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Josephine Baker

Bearing many monikers – Black Pearl, Bronze Venus, Creole Goddess – Josephine Baker was the first woman of color to star in a major motion picture and to become an international entertainer. Born Freda Josephine McDonald she was adopted by former slaves of African and Native American ancestry and raised by them in Little Rock, Arkansas. Themselves stage performers, they introduced their daughter to the stage when she was only a year old. Josephine was persistently slovenly and underfed as a child due to her family’s impoverishment. She had very little education, attending elementary school only up to fifth grade. At eight-years-old, Josephine started working as a live-in maid for wealthy white families. Fleeing abusive employers, one of whom burned her hands after she put too much soap in the laundry, she often lived on the streets, sleeping in cardboard boxes, eating food out of garbage cans, and dancing on…

Elizabeth Blackwell – First Female M.D.

Although born in Britain, Elizabeth Blackwell has the distinction of being the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US. Making pioneering strides for women in medicine, she went on to become a social and moral reformer in the US and her native UK. Following in her footsteps, her sister Emily was the third woman in the US to earn a medical degree. One of nine children, Elizabeth and Emily had a happy, but financially troubled childhood. In an effort to bolster their financial standing, the family started its own school, The Cincinnati English and French Academy for Young Ladies. Elizabeth then went on to accept a position teaching music in North Carolina to save for her medical school tuition and expenses. Elizabeth Blackwell’s greatest ambition was to attend medical school. Of her aspirations, she said, “My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation…

Julia de Burgos

Puerto Rican poet, Julia de Burgos was more than a master writer and poet. She was also a tireless advocate for Puerto Rican independence. The oldest in a family of thirteen children, Julia de Burgos was born to a farming family in Carolina, Puerto Rico, though her father also served in the National Guard. Per Burgos, her childhood played a large part in her writings. She said, “My childhood was all a poem in the river, and a river in the poem of my first dreams.” Her family eventually relocated to Wiedras, where she won a scholarship to University High School. Following that graduation, she attended the University of Puerto Rico intending to become a teacher. She graduated at only nineteen years old with a degree in education and taught elementary school. She retired from teaching when she married Ruben Rodrigues Beauchamp in 1936. Sadly, this marriage ended in…

J. K. Rowling

The minute you hear the name JK Rowling, you probably think of Harry Potter. After publishing and producing the books and movies about the adolescent wizard, JK Rowling shot to stardom and fame. The Harry Potter series quickly became the best-selling book series in history. JK Rowling was not always as successful and prominent in the writing community as she is today. Her life is truly a classic tale of rags-to-riches. Rowlings was first inspired to write the famed series while on a train trip to London. Unfortunately, she soon started on a years-long unfortunate turn of events. In rapid succession, she lost her mother to death, gave birth to her first child, and was divorced from her first husband. She soon found herself living on state welfare benefits for nearly five years before the first Harry Potter book was published in 2007. Six sequels followed, each more anticipated…

Soledad O’Brien

Born to immigrant parents – her father was Australian, while her mother was Cuban – Soledada O’Brien is a broadcast journalist and executive producer. O’Brien is also a television anchor and correspondent. She has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera America, and HBO. She has also co-anchored CNN’s American Morning and was the anchor of the CNN morning news program, Starting Point. Because Interracial marriage remained illegal in Maryland until 1967, O’Brien’s parents married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., where marriage laws were not as restrictive. One of six children, she valued education and enrolled in Harvard-Radcliffe College in 1984 as a pre-med and English and American literature major. She completed her education at Harvard University in 2000 and embarked on a career as a medical reporter with WXKS-FM in Boston. She followed this position with a job as Associate Producer at WBZ-TV in Boston. After that, she was…

Rachel Carson

American marine biologist, Rachel Louise Carson was the author of Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book that is nationally credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Other books on conservation by Rachel Carson include Under The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and Witness for Nature. She was also the author or numerous articles, one of which was deemed too good for the publication it was intended for, and turned into one of her award-winning books. Rachel started her career as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Her environmental attention turned to conservation and she fought to bring environmental concerns to the attention of the American people. She was born in 1907 on a small family farm in Pennsylvania. An avid reader as a child, she began writing stories as young as eight years old. Her first story was published when she was only ten…

Michelle Bachelet

Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria had an unusual road to her second office as President of Chile. Bachelet was originally elected to the presidency in 2006 becoming the first woman to serve as Chilean President. Following that original, and historic, term of office, she was appointed to serve as the first executive director of the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In 2014, she ran successfully for a second term. In addition to being the first woman president, she was also the first person to win the presidential election twice via competitive elections. Bachelet was born in a middle class suburb of Santiago. Her family was a military one and young Michelle spent her childhood traveling all over Chile from military base to military base. In 1962, the family relocated to the US, returning to Chile in 1964. She attended the University of…

Ellen Ochoa

American engineer and former astronaut, Ellen Ochoa is the Director of the Johnson Space Center. Selected by NASA in 1990, Ochoa is the also the first Hispanic woman to go into space, not just from the US, but from anywhere in the world. A classically trained flutist and California native, Ochoa holds a doctorate degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University. While at Stanford, she researched optical systems for use in information processing. At the NASA Ames Research Center, she was an integral part of a research group working on establishing optical systems that automate space exploration. As though being the first Hispanic woman to go into space were not accomplishment enough, Ochoa went on to explore space repeatedly, eventually logging nearly 1,000 hours of space travel. Amazingly, she is now a veteran of four space missions. Her additional space missions include: STS-56 ATLAS-2 Discovery (1993) STS-66 Atlantis (1994…

Rosario Dawson

Rosario Dawson is an actress of Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Irish and Native American descent. Dawson’s first acting role came at age fifteen in the 1995 controversial teen drama, Kids. She was born in New York City where her family moved into an abandoned building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They could not afford to pay rent, so in this abandoned building, the family worked together to install electrical wiring and plumbing turning the abandoned property into habitable housing, where the children were then raised. Dawson says this renovation taught her that if you wanted something better, you had to make it happen for yourself. This can-do spirit served the actress well on her career path. She followed her initial acting job with roles in He Got Game, Men in Black II, Rent, and Unstoppable. A celebrity with a heart, Rosario Dawson is an avid and vocal political…

Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek is a Mexican-American actress and producer. Her career began in Mexico starring in the telenovela Teresa and the film Miracle Alley. Her role in this film earned her a nomination for the Ariel Award. She relocated to Hollywood in 1991. She gained popularity due in part to her sultry, exotic beauty and her role in Desperado in 1995. Her breakthrough role, though, came in 2002 when she played Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in the movie, Frida. This role garnered the actress nominations as Best Actress for the Academy Awards, BAFTA Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Golden Globe Award. Hayek was born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Mexico to a family of wealthy, devout Roman Catholics. As a child, she was diagnosed with dyslexia and with ADHD. She overcame these obstacles to attend college at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where she studied International Relations. When she arrived…