It’s Black History Month, and we hope you are celebrating the Black voices who make history and are shaping the world today. I couldn’t let this month draw to a close without bringing attention to voices who overcame the “double handicap,” in the words of Shirley Chisholm. It’s shocking how few opportunities are available for Black women to tell their stories, then and now.

Voices who faced unique challenges and overcame overwhelming odds in order to make history.

Voices who not only made history but also immortalized their experiences by writing about them. Here are five Black women who were the first in their field (and the books they wrote about it):

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

Inside cover of "A Book of Medical Discourse in Two Parts," by Dr. Rebecca Lee CrumplerThe first African American woman to…
earn a degree from the New England Female Medical College
become a physician in the United States
publish a medical textbook

Her book: A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts

Rebecca Lee Crumpler first made history in 1864 by becoming the first African American person to earn a degree from the New England Female Medical College. Crumpler went on to become the first African American female physician in the United States. Keep in mind that in 1860, there were only 300 women physicians compared to 54,543 men. None of them were African American.

In 1883, Crumpler made history again and became the first African American physician to publish a medical textbook, titled “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.”

Very little is known about Rebecca Lee Crumpler’s life; in fact, much of the information we do have is from the introductory chapter of her book. Crumpler’s book can be read online or downloaded for free courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine.

Janet Collins (1917-2003)

Portrait of Janet Collins, one of the Black women we honor this monthThe first African American woman to…
perform full-time with the Metropolitan Opera

Her book: Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins (co-authored with Yaël Tamar Lewin)

Janet Collins knew breaking into the world of ballet would be difficult but was adamant in her desire to dance. In fact, Collins’ parents encouraged her to pursue art instead, believing there were more opportunities for women of color in this field versus the predominantly white world of ballet. Nevertheless, Collins began studying dance when she was ten years old and received her first offer to perform when she was 15. She rejected the offer after she was told she would have to paint her face white. Collins persisted and in 1952, one year after joining the corps de ballet, she became the first African American prima ballerina to perform full-time with the Metropolitan Opera.

Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005)

Portrait of Constance Baker Motley, gazing downward and working at her deskThe first African American woman…
to argue a case before the Supreme Court
elected to the state Senate
appointed as a federal judge

Her book: Equal Justice Under Law

Constance Baker Motley’s describes her early childhood experiences with racism as fairly sheltered. She writes in her autobiography it wasn’t until high school when she began to really experience the oppression of Jim Crow laws. Motley devoted her life to representing people victimized by racial prejudice, became a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund during the civil rights movement, and by 1965 had personally argued ten Supreme Court cases and won nine.

After leaving the NAACP in 1965, Motley became the first African American woman elected to the state Senate. In 1966, President Johnson appointed her the first African American woman Federal Court judge.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Portrait of Shirley Chrisholm facing forward with a challenging stare, she looks about to speak. She is just one of the Black women who inspires us daily.The first African American woman to…
serve in US Congress
seek a major political party’s nomination in a presidential campaign

Her book: Unbought and Unbossed

Shirley Chisholm initially rejected a career in politics, telling the college professors who urged her to do so that she faced a “double handicap” as a Black woman. Instead, Chisholm started her life as a nursery school teacher, worked her way into a position as a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care, and then won a seat in the New York State Legislature. In 1968, Chisholm embraced her destiny and became the first African American woman to serve in US Congress, eventually earning the nickname “Fighting Shirley.”

In 1972, Chisholm became the first Black woman to seek a presidential nomination from a major political party. She was banned from televised debates, permitted to make only one speech, yet earned 10 percent of the delegates’ votes.

Dr. Mae Jemison (1956- )

The official NASA portrait of Mission Specialist Mae JemisonThe first African American woman to…
be admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program
travel into space

Her book: Find Where the Wind Goes

Mae Jemison was always an avid student. While working on her MD at Cornell, Jemison found time to study in Cuba and Kenya, and work at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand. After graduation, Jemison worked as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. When she finally returned home to the United States, Jemison decided to pursue a different dream. She applied for admission to NASA’s astronaut training program. In 1987, Jemison was one of only 15 candidates from a pool of approximately 2,000 to qualify for the training program. She had secured her spot as the first African American woman to do so.

In 1992, Jemison boarded the Endeavour and became the first African American woman to travel into space. She spent eight days and over 190 hours in space, studying the effects of weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and the crew.

As we’ve seen, Black women the world over are not just making history, they’re also lending their voices to it. Check out these books, authors, and other inspiring Black women writers this Black History Month and any day of the year.