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Three Influential Women to Celebrate This Black History Month

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Illinois State chapter.

Februrary is Black History Month! Deciding on which figures to write about was no easy decision for me; however, I really enjoyed dedicating a bit of my time to learn about the countless Black women that have shaped so many aspects of society today. Nevertheless, there’s no better time to shed light on some of the most influential Black women that have shaped the world of sports, literature, science, and beyond. Here are just a few women that I have found to be exponentially influential figures that deserve some extra appreciation this month! 

  1. Simone Biles 

At just 24 years old, Simone Biles has completely altered the world of gymnastics forever. Through earning 32 Olympic and World Champion medals combined, Biles has been named as one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time!

Her accomplishments span far beyond her athletic abilities, however. In the summer of 2018, Biles came forward with a statement regarding her personal experience with Larry Nassar’s abuse against the USA Gymnastics team. Bile’s outreach and response to this situation provided a network of support for her fellow teammates and demonstrated the power she holds within this community. In May of 2018, Biles and her fellow survivor teammates were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. 

Most recently, during the 2021 Summer Olympics, Biles made an unexpected move that left many Americans surprised. On Instagram, Biles announced that she would be withdrawing from remaining events. Biles explained that she was not in an ideal headspace to continue competing, and made the honorable choice to prioritize her mental health. Through doing this, Biles had once again shed light on the less glamorous aspects of competition and started an on-going conversation regarding the mental health of athletes and young adults in our world today. 

  1. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, most known for, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” has received many awards and over 50 honorary degrees over the span of her career. Although writing may have been among Angelou’s most notable accomplishments, her civil activism paved a strong undertone throughout her life as well as her work. From working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. to writing and discussing openly about her troubled life growing up, Angelou will always have a special place in American literature and history as a whole. 

Being one of the first Black women to openly discuss her personal life, Angelou’s work is admired as being unapologetic. In 1993, Angelou spoke at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and recited her poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” and resulted in heightened fame in the rest of her work. Additionally, Angelou was never secretive or ashamed about her past which included a history in the sex worker industry. Angelou comments on this aspect of her life by explaining that she sees it as important for adults to demonstrate their seemingly “impure” qualities in order to create a more realistic standard for young folks. 

Maya Angelou has impacted the course of American literature, and has allowed for her highly celebrated autobiographies to emphasize her experiences through the eyes of a young Black woman in the late 1960s. 

  1. Mae Jemison 

Mae Jemison, most known for being the first Black woman to travel to space, is a historic figure that has impacted the role of women in STEM and Science forever. Jemison’s younger years were formed in Chicago and eventually led her to attending Stanford while studying chemical engineering as well as African and African-American Studies. Following her completion at Stanford, Jemison then attended Cornell Medical school, and pursued the path of becoming a general practitioner within the Peace Corps. 

After serving in the Peace Corps, Jemison applied to NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987 after a few prior attempts. Jemison was selected as one of fifteen candidates to embark on the STS-47 space journey out of nearly 2,000 applicants. After returning back to earth after the 8 day trip, Jemison then resigned from NASA, leaving many colleagues a bit disheartened with her decision. 

Following Jemison’s impact on historic space travel with NASA, she then worked to serve as a member on the board of directors for the World Sickle Cell Foundation for two years and also founded the Jemison Group, Inc. This was a consulting firm that helped consider the sociocultural effect of technological advancements in our world today. Although Mae Jemison’s journey with space travel was a fairly short one, the impact and resilience she has left behind for other women to follow is far from minute. 

Simone Biles, Maya Angelou, and Mae Jemison are just a few of the incredible Black women (and men!) that February is all about. If you haven’t already, I would highly encourage you to take some time this month to dedicate learning more about individuals like these that inspire you!

Eileen Quinn

Illinois State '23