Upspoken Women Who’ve Made and are Making History
While we celebrate and empower Upspoken women every day of the year, we are taking a special moment to uplift Black women from the past and present during Black History and Women’s History Months. These women are not just dope, they represent all it means to be Upspoken in all of their #Blackgirlmagic. By not letting society define them and flying in the face of taboos and stigmas around Black womanhood, they inspire us to live our truth. These women strengthen our confidence to truly own our whole selves.
Anna Julia Cooper
“Let our girls feel that we expect something more of them than that they merely look pretty and appear well in society.”
Known as The Mother of Black Feminism, Anna was a writer, teacher, and activist who championed education for Black women. This Upspoken queen lived to be 105 years old and in that time she established and co-founded several organizations to promote Black civil rights causes. Cooper lived through slavery, the Civil War, women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow. If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about equality and being Upspoken it’s Anna Julia Cooper.
Bozoma Saint John
“First of all, let’s count the Black women in C-suite positions in Silicon Valley. Do you know any? So, an opportunity comes, I must take it. I must take it. Because first of all, I do have something to prove. I have to hold the door.”
First a marketing executive at Apple, then Chief Brand Officer at Uber, and now Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor, Bozoma Saint John is making waves in tech and entertainment, industries notorious for their white male dominance. She is deliberate in her work to make room for Black women to follow in her footsteps and does so with her own unique style and flair. She has shown us what it looks like to not only be comfortable in your own skin but to love what you got and not be afraid to show it!
“I’m hoping that brilliant organizers, especially Black feminists and abolitionists, use #SurvivingRKelly as a tool to shift culture: to create study guides, convene town halls, talk about rape culture and organize against patriarchy, which harms us all.”
For years, R. Kelly’s predatory and violent behavior against Black women was talked about behind closed doors and in hushed voices but dream hampton pushed this story into the mainstream with her documentary “Surviving R. Kelly,” demanding attention and support for the survivors. By shining a light on the pain suffered by many of our sisters, she single-handedly made it okay to come forward and heal.
“You can jail a revolutionary, but you cannot jail the revolution.”
As the first, and only, woman to lead the Black Panther Party activist, writer, and visionary, Elaine Brown led the Black Panthers after Huey’s departure which also required navigating gender politics and backlash against a female leader. She has since started nonprofits that give back to the community and sought public office. She is always one to use her voice to advocate for her sisters!
Fannie Lou Hamer
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Fanny Lou Hamer, a women’s rights and voting rights activist, founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and challenged the all-white delegation from Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention for its lack of representation of people of color. After being dismissed she went on national TV and spoke out against the treatment of Black Americans in the South. Her bold activism contributed to the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Fifty-three years later she would be proud of the progress we’ve made and would be standing along with us as we continue to fight for the equal representation we deserve.
“Women, goals, empowerment, well-being, and women’s health has always been important to me.”
Goapele is a singer, songwriter, human rights advocate and Oakland native. She was awarded the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ first ever Human Rights Cultural Hero Award talk about multi-talented! She also launched the Rising Above Campaign, using her brand to engage Black women around the issue of disproportionate HIV rates in our community. Goapele stays empowering us all, in and outside of her music career.
Ida B. Wells
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
As a civil rights activist and journalist, Wells documented lynching in the United States in a way that no one had done before. Her courageous quest to denounce lynching came with a cost but threats to her life didn’t stop her from striving for African-American justice. She was also one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). Her impact on the community of Chicago is so significant that on February 12, 2019, she became the first Black woman with a Chicago street named after her.
“Identity is very personal…identity is political. My identity is what is and it is what it’s gonna be.”
Daughter of a Black Panther Party member, Jamilah Lemieux first gained a following on Twitter by challenging the status quo. She’s gone on to become an editor at Ebony, appear as an opinion leader on television and win awards for her writing. She continues to speak truth to power and was featured in the docuseries, “Surviving R.Kelly.” Most recently, she’s joined fellow Upspoken Queen Tarana Burke at Girls for Gender Equity as a communication strategist. We’re looking forward to the change they make together.
“Sisterhood is being able to cheer you on when you’ve done well, challenge you when you can do better, and admonish you when you drop the ball.”
Luvvie Ajayi is an Upspoken author, speaker, and advocate for Black women. She launched the Red Pump Project in 2009 to educate women and girls of color around HIV/AIDS and worked to address the stigma around HIV, which disproportionately affects Black women. She continues this conversation and shares more of her thoughts on her ever-expanding digital channels and uses her platform to bring us together on a global scale.
Mary McLeod Bethune
“A woman is free if she lives by her own standards and creates her own destiny, if she prizes her individuality and puts no boundaries on her hopes for tomorrow.”
With her own university this Upspoken woman is the queen of education. An educator, activist, and philanthropist, Mary McLeod Bethune served as a national adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Also, a champion of racial and gender equality, Bethune founded many organizations and led voter registration drives after women gained the right to vote in 1920. Her legacy lives on through her university, Bethune Cookman University, which has over 3,000 students.
“There’s just been a whole slew of African American women who have just really pushed me and motivated me during those times that I didn’t know if I could do it.”
Ballet is not a place where Black women are very visible, but Misty Copeland did not let that stop her. Having gone from sharing a motel room with her mother and five siblings to starring in Disney’s feature film “The Nutcracker,” her unconventional path shows all the young brown girls that they can live their dreams live and in color.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris
“What I hadn’t learned was how to break the intergenerational cycle of toxic stress.”
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is California’s first-ever Surgeon General. She has spent her career researching childhood stress and trauma and its effects on health over the course of a lifetime. As we continue to carry the trauma experienced by our ancestors in our bodies, minds, and spirits, her work is critical to our community. We can’t wait to see how she makes moves in 2019 🙌🏿
“If you want to be a woman in power, then empower other women.”
This Bronx-born Hollywood lawyer is known to have “power behind her punch” as Ava DuVernay puts it and represents Ava and several other of our other favorite Upspoken women in show business including Lupita Nyuong’o, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Misty Copeland. As an entertainment attorney, she advocates vigorously for her clients, making sure they get what they deserve. As a co-founder of Time’s Up, Shaw is committed to equity in the entertainment industry and beyond. Through her work at Time’s Up, she continues to be dedicated to combating sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, and inequity.
“In order for the feminist movement to truly be progressive and intersectional, white women must face this fact and begin to take on their load of work. We are long overdue to dismantle this system, which, if it is not intentionally and aggressively addressed, will defeat us all in the end.”
Activist and writer, Rachel Cargle is passionate about pursuing justice for women of color. Cargle travels the country lecturing and unpacking white feminism, usually in rooms of white women, as she works toward a goal of truly intersectional feminism. Cargle started a fundraiser to help give Black women and girls access to therapy sessions and support their mental health and is known for creating safe spaces for Black women to share and connect.
“Being in this business for 30 plus years I am aware that I have gained a certain amount of power. We are also here to make the world a better place for those who aren’t in positions of power and it was my time to step up and exercise my power.”
We’ve grown up with Regina King. This queen has appeared in some of our favorite iconic movies and now we’re watching her use her platform to advocate for women’s rights. She’s winning awards for her latest role in If Beale Street Could Talk while simultaneously raising awareness of criminal justice reform and gender equality in the workplace. We’re here for all of it.
“We have a lot of expectations and a lot of rules for women. So, we’re expected to march in a straight line, and when we don’t, all hell breaks loose.”
Throughout her writing, Roxane Gay is open and honest about her experience, even speaking on the hard stuff like her sexual assault. She uses her skills to lift up our experiences and makes us visible in public discourse. And we never get tired of hearing her speak her truth as it is often our reality and our truth as well.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
“Very often, people talk about mothers, and they think that mother has to lose her sexuality…Mothers cannot be exciting [and] should not be up on what’s going on… And I just find that so old-fashioned!”
Aside from being Upspoken about mamas owning their sexuality, actor, singer, author, and activist, Sheryl Lee Ralph has made a huge impact beyond her entertainment work. She created and still produces “Divas: Simply Singing,” the longest musical AIDS benefit in the country (check out her daughter’s Ivy Coco takeover of our Instagram Story from the 2018 event). She also founded The Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware (DIVA) Foundation in memory of friends she lost to AIDS. Her work helps to erase stigma, raise awareness, and promote HIV/AIDS prevention through arts and education.
“I want to be remembered as a woman…who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968 and the first woman and Black American to seek the nomination for President of the United States in 1972. As a politician, educator, and author she advocated for women and minorities on social issues such as education, and immigration. She stood against all odds and still came out ‘Unbought and Unbossed.’
“And ain’t I a woman?”
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery, racial equality and women’s rights. She took her freedom in 1826 and dedicated her life to fighting against systematic oppression of our people, during a time when women were often dismissed and their rights were ignored. She is most famous for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio and also was the first Black woman to ever sue a white man and win. A woman ahead of her time, Truth used her voice and demanded an audience on a national stage.
“You don’t have to be anything but yourself to be worthy.”
Tarana Burke was out here saying #MeToo back in 2006 when she originally launched the movement. By speaking up about her trauma, she ignited a wave of sharing and sisterhood that grew into an unstoppable wave, removing predators from long-time positions of power and creating safe spaces for all of us to be ourselves. It may have come late, but we’re glad to see her getting the credit she deserved all along. Yas, sis 👏🏿
Women of “Insecure”: (Issa Rae, Natasha Rothwell, Yvonne Orji, Amanda Seales, Melina Matsoukas)
“I found that every time I asked permission, the answer tended to be no, so I had to make my own yeses.” (Issa Rae)
These women are seriously doing it for the culture. “Insecure” came out of the gate fronted by an ensemble of extremely talented actresses that keep us glued to our screens every Sunday. It is revolutionary in its portrayal of the multi-faceted realities of our journeys through relationships, love and sex. And it doesn’t stop there. Issa Rae is moving over to movies, Natasha Rothwell is making her own deals with HBO, Amanda Seales gives us our weekly Small Doses and delivers the realness from Instagram Stories to HBO Specials. We can’t wait to see what director, Melina Matsoukas and crew have in store for us in season 4.
Women of Red Table Talk:
“We expect people to love us more than we love ourselves. We expect people to do the work for us.” (Jada Pinkett Smith)
The women of Red Table Talk share their multi-generational stories and tackle extremely hard topics many of our families would never choose to discuss, like love, trauma, and sex. Jada Pinkett Smith is joined by her mother, Adrienne Banfield Jones, and daughter, Willow Smith, on this digital series as they unpack deeply personal and raw issues we all can relate to. And they spill the tea! We can’t wait to see what is brought to the red table next…
“There’s a lack of humanity that goes behind policy change—policies that make being a woman a preexisting condition…The goal of my activism is to bring humanity back into humanity.”
Yara Shahidi, an actress, model, and activist, proves that you’re never too young to make a difference. At age 17, Shahidi started her own philanthropic efforts including Yara’s Club, a mentorship program, and Eighteen x ‘18, an effort to increase voter turnout. In between her multiple jobs, Shahidi still made time to use her public platform to advocate for change and encourage others by sharing her experience as a young Black woman. Wise beyond her teenage years, we can’t wait to see how she will challenge us to grow and improve in the future.
Zora Neale Hurston
“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
This literary queen is your favorite writers’, favorite writer. The work of this Upspoken woman dates back to the Harlem Renaissance, a time when she used her talents as a writer to discuss racial struggles. Their Eyes Were Watching God isn’t just a literary staple but a cinematic one as well. Her commitment to using southern Black vernacular at a time when Black intellectuals wanted to separate themselves from the Jim Crow South opened her up to criticism, but she didn’t allow that to influence the way she captured the essence of Blackness and womanhood.
Photo Credit Feministing.com