Happy International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month 2020. We’ll be honouring 9 inspirational women who’ve championed change, spoke out when they needed to, broken down barriers and challenged society’s patriarchal double standards on female achievement & prowess. We’ll be updating this list throughout the month of March 2020. Join us as shine a light on these honourable, fearless women!
- MALORIE BLACKMAN
Like many Black girls in Britain, Malorie grew up in an era where media rarely gave shine to Black talent let alone Black female talent and it never occurred to her that it was possible for her stories to become published. Stories that featured Black female protagonists. Growing up, Malorie says: “There were always too many people ready to set my limits for me.” The discovery of Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple in her twenties planted the seed of the idea that “maybe, just maybe, I too could become a writer.” 82 rejections later and her first collection of short stories – Not So Stupid! was published in 1990 by the now defunct Women’s Press. After 49 successful books, Malorie chose to finally address racism HER way in the bestselling series Noughts & Crosses and was again faced with more opposition with editors and publishers saying “no white child will read a book with a black child on the cover” or “white children can’t relate to black issues” or (even worse in her eyes) ‘the black experience’. Nonetheless she prevailed and was announced as the 2013-2015 Children’s Laureate, directed the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) in July 2014, won numerous awards including Red House Children’s Book Award and the Fantastic Fiction Award. Against all those odds, Malorie prevailed and not only inspired but also gave a voice to a generation of young Black girls [in Britain] who could enjoy literature with relatable characters/experiences. And that is why Malorie Blackman deserves a place on our 2020 honouree list.
2. DUCHESS OF SUSSEX MEGHAN MARKLE
The Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle is our next honoree for Women’s History Month 2020. She has arguably become THE most loved royal member of the British family since leaving her acting career behind. The Duchess is the first bi-racial person in the royal family since Queen Charlotte (whom we honoured during Black History Month 2019) and has been dubbed a modern royal making her own rules – from her fashion choices to her royal wedding and the way she debuted her baby boy, Archie Harrison. The ‘modern’ Princess has warmed the hearts of millions of people because she not afraid to be herself despite the restraints imposed on her by the establishment and the endless racially charged bullying she faced by the British tabloids.
Despite all that, The Duchess shook up the monarchy and while the younger royals aren’t dragging the family into the 21st century kicking and screaming, but they’re gently nudging them in the right direction and Meghan is a huge part of that movement. She seems unapologetic about who she is and what she plans to bring to the table (despite all the negative press) which is why we honoree her this Women’s History Month. We love a Queen who stays unapologetically authentic to theyself and The Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle is the perfect embodiment of the phrase. Long live the Duchess!
3. EMMELINE PANKHURST
The Suffragettes (originally known Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were a militant female led organisation led by Emmeline Pankhurst who fought (quite literally) for Women’s Vote during the early 20th century. They weren’t trained military experts, rather the group was made up of Ordinary women – mill workers, housewives, dancers, artists fed up of women’s suffrage in Edwardian England. The Suffragettes gained much notoriety for its activities and whose members were the first to be christened ‘suffragettes’ due to the increasingly radicalisation of movement. The media used the word as a derogatory term to demonise and degrade the efforts but the women claimed the word and proudly. With the help of her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, Pankhurst organised rallies and published an official newspaper called Votes for Women where they circulated information on their doings and recruited new members. While the suffragettes were rooted in militant action, the suffragists (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897) formed and adopted a more peaceful approach for women’s advancement Emmeline felt they weren’t doing enough.
As time went on, the suffragettes took part in large demonstrations, bombed houses of officials, window smashing campaigns in Central London, heckled politicians during speeches and became embroiled in violent altercations with the police. This resulted in multiple arrests including that of Emmeline and the group was deemed to be terrorists as their actions were deemed to be unlawful. World War 1 changed the course of history because it allowed women to pick up manual work left by men and Emmeline further used the war as a means of drafting 30,000 women to break the mould and change governments view on the ability of women working what was traditionally seen as ‘men’s jobs’. Luckily, this changed women’s mental and physical inferiority. 9months before the end of World War 1 in February 1918 British parliament passed the ‘Representation of the People Act’, also known as the ‘Fourth Reform Act but It wasn’t until 1928 when the ‘Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act’ was passed that all women aged 21 and over could vote.
4, TARANA BURKE
Searching #MeToo movement will fill your search results with information on Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly’s crimes and the masses of women in Hollywood industry that were sexually assaulted by these men. Not much light is shined on the woman who originated this movement. Her name is Tanara Burke. Like many young girls, she was sexually abused at a young age and reading Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings & Phenomenal Woman opened Burke’s eyes to the possibility that victims of sexual assault could move forward and successfully heal from their trauma.
During her line of work in 1997 a young lady disclosed to Tanara disclosed that she’d been sexually assaulted and while Tanara didn’t know how to respond she later wished she’d told the young girl ‘well…it happened to me too’. 9 years later and she founded Just Be in 2006 focusing on improving wellbeing and wholeness for Black girls aged between 12-18 acting as a space of empowerment and guidance for girls as they grow and begin to define themselves but also supporting victims of sexual harassment and assault. 10 years later in 2017 and the hashtag #MeToo hit social media for the first time promoted by actress Alyssa Milano who’d experienced sexual assault and urged other women who’d been affected to use the hashtag to shed light on the magnitude of the issue. Millions of women worldwide used and shared the hashtag urging others to do the same. Within a year the movement had the movement upended entertainment and politics, but Tarana wanted to ensure that the movement connected survivors to the resources they need in order to heal. To mark the one year anniversary of #MeToo’s rise, Tarana unveiled a number of new initiatives, including a website intended as a hub for survivors.
We are very happy to honour Tarana Burke for her unequivocal fight for female survivors of sexual violence not because she is simply highlighting the amount of sexual violence women and girls go through, but because she uses therapy and focuses on the importance of healing oneself. She noticed that public support is only available as immediate crisis intervention and there is a lack of adequate healing support for the survivors. Tarana is due to be launching a digital service where all kinds of survivors can find themselves (race, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion) but also by whatever stage of healing they’re at. The service is set to launch this year (2020) and we are super excited to see Tarana’s 20 year movement coming to life as a digital service supporting sexual violence survivors.
5, ROBYN RIHANNA FENTY
When one hears about Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the first thing that comes to their mind is the super talented pop, rnb singer and entrepreneur. Rih-Rih, as her many fans call her is also known widely for her stunning taste and red carpet turn-up fashion. What many don’t know is the fact that other than gracing our screens and surprising fans album after album, Robyn is also a philanthropist whose heart is deep in helping out people in need by running non-profitable charities. Her philanthropist work begun in 2006 when she created a foundation named Believe to support terminally ill children.
While she disliked being in school, Rihanna realised the importance of education and set out to prioritise global education making her focus on giving children the opportunity to study. The philanthropist founded Clara Lionel Foundation in 2012 inspired by her trip to Malawi which showed her that more than half of the population live below the poverty line which means a huge percentage of children don’t finish school and opt to work from an early age. The Clara Lionel foundation aims to fund programs that remove barriers to education by offering financial support to children and their communities which supports thousands of girls to move through secondary school.
Rihanna single-handedly revolutionised an industry (with the launch of beauty line Fenty Beauty) that has catered almost exclusively to white customers with darker shades often added as an after-thought. While other brands have been slow to catch on to the power of the ‘brown pound’ Rihanna saw a gap in the market and served the needs of the people. Black women were largely under catered to and this was the first time underrepresented, underserved women and cultures were featured in a global prestige beauty campaign. Rihanna provided a viable product for women who all too often heard the phrase “We don’t stock your shade” at makeup stores. She’s sold more than 50 million albums, in only a year her makeup line Fenty Beauty pulled off a makeover of the makeup industry like never seen before, had countless Number Ones and picked up eight Grammy awards. Singer, producer, fashion designer, actor, business woman and philanthropist Robyn Rihanna Fenty has been recognised for her work in advocating for education and health care and speaking up for girls and women and we couldn’t be prouder of giving this amazing woman the spotlight she so rightly deserves!
6, MALALA YOUSAFZAI
Our next honoree is the story of a girl whose story shook the world. A girl who survived a gun shot wound to the head because she was campaigning against patriarchal and cultural practises that hindered women and children having a chance at education in her home country Pakistan. We’re talking about none other than the honourable Malala Yousafzai and our next posts will feature more information on her work and fight for women and children to have a right to education in Pakistan.
The daughter of an outspoken social activist and educator, Malala was an excellent student and at eleven years of age Malala fought for girls’ right to education. She run beside her dad and protested the school closings giving her first speech—“How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” At age 11. Her speech was publicized throughout Pakistan which allowed her to gain some form of public recognition for her efforts despite her age. Toward the end of 2008, the TTP announced that all girls’ schools in Swat would be shut down imposing strict Islamic law, destroying or shutting down girls’ schools, banning women from any active role in society, and carrying out suicide bombings. 3 years later, an assassination attempt on her life made it very clear that her endless campaign for girls’ right to education was threatening the order of society in Pakistan.
Malala was on her way home from school with her friends when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. They proudly took responsibility for the attempt on her life but thankfully she survived the attack and was flown to Birmingham for surgery. The incident elicited protests, and her cause was taken up around the world. Despite the attack on her life by Taliban gunmen, Malala has continued her struggle, has won multiple awards (including the Nobel Peace Prize) and become a leading advocate of girls’ rights speaking out publicly against the prohibition on the education of girls that was imposed by the Taliban. She also founded the Malala Fund which invests in education programmes to help girls go to school and reach their full potential and opened a girls’ school in Lebanon for refugees from the Syrian Civil War. And that is why we champion her efforts this Women’s History Month!
7, WINNIE MADIZIKELA MANDELA
To most of those outside of South Africa, our next honoree was mostly known as the wife of Nelson Mandela. But to the majority of South Africans, she was the most prominent voice of dissent in the struggle against Apartheid after the leaders of the ANC (including her husband) were jailed on Robben Island or forced to flee the country. For the women of South Africa, she was a guiding light who taught us to be defiant and fearless. To be powerful. To embody strength, fortitude, and conviction. We are talking about none other than the Mother of the Nation – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her struggle and endless campaigns against apartheid and gender inequality/abuse against Black women in South Africa.
At the peak of her resistance, the apartheid government banished her and the children to Brandfort township and continued to endure the assault from the state. In 1969 she was sentenced to 18 months in solitary confinement. “Prisoner 1323/69: property of the government” was her nickname and she was subjected to daily torture, beatings and was left without sanitary towels during her period. It was at Brandfort that Winnie evolved into a strong political force. Winnie became very prominent spokesperson on the unjust treatment of Black women from both a cultural and racial stand point. She urged young women to challenge the status quo in the patriarchal society which failed to protect her at difficult times in South Africa.
Winnie was the mother of the nation and she led the campaign to free Black women In the country. She represented South African women under apartheid & fought the system like a lioness defending her cubs – tooth and claw. She did not fill the vacuum left by Mandela but simply took her rightful place at the centre of the battle for the freedom of Black people. She was a strong woman who refused to live in the shadow of a man, irrespective of how powerful that man was. Long live mama Winnie.
8, CLAUDIA JONES
Time and time again the contributions and efforts to wider society done by Black Brits go unnoticed or are erased from history and our next honoree is whose legacy has suffered the same fate and its only right we give her the spotlight she rightly deserves. We’re talking about none than the humble and graceful Claudia Jones whose resilience and determination led to the birth of Britain’s first Carnival Festival that we now call Notting Hill carnival following the Notting Hill race riots in 1958.
Originally born in Trinidad, Claudia Jones was part of the pre-Windrush generation of Caribbeans that travelled to Western nations (UK and US in particular) for economic reasons. They were invited to these countries with promises of work and better quality of life. The reality however was much like a nightmare. Claudia’s parents moved to America where the family suffered not only the impoverished lot of working-class native families but also learned the special scourge of indignity stemming from Jim Crow national oppression. In school she also endured many experiences that eventually cemented her belief system in fighting against inequality and continued to shape her into the radical that she was to become. Claudia attended rallies in Harlem joined the Communist Party and the Young Communist League in 1936 where she progressed up the ranks of the movement quickly. In essence being a Communist was illegal in post WW2 America and she was subsequently arrested & imprisoned on Ellis Island in January 1948. She was in and out of prison till 1955 for continuously speaking out against inequality and injustices perpetuated by the American government. A victim of the anti-Communist McCarthy hysteria, she was served a deportation order and soon after she left for London where she would later make history changing Britain’s racial segregation.
Upon arrival in London, Jones was embraced by friends and the Communist Party members of Great Britain. She quickly became affiliated with this faction and continues the work she started in the US: fighting against racism, immigration restrictions and general oppression of West Indians living in London. She co-founded the West Indian Workers and Students’ Association and continued to write and later founded the West Indian Gazette in 1958, which became a key pillar in the rise of Afro consciousness within the Black British community. Racial tensions between Black and White residents in the area led to the widespread racial attacks known as the Notting Hill Riots which lasted from 29 August 1958 – 5th September following the assault of a White woman who had been arguing with her Black boyfriend at Latimer station. Following the successful imprisonment of the White men involved, Claudia Jones set out to organise a ‘Caribbean Carnival’ in January 1959 (now known as the Notting Hill Carnival) in an attempt bridge the cultural gap between the communities. Now known as the ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ (renamed/revamped by Leslie Palmer in 1973) we see thousands of the Black Atlantic diaspora, White and other ethnic minorities enjoying themselves harmoniously: which is the exact outcome Claudia Jones envisioned in 1959.
Claudia Jones changed British West Indian culture, leading the desegregation of multicultural communities in the UK with a street party like no other: the Notting Hill carnival. Long live Miss Claudia Jones
9, ISSA RAE
They say you leave the best till last right? Well, our final honoree this Women’s History Month is a woman whose struggle to fit in and her quest to find her identity would later become material for her award-winning web series The Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl. Ofcourse we’re talking about the amazing and highly talented Issa Rae.
Born to Senegalese parents, Issa Rae grew up in LA but escalating gang violence unnerved Rae’s mother. The family relocated to Senegal with the belief that living in Africa would also instill his children with discipline and respect for their heritage. In 1988, they moved to a lavish home, in Dakar but moved back to LA 2 years later. She studied between private schools where she stood out for being Black and public schools where she was mocked for her so-called white affectations: life experiences that would later shape and define her career into the powerhouse she currently is. Issa studied at Stanford university and created low-budget mockumentary series she wrote about student life at Stanford called ‘‘Dorm Diaries.’’ The series alternated between scenes of action and confessionals which quickly gained momentum around her campus. She soon learned that she had a knack for portraying everyday Black life — not made special by its otherness or defined in contrast to whiteness, but treated as a subject worthy of exploration all of its own.
In the midst of dealing with her creative block and a robbery that resulted in a loss of her equipment, she wrote the words “I’m awkward. And Black.’’ and thus a new baby was born. Issa liked the way they challenged the archetypes generally available for Black people in entertainment, especially women, who are often cast as sassy, power tops, angry or motherly figures — sometimes a combination of them all — but rarely awkward and care free. Much like herself, Issa wanted her characters to defy these stereotypes creating: a woman at home in her Blackness, but shy, who grappled with her identity, who loved rap music but couldn’t dance to it to save her life. This sketch became the basis for her alter ego, J, the protagonist of ‘‘Awkward Black Girl.’’ This series made Issa a hero for uncool Black girls.
Issa’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl won numerous awards for its relatable and hilarious concepts. She grappled with the pressure to dilute her sensibilities to find mainstream approval with directors asking to cast lighter skinned women to replace her and being told she had no audience with the type of content she produced but luckily the rise of digital streaming over the past few years worked in her favour. She then turned her attention to creating a new show titled Insecure partially based off Awkward Black Girl. When Insecure dropped, Issa became the Beyoncé for Black girls who didn’t feel like they had their life together. It was unprecedented, the kind of representation we’d been waiting for. The success of Insecure landed her multiple awards and nominations and proved that just the critical and commercial success of her proved to Hollywood execs that the public is hungry for complex Black characters. She also made her film debut in the acclaimed drama, “The Hate U Give,” and stars in romantic drama, “The Photograph.”
Issa coined the term red-carpet “I’m rooting for everybody Black” at the 2017 Emmy awards is broke the internet and became a rallying cry for the community. Her sentiment is indeed a testament to execs in the industry just to realize that the only people rooting for everybody Black are other Black people. She set out to prove a point about representation in Hollywood and executed her goals so effortlessly. Issa’s constantly creating spaces for Black creatives that she didn’t have when she was on the come-up and bringing up the next generation of Black women behind her who continue to dismantle stereotypical representations of us in the entertainment industry is what Rae says is the most rewarding part of her career. And we couldn’t resist to honour such a revolutionary director who offers hope and is determined to change the representation of Black people in television.
Whew! What a read. Thank you so much for making it this far and we hope that you’ve been [somewhat] inspired by these great women. It’s important that we remember and pay homage to women whose accomplishments have not only changed the lives of other women around the world but also served as inspirations to younger girls who need to see what previous generations have done/are doing to keep the momentum going. As women, we still have a long way to go but it’s great to see that with each new generation women and girls are doing their bit to fight for equality across the board.
Check out our previous female empowerment events below:
2019 Mother’s Day Special – https://bbeldn.co.uk/mothers-day
Men vs Women – https://bbeldn.co.uk/men-vs-women
2018 International Womens Day – Women in the creative industry – https://bbeldn.co.uk/international-womens-day