“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.” — Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress
Women have always been pivotal in the fight for human rights, but women of color are often overlooked in our history books. That’s why this International Women’s Day, we’re sharing the striking stories of five unique women of color who you might not have heard of — women who refused to stand on the sidelines, and instead implemented their ambitious ideas, shaping history in the process.
- Sophia Duleep Singh
Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh, goddaughter to Queen Victoria, was a women’s rights activist associated with the suffragette movement. The wealthy socialite (whose father was a deposed Indian maharajah exiled to England), was not particularly politically inclined until a visit to India when she was around 30. It was on this trip that she met with some freedom fighters who inspired her so much that by the time she returned to England, she was a committed anti-colonialist and feminist.
Throughout her life, Singh fought alongside other suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst for women to be allowed the vote, often being disruptive in the process — like when she threw herself in front of the then British Prime Minister’s car with a “Votes for Women” poster. She was also known for her leading role in the Women’s Tax Resistance League, and volunteered as a British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse.
In 2018, Singh and her fellow suffragettes were commemorated on the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.
2. Marielle Franco
Brazilian politician and activist Marielle Franco was a vocal critic of police brutality in her country, as well as fighting for reproductive and LGBTI rights, and against gender-based violence.
From her early roots growing up in a favela in Rio de Janeiro to becoming a single parent in her teenage years, Franco became politically active young, eventually being elected to the Rio city council in 2016 — the only black woman to do so.
However, on 14 March 2018, at the age of just 38, she was assassinated shortly after leaving an event promoting black empowerment. She was shot dead along with her driver Anderson Silva, prompting outrage and grief around the world. While an investigation into these murders continues to this day, Franco’s fearless and important fight for her city’s poorest and most marginalised people will never be forgotten.
3. Madam C.J. Walker
Born in Louisiana, USA in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker started out life as Sarah Breedlove. The daughter of freed slaves, she would go on to be one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
Walker achieved this by creating specialized products for African American hair care, which she turned to after becoming a young widow when her first husband died, leaving her with a daughter to support alone. In order to address her financial struggles, she started selling beauty products door-to-door for Annie Turnbo Malone, which would eventually lead to Walker launching her own extremely successful hair care business.
Along with her entrepreneurial spirit, Walker was highly community-minded, making donations to support black communities, and setting up colleges to train other women, empowering them to be able to open their own salons too.
4. Meena Keshwar Kamal
Meena Keshwar Kamal — who founded the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) while still a young student at Kabul University — was a passionate women’s rights activist who was assassinated in 1987.
Kamal spent her entire adult life campaigning for equality and women’s education, launching a bilingual feminist magazine in 1981 to give a voice to the voiceless. She was only 30 when she was murdered, but her organization RAWA continues the committed fight for Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and human rights.
5. Katherine Johnson
This year, we lost mathematician Katherine Johnson, one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist.
An academic high achiever from a young age, Johnson worked as a teacher until she was hired by a NASA laboratory in 1953, where her work on orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first U.S. crewed spaceflight. Despite her NASA office being racially segregated and facing the sexism that was common in her field at the time, Johnson never let discrimination hold her back. Instead, she asserted herself as a core part of the team that made the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon possible.
This trailblazer’s achievements were captured in the bestselling book and award-winning movie Hidden Figures, and her contributions to science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) continue to inspire generations of young black women and more.
Words by Almas Korotana, Digital Content Producer & Amina Khan, Head of Digital