In honor of Women’s Equality Day, we highlight women of color who have made a difference both historically and in current events. This list honors over 20 powerful women who have been outspoken advocates for women and have confronted sexist and racist stereotypes in order to break down barriers to success and empower other women and girls around the world.
1. Viola Davis
Viola Davis is an actress who is best known for her popular television and film roles. A graduate of Juilliard, Davis became the first black actor to win the Triple Crown of Acting (having won awards at the Oscars, Primetime Emmys, and Tonys) this past year and is overall the most nominated black actress in history. She has been a vocal advocate for breaking down barriers for women of color in Hollywood and increasing their visibility throughout American society.
2. Alicia Garza
Alicia Garza is an activist who is best known for cofounding the Black Lives Matter movement with the goal of ending violence against and oppression of the black community in the United States as well as in the rest of the world. With the power of social media, Garza and the rest of the founders (Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors) created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM to spread awareness and call for action.
3. Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay is a director best known for her work in Selma and for being the first black female to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Many of DuVernay’s films (including Selma and 13th) have explored the black experience in America, struggles that are rarely depicted with such accuracy. She is leading the way for a new generation of black filmmakers through her social conscious work that seeks to bring to light issues concerning both black men and women.
4. Barbara Lee
Barbara Lee is a US Representative serving voters from the East Bay. She is best known for being the only member of either house of Congress to vote against the bill allowing military action following 9/11. While serving for Congress, Lee has constantly fought for the advancement of women’s rights and has recently condemned Republicans for their continuous attack on women’s reproductive rights.
5. Coretta Scott King
Though she is known for being the wife to Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King was an important civil rights leader in her own right. Her life has been an inspiration to many over the past years and will continue to inspire for decades to come. Though she was a leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, she was also an advocate for women’s rights and LGBT rights.
6. Judy Chu
Judy Chu is a US Representative serving voters from the San Gabriel Valley. Chu became the first Chinese American woman elected to the US Congress. Since she began serving, she has been an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, continuously seeking to protect Planned Parenthood from being defunded.
7. Karen Bass
Karen Bass is a US Representative serving voters from the west side of Los Angeles. She first became interested in politics and community activism as a child watching the Civil Rights Movement play out. A former physician assistant, Bass fully believes that women should be able to control their own bodies.
8. Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox is an African American actress and LGBT advocate, who is best known for her role in Orange is the New Black. She is the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the acting category. She has been a prominent voice for the trans community, proclaiming that “Trans rights are women’s rights.”
9. Libby Schaaf
A native Oaklander, Mayor Schaaf previously served one term as a member of the Oakland City Council and has also been a public advocate for eliminating barriers facing young men of color through her partnership with organizations such as the Bay Area Young Men of Color Employment Partnership and Cities United.
10. Maxine Waters
Maxine Moore Waters is an American politician, serving as the U.S. Representative for California’s 43rd congressional district. A member of the Democratic Party, she is the most senior of the 12 black women currently serving in the United States Congress and is a member and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
11. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was an American writer and civil-rights activist. She is best known for her series of autobiographies, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores subjects such as racism, sexism, literacy, and sexual assault. In the 1960’s, Angelou became increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement, having worked with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
12. Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama is the former First Lady of the United States. Born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, Obama had a successful legal career after graduating from Harvard Law School. During her husband’s time in office, Michelle Obama became a role model for women across the United States as a vocal advocate for poverty awareness, healthy eating, and equal pay.
Oprah Winfrey is an African American media mogul, philanthropist, and actress best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which is the highest rated talk show in American television history. She was motivated by the unequal pay she received at the start of her career to start her own TV show and from there build a media empire that caters to helping women succeed.
14. The 115th US Congress
The 115th United States Congress is the most racially diverse in history as almost one-in-five members of the House and Senate are a racial or ethnic minority. In addition, the 114th and 115th Congresses have had the most elected women with 104 female members of congress. Three notable women of the freshman class include Kamala Harris (the first Indian-American and second black woman elected to the Senate), Tammy Duckworth (the first Thai-American elected to the Senate), and Catherine Cortez Masto (the first Latina elected to the Senate).
15. Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno is mostly known for her highly acclaimed role as Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story. She was only the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award and is still the only Latino who has earned the prestigious EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). With more than 70 years in the entertainment industry, Moreno admits, “All my life I faced sexism and racism and then when I hit 40, ageism.”
16. Robin Kelly
Robin Kelly is a US Representative serving voters from the south suburbs of Chicago. Since she was elected, Kelly has been an advocate for women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, and childcare affordability. Additionally, she has been dedicated to protecting low-income housing and reducing inequalities.
17. Selena Quintanilla
Commonly known by just her first name, Selena helped put Latin and Tejano music with mainstream hits like “Como la Flor” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” Though Selena’s life was tragically cut short, her legacy has prevailed after more than 20 years. One of the most influential and iconic people of her time, Selena remains a female role model as her music continues to empower women throughout the world.
18. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Though she was born into slavery, Truth escaped to freedom in 1826 and quickly began to devote her life to abolishing slavery and advocating for women’s rights. She is best known for her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech where she speaks on the gender and racial inequalities. Her activism throughout the 19th century has had a significant influence on women since.
19. Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor is the third female justice and the first Latino to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. Raised in an impoverished “Nuyorican” household in South Bronx, Sotomayor has become an icon to women, Latinos, and other minorities for her lifelong struggle to rise to a seat in the highest court in the US.
20. The Final Five
The Final Five was the 2016 Women’s Gymnastics Olympic Team that competed for the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Its five members were Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Christie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian. The most diverse Olympic team in American history, the Final Five’s combined efforts brought 9 medals home, including 3 gold medals won solely by Simone Biles. The amazing athleticism of the Final Five has shown that visibility and representation matter for communities of color to excel in American society.