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Know Her Name: Women We’re Celebrating This Black History Month

February is Black History Monthan annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time to recognize their significant contributions to U.S. history. How can we keep moving forward and breaking barriers as we go? We can start by commemorating the fearless women throughout history who have made strides for others to follow in their footsteps — but are often overlooked. Here are a few you should know. 

Coretta Scott King (1927 — 2006)

The world just celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month in honor of the civil rights leader and the Civil Rights Movement. As MLK once said, “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But, by all means, keep moving.” We can all take inspiration from his words and be part of the change. But, let’s also remember the women who fought to propel the movement forward alongside MLK. Chief among them was his wife, Coretta Scott King. She was an author, activist, and civil rights leader. After her husband’s death, King became a prominent leader in the struggle for racial equality as well as gender equality.

Civil Rights Activist Coretta Scott King on Husband MLK Jr.’s Birthday. Photo courtesy of #SeeHer Story

Alice Dunnigan (1906 — 1983)

Born in Russellville, Kentucky, Alice Dunnigan was a journalist, civil rights activist, and author. She was the first African-American female White-House correspondent, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, and the first black journalist to accompany a president (Harry S. Truman) while traveling.

A 6-foot bronze statue of Alice Dunnigan, modeled on this 1947 photograph of her outside the Capitol, at the Newseum, a museum in Washington dedicated to the press and the First Amendment. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia Press

Byllye Avery (B. 1937)

Byllye Avery has dedicated her life to bettering the welfare of African-American women. She recognized that the lack of quality healthcare and education provided to the black community was systemic, so she did something about it! She founded the National Black Women’s Health Project (now known as the Black Women’s Health Imperative), the first national organization to specialize in black women’s reproductive health issues.

Photo Courtesy of MAKERS

Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner (1912 — 2006)

In an age when women were still using cloths and rags during their period, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner proposed a precursor to today’s disposable pads: an adjustable belt with and built-in, moisture-proof napkin pocket, reducing the risk of menstrual leakages and stains. Companies expressed interest in producing her innovation but backed off when they found out the inventor was black. In fact, racial discrimination prevented its adoption for thirty years. Kenner eventually filed five patents in total, more than any other African-American woman in history. 

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Wilma Rudolph (1940 — 1994)

Born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was an African-American Sprinter who became a world-record-holding olympian. As a child, she had polio, forcing her to wear a brace on her left leg. Rudolph overcame her disabilities to compete in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games. She was dubbed “the fastest woman in the world” and, in 1960, became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic Games. Rudolph’s success helped break gender barriers at previously all-male track and field events. She continues to serve as a role model for black and female athletes everywhere. 

Wilma Rudolph during competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Photo courtesy of Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Annie Easley (1933 – 2011) 

Despite the fact that fewer than 20% of tech workers are female in many mature economies, women have made considerable contributions to the field. Ada Lovelace‘s notes include the first algorithm that was intended for the use of the Analytical Engine and is credited as being the very first computer programmer. Gertrude Elion developed a multitude of drugs, that later led to the development of what is known as AIDS drug, AZT. Barbara McClintock is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in the category of Physiology and Medicine. And, Annie Easley broke down gender and racial barriers as the “human computer” of NASA. So why is there still a gender divide in digital? And why is the gap is even wider for women of color? Recent reports estimate that less than .5% of Silicon Valley tech leadership positions are held by black women. 

Unequal treatment at work is the leading reason women leave STEM careers. History shows us that women in STEM aren’t just a nice-to-have — they’re a need-to-have. Because diverse teams not only have distinct benefits but also because women who participate in the creation of technology can help tackle concerns about inbuilt gender bias. 

Photo courtesy of NASA

Madam C. J. Walker (1867 — 1919)

“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”— Madam C.J. Walker

An entrepreneur, activist, and philanthropist, Madam C.J. Walker was one of the first black women in the U.S. to become a self-made millionaire. In 1904, she created her own hair care product line called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. But it wasn’t just her products that helped other black women—Walker spent her entire career leading sales training programs for black women to promote their financial independence. By the time of her death in 1919, Walker had amassed a fortune of more than $1 million. 

Madam C.J. Walker. Photo courtesy of A’Lelia Bundles/Madam Walker Family Archives

Ursula Burns (B. 1958)

“I didn’t learn to be quiet when I had an opinion. The reason they knew who I was is because I told them.” — Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO, Xerox

Ursula Burns is the first Black woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company and the first woman to succeed another woman as head of a Fortune 500 company. In 2014, Forbes rated her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world and from 2009 to 2016, she was a leader of the STEM program of the White House.

Ursula Burns. Photo courtesy of Xerox Corporation

These are just some of the incredible women who led the charge in bringing about change and worked on the front lines to advance equality. We’ll be highlighting more trailblazers throughout this month. You can stay tuned here on Instagram, and also on our Twitter and Facebook feeds.  

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For more inspiration, check out:

Women’s Equality Day: Hidden Figures From The Suffrage Movement

What You Need to Know About Black Women’s Equal Pay Day

Where We Stand Today