Icons of Black Female Empowerment

From Diana Ross to Lena Horne to Queen Latifah, black women in pop culture have defied the odds, inspired and awed their fans. In honor of Women's History Month, we've put together a list of some of the icons of black female empowerment.

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  • Diahann Carroll

    Diahann Carroll

    Before she played the glamorous Dominique Devereaux on the 1980s prime-time soap Dynasty, before her hilarious turn as Whitley’s mom on A Different World, before she became a breast cancer survivor and activist, Carroll broke down barriers as the star of the show Julia, which ran from 1968 to 1971. The solidly middle-class Julia, a widow and mother who worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office, was a far cry from the stereotypical roles that black women had previously played on the small screen.

    Captions by Lauren Williams

  • Tina Turner

    Tina Turner

    Turner’s booming voice, powerful stage performance and storied legs (not to mention her badass blond wigs) don’t even come close to reflecting the strength Turner has shown in her personal life. With her story immortalized in her autobiography, I, Tina, and the film What’s Love Got to Do With It, Turner is known by her masses of fans not just for her catalog of hits but also for escaping her abusive relationship with Ike Turner to find happiness and enormous success in her solo career.

  • Beyoncé Knowles

    Beyoncé Knowles

    She will “Upgrade U” with her sheer presence and is quick to remind you that she is “Irreplaceable” if you underestimate her. Whether she’s performing live with her all-female band in sold-out stadiums as alter ego Sasha Fierce, launching businesses, writing songs or acting in movies, Beyoncé does nothing halfway — which is probably why she’s one of the biggest superstars performing today and has far outperformed her contemporaries (think Britney and Christina) in the fame-and-success department.

  • Diana Ross

    Diana Ross

    She has sold more than 100 million records worldwide; has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one solo and one with the Supremes); was — along with fellow 1972 nominee Cicely Tyson — the second black woman to be nominated for a best actress Academy Award; and had a serious hand in introducing Michael Jackson to the world. To call Ross a pop-culture icon seems like an understatement. And she’s still going strong: Ross is currently on a national “Greatest Hits” tour that will run through the spring.

  • Iman

    Iman

    We don’t suggest you forget her epic modeling career in the 1970s and ’80s, but if possible, Iman might have surpassed her past success with her post-modeling business. Iman Cosmetics, which she launched in 1994 for women of color, pulls in $25 million a year in revenue.

  • Naomi Sims

    Naomi Sims

    The nation’s first black supermodel, the late Sims became the first African-American model to grace the cover of a mainstream magazine when she appeared on the now iconic cover of Life in 1969. She’s not as well-known as Iman, Beverly Johnson or Tyra Banks, but her accomplishments paved the way for their success and made it possible for black women to start seeing reflections of their beauty in mainstream media.

  • Lena Horne

    Lena Horne

    Her stint in 1940s Hollywood would have made anyone bitter: Horne was denied leading roles because of her race and often edited out of movies when they were shown in Southern movie theaters. Horne, who died in 2010 at the age of 92, is one of black America’s most celebrated actresses and singers. Instead of succumbing to the pressure from movie-industry execs to market herself as Latin American, Horne left Hollywood in the 1950s to focus on her singing and stage career.

  • Queen Latifah

    Queen Latifah

    Who you callin’ a b—ch? Not Queen Latifah. She’s used her music to uplift her gender (“U.N.I.T.Y.” and “Ladies First”) and also showed ultimate woman power in other aspects of her career — as an Oscar-nominated actress and a CoverGirl with her own makeup line for women of color.

  • Miriam Makeba

    Miriam Makeba

    Nicknamed Mama Africa, South African singer Makeba, who died in 2008, was an international music superstar of the 1950s and ’60s but will also be remembered for using her celebrity to protest apartheid.

  • Nina Simone

    Nina Simone

    Not unlike her contemporary and friend Miriam Makeba, jazz singer Simone was, at times in her career, as much of an activist as she was a performer. The songs “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow,” from 1964, were powerful and direct responses to the racial injustice in the South, and she spoke and performed at civil rights demonstrations, including the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Simone died in 2003.

  • Phylicia Rashad

    Phylicia Rashad

    Clair Huxtable was more than just a character. She was an inspiration. A high-powered attorney who commanded the respect and awe of her husband and children, Rashad’s Clair showed the world — and particularly the young African-American women who grew up watching her on The Cosby Show — that a black woman could be anything she wanted to be.

  • Ntozake Shange

    Ntozake Shange

    Don’t just watch the movie. Read the play, which made its Broadway debut in 1976. Self-proclaimed black feminist Shange wrote and performed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which has inspired and emboldened generations of women.

  • Angela Davis

    Angela Davis

    A civil rights activist, feminist and, perhaps less important, style icon, educator Davis’ influence in the 1960s and ’70s surpassed that of just a controversial political activist — her image alone became an emblem of a movement.

  • Oprah Winfrey

    Oprah Winfrey

    If Clair Huxtable was the fictional inspiration for black women reared in the 1980s, then Winfrey is the real-life representation of what a black woman of modest beginnings can accomplish in this country. Her success can be quantified by her net worth (more than $1 billion, in case you’re wondering), but her influence is immeasurable.

  • Eartha Kitt

    Eartha Kitt

    She was Catwoman — the sexy-voiced songstress behind “Santa Baby.” The late Kitt spoke four languages and sang in seven, finding mainstream success in acting and music that few other black women in the 1950s and ’60s could. And she was outspoken enough in her beliefs to express her antiwar sentiments to President Lyndon Johnson and his wife to their faces, which negatively affected her career in the U.S. for a time. No matter — they still loved her in Europe!

  • Michelle Obama

    Michelle Obama

    She doesn’t have political aspirations like Hillary Clinton, but she displays much more personality and independence than her predecessor, Laura Bush. With her frank manner and noble health initiatives, Princeton- and Harvard-educated Obama has redefined what it means to be first lady while becoming a pop-culture and fashion icon overnight.

  • Patti LaBelle

    Patti LaBelle

    From the wildly costumed lead singer of the group Labelle to mainstream R&B sensation to healthy-cooking advocate and cookbook author, LaBelle has worn many hats in her long career — and looked pretty great in all of them.

  • Zora Neale Hurston

    Zora Neale Hurston

    Best known for her classic 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston led a life filled with spectacular ups and downs — and not one that many black women born in turn-of-the-century Alabama could have had. A co-founder of Howard University’s Hilltop newspaper, an anthropologist, a professor, a founder of a drama school at Bethune-Cookman University and a brilliant and imaginative writer, Hurston, despite dying penniless and being buried in an unmarked grave, left quite a legacy.

  • Alice Walker

    Alice Walker

    A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet, Walker, most famous for writing The Color Purple, has dedicated herself to highlighting the experiences and perspectives of women of color. The term “womanism” — often used interchangably with black feminism — was adapted from Walker’s book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.