Brave Woman Highlights for Black History Month
by Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
In this special Brave Woman Highlight post for Black History Month, we’re celebrating Black women who have made a mark on history through their passion and compassion. Each woman leaves a legacy of courage and innovation that continues to set the stage for others to follow in their footsteps.
You can also look forward to a special tribute for our issue 14 superstar, Ella Fitzgerald, in the coming weeks! As one of the most famous jazz singers of all time, her groundbreaking career continues to shape music today. Her issue isn’t one to miss! It launches on February 22, but subscribe now to get it first.
Photo courtesy of SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
1. STACEY ABRAMS
Politician, lawyer, author, and voting rights activist
Stacey Abrams taught us a valuable lesson during the 2020 elections: Never underestimate the power of a single vote! Thanks to Stacey, her team, and fellow activists—many of whom are women of color—an estimated 800,000 new voters registered in Georgia during the 2020 election season. It’s clear that Stacey’s on-the-ground organizing efforts empowered Georgians to make their voices heard.
Stacey has led the fight against voter suppression in Georgia long before the 2020 elections. She founded grassroots organizations that mobilize and protect voters, including The New Georgia Project and Fair Fight Action. These groups also work to stop disenfranchising practices in her state and around the country that prevent citizens from voting.
Raised in Mississippi, Stacey comes from humble origins. Her parents encouraged civic-mindedness and Election Day was always a family affair. The Abrams family then moved to Atlanta, where Stacey graduated high school as valedictorian and became student government president at Spelman College. She went on to earn more degrees at the University of Texas at Austin and Yale Law School.
Before her political career took off, Stacey was a tax lawyer, a deputy city attorney, and an entrepreneur. She then spent a decade in the Georgia House of Representatives, where she was the first African American to lead in the House. She championed bipartisanship and also loved writing fiction in her free time. She has published eight romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery.
In 2018, Stacey was the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the U.S. She lost the election by a slim margin amid allegations of voter suppression. Her loss didn’t stop her though and she channeled her momentum into creating Fair Fight Action. Stacey wanted to prevent what happened to her from happening to future candidates.
To learn more about Stacey, you can watch her documentary, All In: The Fight For Democracy or add her bestselling books to your reading list.
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2. JESSIE REDMON FAUSET
Novelist, essayist, editor, and poet
If you’re a fan of Langston Hughes, you can thank Jessie Redmon Fauset. As the literary editor of the NAACP’s official magazine The Crisis, Jessie played a key role in sparking the Harlem Renaissance—a golden age of creative expression for African Americans throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Nicknamed the Renaissance’s “midwife,” Jessie made every effort to launch the careers of Black writers, including Langston’s. She published Langston’s first poem and continued to be one of his mentors. She also mentored other literary bigwigs of the movement, including poet Countee Cullen and novelist Nella Larsen.
A poet and novelist herself, Jessie penned four novels during the Renaissance, the most out of any writer from the era. Her work, including her acclaimed novel Plum Bun, focused on Black culture and her characters challenged racial stereotypes.
Despite her achievements, Jessie has been largely overshadowed by her male colleagues throughout history, simply because she was a woman. While she raised the voices of others, hers went unsung.
Jessie was born in 1882 in Camden County, New Jersey and grew up in Philadelphia. Her father valued education and encouraged her to become a teacher. She graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls as the only African American in her class. Afterward, she earned a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. But after a month of classes, she faced discrimination when the college’s president arranged for her to attend Cornell University instead.
At Cornell, Jessie studied Latin, Greek, German, and French and was the first Black woman accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious academic honor society. She then earned a master’s in French at the University of Pennsylvania and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Jessie then worked as a French and Latin teacher in Baltimore and Washington D.C., where she met W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and founder of The Crisis. Jessie started contributing articles, poems, and essays to the magazine and eventually moved to Harlem to work at The Crisis.
In Harlem, Jessie transformed her home into a lively salon, inviting intellectuals and artists to mingle together. Aside from cultivating young writers’ talents while writing and editing for The Crisis, she helped translate the French works of Black authors from Europe and Africa into English for publication. She also edited The Brownies’ Book, a kids magazine for African American children.
Jessie left publishing toward the end of the Renaissance and dedicated the rest of her life to teaching. While many may not recognize Jessie’s name, the world has benefitted from her work for decades.
Photo courtesy of KOMUnews
3. LAVERNE COX
Actress, producer, and LGBTQ+ activist
Laverne Cox commands the spotlight onscreen and off. This trailblazer brings inclusivity to the forefront through her acting and activism on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. Her representation in television encourages empathy for and understanding of transgender people.
She also leads with a long list of firsts: She’s the first transgender woman to appear on the covers of Time, Cosmopolitan, and British Vogue. The first transgender person nominated for an Emmy (she has been nominated three times!). The first trans woman of color to have a leading role on a mainstream scripted TV show. And the first trans woman to win an Emmy as an Executive Producer.
Before she walked red carpets, Laverne overcame difficult challenges since she was a kid. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, she had a great imagination and dreamed of becoming a dancer on Broadway. Assigned male at birth, Laverne endured constant bullying for her femininity. And while she did go through dark times, she strived to stay true to herself.
After working hard in school, she received a scholarship to the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she studied classical ballet. She went on to Indiana University Bloomington on another dance scholarship. Then she transferred to Marymount Manhattan College, where she graduated with a degree in dance and where she first discovered her love for acting. She stayed in New York City to pursue her career. After college, she eventually came out as transgender, identifying as female, and started her medical transition.
Laverne got her first onscreen role on Law and Order and starred in the makeover show TRANSform Me shortly after. A few years later, she took on her groundbreaking role in Orange is the New Black. Since then, she has guest-starred in many shows. Laverne also hosted and executive produced The T Word, a documentary that explored the lives of trans youth. It was the first trans documentary to win an Emmy.
A SAG winner, Laverne’s advocacy earned her the title of Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” in 2014 and landed her on Time’s Most Influential People List in 2015. She also received the GLAAD Stephen F. Kolzak Award and the Claire Skiffington Vanguard Award from the Transgender Law Center.
Laverne empowers us to live each day as authentic to ourselves as possible: “In theory it shouldn’t be about your race or your religion or your gender or your class that you were born into. You should be able to rise up and have your moments.”
Photo courtesy of Darling Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
4. DR. GLADYS WEST
Where would we be without mathematician Dr. Gladys West? Probably lost somewhere with a crumpled paper map. Gladys was part of the U.S. Navy team that developed the world-changing Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1950s and 1960s. However, she went unacknowledged for her accomplishments for over 50 years.
Gladys Mae Brown grew up south of Richmond, on her family’s farm. She refused to follow in her parents’ footsteps, picking corn, cotton, or tobacco for the rest of her life. While living in segregated Virginia, Gladys and her classmates took separate buses and received hand-me-down books and supplies from white schools. But the trying times motivated Gladys to study even harder and she graduated at the top of her class.
She received a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), where she majored in math and returned to earn her master’s degree in mathematics. In 1956, she became the second Black woman to work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. She was one of only four Black employees, including a man named Ira West, who she would marry the following year.
Gladys worked long hours collecting, analyzing, calculating, computing, checking, and double-checking complex algorithms and equations that led to more precise GPS satellite data. Because of her programming, coding, drive, and dedication, our phones can give us directions and we can tag our locations on Instagram whenever we please. Her tireless efforts also helped advance technology for the military, farmers, and even parents.
Always one to set and achieve new goals, Gladys went right back to school after her 42-year career. This time, she set her sights on earning a doctorate in philosophy from Virginia Tech. While she was working toward her doctorate, she suffered a stroke that impaired her hearing, vision, and use of her right side. But that didn’t stop her.
She earned her Ph.D. while she exercised to rebuild her strength and mobility. It's this tenacious attitude that also got her through quadruple bypass surgery and breast cancer. Gladys encourages us to set high goals for ourselves and to put in all we’ve got to reach them. She also humbly teaches us not to do anything for the praise or acclaim but solely to make ourselves proud.For more stories about amazing women, subscribe to Bravery and check out #BraveWomanHighlight on Instagram.