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Smashing the glass ceiling: Seven black women firsts you need to know about

Kamala Harris’ historic victory as the first black woman to occupy the US vice president’s office is an opportunity to look back at the trailblazing black women who shattered glass ceilings before her.

In case you’ve been under a rock for the last week, we’re delighted to inform you that Kamala Harris has become the US’ first ever black woman Vice President. This follows the jettisoning of Donald Trump’s presidency to the dustbin of history (though Trump seems determined to cling to the sides of the bin for as long as is possible) in the country’s elections last week. (More on that here.) 

Harris ran alongside US president elect Joe Biden, who will become the 46th president of the US when he’s inaugurated in January 2021.

Harris’ historic win has been hailed as a victory not just for black women in the US, but across the world, who have historically been excluded from the opportunities that saw their white counterparts taking up prominent positions.

This historic moment seems like a great opportunity to take a look at other black women who have shattered glass ceilings in the fields of sport, arts, science and more, in the US and beyond.

Here are seven other black women firsts you should know about.

  1. First black woman head of state

Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the first elected woman head of state in Africa, and the world, usually gets credit for this one. And rightfully so: she was elected for two terms, in 2005 and again in 2011. (Johnson was also the first Liberian to become a Nobel laureate when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.)

But few people might know that there was one woman president on the continent before her: Sylvie Kinigi was the acting president of Burundi from February to October 1993. Even though she was acting in the position, after President Melchior Ndadaye was shot dead, she was still the president – and that makes her Africa’s first woman president.

  1. First black woman in space

Mae Jemison joined the Endeavour space mission as the first African American – and black woman – in space, in 1992. According to Nasa, Jemison joined the space programme in 1987 – the first black woman to do – and eventually became part of a joint US-Japan mission aimed at conducting life science and materials experiments in space. She was co-investigator of the mission’s bone cell research element.

Jemison practised as a medical doctor and joined the US Peace Corps before pursuing her dream of becoming an astronaut.

In a 2014 interview, Jemison said her race hadn’t even occurred to her when she first applied to be part of the space program.

“I couldn’t have cared if there’s been a thousand (African American) people in space before me, or whether there had been none. I wanted to go,” she said.

However, when she finally went into space, she took along a few items that represented the black community.

“Because, they hadn’t been included, and I thought that was an important thing to do,” she said.

Watch the full interview here:

  1. First black woman to win a Nobel prize

Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Praised for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”, according to the Nobel website, Maathai started a grassroots movement in her country to counter deforestation and ecological devastation. The “Green Belt Movement” initially mobilised Kenyan women to plant trees in their own communities, but quickly spread across the continent and led to the planting of 30 million trees. Maathai’s message spread across the globe and she became a world leader in the environmental activism space.

  1. First black woman to win Olympic gold

American athlete Alice Coachman became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 1948, beating her white co-competitors to the podium in the high jump category. Like so many black women at the time, she had to overcome numerous obstacles to get there. According to the New York Times, Coachman was not allowed to train on athletic fields with white people due to segregation laws in the United States at the time, so she trained barefoot on dirt roads using ropes and sticks for high jumps.

She returned home from the Olympics to her home city of Albany, in the US state of Georgia and was honoured at a local auditorium. But the mayor at the time refused to shake her hand. Coachman had to leave the auditorium through a side door because she was black.

  1. First black woman to win an Oscar

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind. McDaniel had a long career as a blues singer and vaudeville performer before landing the role. She was also the first African American woman to perform on radio, making her on-air debut in the 1920s.

Despite the film’s success, McDaniel and all the other black actors in Gone with the Wind were not allowed to attend its 1939 premiere because of the US’ segregation laws.

Halle Berry was the first black woman to win a best actress award at the Academy Awards in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball. Nearly 20 years later, she is still the only black woman to have done so.

6. First black woman to win a Grammy

In 1958, Ella Fitzgerald became both the first black person and the first black woman to win a Grammy award. Fitzgerald won two awards, for Best Jazz Performance and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She would go on to win 14 Grammys over the course of her career and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.

Fitzgerald never knew her father and her mother died when she was a teenager, and the singer struggled through homelessness and poverty as a young singer before her career took off. Fitzgerald’s success ultimately landed her name in the history books as one of the greatest singers of all time.

As singer Bing Crosby put it: “Man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest of them all.”

7. First black woman to travel to every country in the world

You may have missed the news due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the US elections news gobbling up your screen (and your sanity), but in October 2020, at the age of 35, Ugandan-American Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to have travelled to every country on Earth. The Detroit-born travel blogger began her global odyssey in 2017 and now uses her platform to campaign against the use of single-use plastics. But she also uses her experiences to break down stereotypes about countries you’d never think of traveling to.

“When it comes to Brown and Black countries, we most often see negativity, and that wasn’t my experience,” she told MSN.

“I remember prior to going to Russia and Saudi (Arabia) and Libya, people were like, ‘You have to be so careful. Russians hate Black people, Saudis hate Africans.’ All these different things, but I had really beautiful experiences in all of those countries.”

In an interview with Lonely Planet, she said she’d been warned by a South Sudanese official not to visit the country because she was putting her life at risk. But she went anyway.

“I had such a great time in South Sudan. It goes to show, if you believe everything you read, you’ll never go anywhere,” she said.