is wearing a black top with long silver braids and silver hoops. The woman she is hugging is smiling with her eyes closed, and smiling big.

Catalysts of Change: Black Women Making History

by Liza Semenova

In honor of Black History Month, we are spotlighting some incredible Black women that inspire us every day. From those who lived before us, to those just getting started, each woman has made a powerful impact and has been bold enough to carve her own path.

 

A black and white photo of Biddy Mason, on a teal background with her name, Biddy Mason, under the photo.

Bridget, or Biddy, Mason was born on August 15, 1818 on a plantation in Hancock, Georgia. After being separated from her parents, she spent much of her childhood enslaved on John Smithson's plantation in South Carolina. In 1836, Smithson gave Biddy to his cousins, the Smiths. Robert Smith and his wife had a plantation in Mississippi where Biddy became a well regarded mid-wife and gave birth to three daughters, all presumably the children of Robert Smith.

After being converted to Mormonism by missionaries, Smith moved his family and slaves to San Bernadino, California to establish a Mormon community. However the laws in California were different, and stated that any slave brought into the state was automatically free. When Smith attempted to relocate his family and slaves to Texas, he was stopped short by businessman Robert Owns. Owens filed a petition claiming that Smith was illegally holding slaves, and the case was heard by the U.S District Court of Appeals. 

On January 21, 1856, Biddy, her daughters and others enslaved by Smith were officially granted their freedom. Biddy moved to Los Angeles and began working as a nurse and midwife, gaining a reputation for her herbal remedies. Biddy saved diligently for ten years to buy property, becoming one of the first African American women to own property in Los Angeles. She continued to buy, develop and rent property over the coming years, eventually becoming the most affluent Black woman in Los Angeles. She was generous with her wealth, making donations, sheltering and feeding the poor, visiting prisoners, and assisted in the founding of a traveler's aid center and elementary school for Black children. Biddy Mason died January 15, 1891 in Los Angeles at the age of 73 but her legacy is forever remembered amongst the citizens of Los Angeles.

 

A photo of Tracee Ellis Ross with her hair in a braid and an orange top with 3/4 sleeves. Photo is on a teal background and her name, Tracee Ellis Ross is below the photo.

 

Could we ever say enough about style icon, role model, literal model, award-winning actress, inspirational speaker, entrepreneur, producer, director, and activist Tracee Ellis Ross? Probably not, but we'll do our best. Daughter of the iconic Diana Ross, Tracee Ellis Ross is best known for her acting roles. Starring on Girlfriends, she received two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Actress, and Black-ish, where her work earned her three NAACP Image Awards, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Actress. In 2016, Ross was the first black woman in 30 years to be nominated for for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 30 years - talk about making history!

Inn 2018, Ellis Ross founded Pattern Beauty, a line of hair products dedicated to curly, coily & tight-textured hair. Pattern Beauty also donates to a variety of organizations that empower women and people of color. Looking good, feeling good and doing good!

Not slowing down for a minute, Ellis Ross working with Kenya Barris, launched a pre-quel to Black-ish called Mixed-ish. Most recently, she embraced the role of singer Grace Davis in The High Note, making her singing debut on the film's soundtrack.

Continuing to build her incredible resume, as of February 2021, Ellis Ross signed on as the diversity and inclusion advisor at Ulta Beauty. Ellis Ross will help direct Ulta Beauty when it comes to building up its diversity both internally and the brands it carries in stores. We can't wait to see what comes next for this real-life superwoman!

Sources: Tracee Ellis Ross, Allure, Pattern Beauty

 

Photo of astronaut Mae Jemison in her orange space suit, holding her helmet. The photo is on a teal background and her name, Mae Jemison, is under the photo.

 

You've probably learned about the inspiring Mae Jemison in school, but we're here to give you a refresher. In 1992, Mae Jemison made history by being the first Black woman to travel in space - talk about an achievement that's out of this world!

Jemison knew she wanted to study science from a young age, but was disappointed at the lack of female astronauts she saw watching the Apollo airings on TV. She drew inspiration from Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the Star Trek, and made space travel her goal. Staying true to her pursuits, Jemison graduated from Stanford University in 1977 with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and B.A. in African and African-American studies. She went on to attend Cornell Medical School, graduating with a Doctrine in Medicine and joining the Los Angeles County Medical Center.

Jemison opened a private practice but her dream of space travel was re-invigorated when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She applied to the astronaut program at NASA in 1985, but the program was deferred after the explosion of the Challenger. Jemison took one large leap closer to her goals in 1987, which applied again and was 1 of 15 people chosen to partake in the program. On September 12, 1992 Jemison alongside six fellow astronauts took flight on the space shuttle Endeavor, making Jemison the first Black woman in space.

Jemison remained at NASA until 1993, going on to starting The Jemison Group, a consulting company that focuses on science, technology and social change. Continuing to inspire future astronauts, Jemison started an international space came for students, called The Earth We Share, as well as a nonprofit, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. Currently Jemison is leading the 100 Year Starship project through the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and serves on the board for a wide variety of organizations including the Kimberly Clark Corp., Scholastic Inc., and the national Institute of Biomedical Imaging.

Source: National Women's History Museum

 

Photo of Alexis Williams, with blonde and brown braids. She is wearing a pink sweater. The photo is on a teal background with her name, Alexis William, under the photo.

New on the scene but still very much #goals is Alexis Williams. Williams, an NYU student, is fierce in both her advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and her coding skills. In the words of her professor “coding gives you the ability to look at any problem and find a solution.” Williams took this to heart, building her entire site of anti-racism resources called pb-resources.com, in less than a day. Her efforts didn't go unnoticed, going viral on TikTok where she's amassed over 170k followers as she continues to encourage women in STEM and speak candidly about the work that needs to be done when it comes to racism. As mentee of Karlie Kloss's organization Kode with Klossie, you'll even catch Williams in the spring collection shoot of Karlie Kloss x Adidas.

Check out Alexis's TedX talk here!

Source: Document Journal

 

Black and white photo of Shirley Chisholm, wearing glasses and a patterned top. The photo is on a teal background and her name, Shirley Chisholm is under the photo.

When we talk about making history, we can't leave out Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was the first Black woman in Congress, and not just the first Black woman but first woman to seek the presidential nomination in 1972. Let's dive into how she got there!

Brooklyn born Shirley Chisholm was the eldest of four daughters in an immigrant family. She was a high achiever  winning multiple awards on the debate team during her time at Brooklyn College. Chisholm originally pursued a career in education, teaching nursery school while studying elementary education at Columbia University.

After graduating in 1951 with her masters, Chisholm served as a consultant for the New York Division of Day Care, and was a member of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In 1964 she was voted into the New York Legislature, and in 1968, Chisholm won a seat in Congress. Known as "Fighting Shirley," she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation, advocating for racial and gender equality and key issues like access to birth control and legalizing abortions. She co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and made history again as the first Black woman, and second woman to serve on the House Rules Committee.

In 1972, Chisholm sought the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination but faced much discrimination, and eventually dropped out after winning 10% of total delegate votes. Chisholm remained in Congress until 1983,  and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2015. Although she passed in 2005, let's remember Chisholm as she wanted to be remembered, "as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change."

Sources: Britannica, Women's History Museum

Photo of Raquel Willis. She is sitting outside inn front of a green bush, in a black top with sheer puffy sleeves. Her hair is down, shoulder length. The photo is on a teal background with her name, Raquel Willis under the photo.

 

Raquel Willis is making waves. As a Black transgender activist, writer and and media strategist, she became the first Black and transgender executive editor of Out magazine. Willis was born and raised in Augusta, GA, and has always followed her passion for storytelling. Willis was inspired to carve her own path by her father, who passed away when she was just 19. Said Willis, "That loss pushed me to figure out exactly who I am and the life I wanted to live. I found my voice."

Willis graduated from the University of George in 2013, with a B.A. in magazine journalism and a minor in gender studies. She moved into her career in journalism as a reporter at the Walton Tribune, and quickly escalated her writing and advocacy to the digital realm. Willis's voice continued to soar, as she led the Atlanta Trans Liberation Tuesday movement in 2015, whose efforts brought her to work for the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. It was just two years later when she took on the role of executive editor at Out magazine.

Her writing has been featured in publications including Essence, VICE, Buzzfeed, HuffPost, PRIDE, and Quartz, and she was a speaker at the 2017 National Women's March in Washington, D.C. Through her fellowship at the Soros Equality program, Willis founded Black Trans Circles, a program dedicated to developing leadership of Black trans women in the South and Midwest.

Through her role at Out, Willis created the Trans Obituaries Project, to shed light on the epidemic of violence against trans women, along with a framework on how to bring this issue to its end. Willis's project earned a GLAAD Media Award, one among many awards she's earned to date. In 2020, Willis was featured on Forbes 430 under 30, and it's clear her incredible journey has much more in store.

Sources: raquelwillis.com, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Liza Semenova