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16 Badass Women That You Probably Didn't Learn About In History Class

Prepare to be blown away.

1. Fanny Eaton, who was a Jamaican born pre-Raphaelite muse.

Walter Fryer / Creative Commons / Via

If you’ve ever visited an art gallery, chances are you’ve seen Fanny’s face before. Born in 1835, Fanny moved to London where her striking beauty caught the attention of many artists at the time. She modelled for countless paintings, some of which were exhibited in the Royal Academy. In 19th century art, black people were rarely portrayed in a positive light and Fanny really shook things up by being featured as a figure of ideal beauty.

2. Bessie Coleman, who was the first African-American and Native American woman to hold a pilot license.

Fotosearch / Getty

Bessie’s story is a prime example of hard work and sheer determination paying off. Born in Texas in 1892, she developed a keen interest in aviation from an early age but learned that American flight schools didn’t admit women OR black people. This would’ve put some people off, but Bessie worked two jobs and took a French-language class so that she could travel all the way to Paris and earn her pilot licence.

She went on to become a popular stunt flier known as “Queen Bess” and was pretty much a celebrity of her time. Bessie was even offered a role in a movie, but she turned it down after learning that the plot centred around negative stereotypes of black people. Sadly, she died in a plane crash at just 34-years-old, but her legacy lives on.

You can find out more about her in The Life of Bessie Coleman.

3. Mary Kenner, who developed the sanitary belt. / Creative Commons

Periods would be a hell of a lot more stressful if Mary hadn’t invented the moisture-proof belted sanitary napkin. Born in 1912, a time where women were mainly using rags during their period, Mary developed a game changing adjustable belt with a built-in pocket.

The company that was initially interested in the belt rejected it once they realised Mary was black, and she had to wait 30 years before it was patented in 1956. Without Mary Kenner’s inventions, personal hygiene would be a lot different — she also invented the hands-free toilet paper holder.

You can read more about Mary Kenner and her marvellous inventions here.

4. Evelyn Dove, who played a huge part in popularising jazz music in the UK.

Carl van Vechten / Creative Commons

Born in London in 1902 to a British mother and Sierra Leonean father, Evelyn was a classically trained singer and actress who performed all over the world. She was a member of the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, a group made up of British people of West African, Caribbean and American origin, who were making jazz music popular in the UK club scene.

In the 1920s and ‘30s Evelyn became internationally known, and her talent was often compared to Josephine Baker’s. On top of all that, in 1947 Evelyn was one of the first black artists to perform on a variety show on the BBC.

You can read all about her in Britain's Black Cabaret Queen.

5. Claudia Jones, who founded Britain’s first major black newspaper.

Keystone / Getty

Born in Trinidad in 1924, political activist and journalist made a huge impact on British culture. She made the UK home after being deported from the US because of her political activism. Seeing the racism in Britain, Claudia became involved in the African-Caribbean community, where she heavily campaigned for equal rights and founded the West Indian Gazette.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, after organising the Caribbean Carnival in 1959, Carnival, she’s been described as the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival.

You can read more about Claudia in her biography Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile.

6. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose musical talent played a huge role in the birth of Rock & Roll.

Chris Ware / Getty

This musical genius was born in Arkansas in 1915, and started playing the guitar and singing gospel music at just four-years-old. Rosetta was a one of the first ever recording artists to use heavy distortion on the electric guitar (think Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future), and she wrote deep and soulful lyrics.

Until recently, her talent went wildly uncredited, despite the fact that she clearly influenced many musicians, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. Without Sister Rosetta Tharpe, 20th century music would probably have been very different.

You can read more about this legend in Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharp.

7. Lilian Bader, who was one of the first black women to join the British Armed Forces in 1941.

RAF Museum / Via

Born in Liverpool to a Bajan father and British born Irish mother, Lilian became an orphan at the age of nine, and was raised in a convent. Because of racial prejudice, Lillian struggled to find anyone to employ her, and was stuck living in the convent until she was 20. When WWII broke out, she joined the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, but was fired within weeks when her Caribbean heritage was discovered.

Despite all these setbacks, Lilian remained determined to be a success, and when she saw that RAF were accepting West Indians, she became the first black person on the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, and later went on to become corporal and leading Aircraftwoman.

You can read more about Lilian in The Motherland Calls: Britain's Black Servicemen & Women.

8. Dorothy Dandridge, who was considered to be one of the most talented and successful black actresses in history.

Hulton Archive / Getty

Born in 1922, Dorothy was a triple threat — she could act, sing and dance, and was considered to be one of the most beautiful celebrities in Hollywood. After starring in Carmen Jones, Dorothy became known worldwide, and was the first ever African-American to receive an Oscar nomination for a leading role.

And that wasn’t her only major milestone — in 1954 she was the first black woman to grace the cover of Life magazine. It’s safe to say that Dorothy Dandridge really paved the way for black actresses, singers, and dancers.

You can read more about Dorothy in her biography.

9. Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American person to run for president.

Pictorial Parade / Getty

Way back before Obama in 1972, Shirley Chisolm, the daughter of working class Caribbean parents made political history. She was the first black woman elected to Congress, the first black woman to run for the democratic party, AND the first black person to run for president.

Despite several assassination attempts, Shirley’s ambition was never dampened, and her achievements are ground-breaking on so many levels. A real pioneer for equality, Shirley Chisholm is behind the famous quote: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Where’s her biopic already??

You can read more about Shirley's great work in this book.

10. Miriam Makeba, who made a global impact with her South African music, and as an advocate against apartheid.

Fethi Belaid / Getty Images

Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg in 1932 and overcame a lot before she gained international fame and the nickname “Mama Africa.” A single mum with a passion for music, at 18 she left her daughter with her mother to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. In 1953, she released her first hit and the rest is history.

Her music became popular all over the world, and she’s credited as being responsible for bringing African to a western audience. She was exiled from South Africa because of her strong anti-Apartheid views, and subsequently became a symbol of opposition to the system.

11. Audre Lorde, whose writing on race, sexuality, and gender was way ahead of its time.

Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Audre Lorde was born in New York in 1934 to Caribbean parents, and like everyone on this list, didn’t let anything — not even being legally blind —hold her back. Audre Lord was a writer, feminist, and civil rights activist whose work explores issues that are important to this day, most notably when it comes to intersectionality and oppression.

She’s a huge inspiration to countless queer and black women, and her works are essential reading for anyone with an interest in feminism.

12. Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on the bus nine months before Rosa Parks did.

The Visibility Project, Claudette Colvin / Creative Commons / Via

Born in 1939 in a poor neighbourhood in segregated Alabama, Claudette was just fifteen-years-old when she became an important pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, on her bus ride home from school, she refused the driver's demand that she give up her seat for a white passenger, and was arrested. Despite the NAACP distancing themselves from her, Claudette undoubtedly played a vital role in integration.

You can read all about her in this book.

13. Margaret Busby, who was the first black woman book publisher (and also the youngest book publisher) in Britain

Evening Standard / Getty

Born in Ghana to Caribbean parents in 1944. Margaret co-founded Allison & Busby Ltd with Clive Allison whilst still at university. To this day, Allison & Busby is a leading independent publisher, and has circulated many talented writers of colour.

As well as publishing, Margaret Busby is a journalist, and has written for many national newspapers, and she also compiled Daughters of Africa, an anthology written by women of African descent.

14. Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist who played a vital role in the gay rights movement.

Michael Kasino / Via

Born in New Jersey in 1945, Marsha was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, and a central figure in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. She was a prominent figure in New York, and even modelled for Andy Warhol.

She continued to be an advocate for people living with AIDS until her untimely death in 1992. All of Marsha’s hard work undoubtedly paved the way for LGBTQ rights, and her legacy is remembered in countless documentaries. You can watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix.

15. Joan Armatrading, who was the first British woman nominated for a Grammy in the blues category.

Hulton Archive / Getty

Born in 1950 in Saint Kitts, Joan moved to the UK at the age of seven and she was 14-years-old, she started writing songs and teaching herself how to play guitar. She left school at 15 to support her family, but that didn’t stop her following her dream — she practiced the guitar during tea-breaks.

Joan was the first Black British singer/songwriter to gain international, success and is still releasing new music.

16. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to go to space.

Robert / Getty

You’ve probably heard about Mae Jemison, but she’s so inspirational that we could all do with learning a little bit more about her. Born in Alabama in 1956, Mae Jemison was in the Peace Corps before she was selected by NASA to go to space in 1987. Mae took a photo of the Bessie Coleman into space with her, which is a heart-warming example of the importance of representation.

Mae went on to be a college professor, writer, and all-round inspiration. One her most famous quotes is “don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life."

You can read all about Mae in her autobiography.

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