African American women have played an important part in shaping contemporary American and African American culture. Having had to overcome great odds, their role has come to greater prominence and appreciation due to the combined achievement of the civil rights and feminist movements of the 20th century. Eminent and renowned African American women are becoming ever more common in politics, science, literature and arts, sports, media and entertainment. Much work remains to be done, however, before the exceptional and iconoclastic image of a successful African American woman as an "exceptional achiever," is replaced by a general acceptance of the virtues and abilities of a commonly overlooked and discriminated group of talented Americans.
The track record of African American women success stories is perhaps best understood in the context of Washington DC and Hollywood, or in the sports column. But there are many less famous and appreciated African American women that have made new discoveries and have advanced science and technology in the United States. Such exemplary examples are relayed by author Otha Richard Sullivan in her book Black Stars: African American Women Scientists and Inventors. Indeed, the groundbreaking work and inventions accredited to female African Americans go almost as far back as the abolishment of slavery in the 19th century. Sullivan relays the earliest stories, such as that of one Ellen F. Eglin, a black housekeeper who invented and patented a new kind of clothes wringer in the 1880s. She subsequently sold her patent to a white manufacturer because of fears that the market would not take it up due to the color of the skin of the inventor. Another African American inventor born into slavery, Sara E. Goode, patented and sold the first of its kind fold-up bed in 1885. Other notable patents filed by African American women in the 19th and early 20th century pertain to improvements in industrial weaving processes, hotel ring bells, medicines and cosmetics formulas. One of the first African American to become a self-made millionaire was Annie Turnbo Malone who in 1900 patented a "hot hair comb" to straighten hair and various hair treatments. The list of notable African American female scientists and innovators grows much longer and more sophisticated through the 20th century. Sullivan lists several examples such as physician and astronaut Mae Carol Jemison, who has had a dignified academic career in colleges such as Cornell and Dartmouth and has played a significant role in encouraging African American students to embrace science. She does not miss on mentioning some successful African American businesswomen who have switched a science or technical profession for the boardroom chair. One such example is Ursula Burns, who has served as CEO of Zerox and is the first African American woman to take direction of a Fortune 500 Company.
African American Women have had significant achievements in arts and literature as well. Maya Angelou who is regarded as the most visible icon of African American women on the literary stage through her influential autobiographical works she concisely states in a foreword to Jontyle Teresa Robinson's Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists that "if [one] sought to understand the depth of strength in the human heart, I would direct the quester to search in African American Women's art". Angelou directs attention to the many ingenious female representatives of the creative African American tradition, mentioning the most memorable ones by name. She notes that "[one] should pursue answers on African American survival in the words of Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Mari Evans; in the choreography of Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Judith Jamison; in the vocal genius of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Leontyne Price; in the compositions of Mary Lou Williams, Undine Moore, and Margaret Bond; in the dramatic art of Diana Sands, Louise Beavers, and Alfre Woodard; in the mental clarity of Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida Wells Barnett, and Dorothy Height".
Despite such outstanding examples, the full realization of the potential of African American women as workers, scholars, artists, businesspeople and citizens remains unattained. In a critical article for the American Prospect African American economist Cecilia Conrad laments that "black women confront many of the same issues as white women, as black men and as working people in general, but these issues are compounded by the intersection of race and gender." She recommends that specific policies targeting African American women should be enacted to reduce high poverty rates and enhance their self-perceived economic security, allowing them to strive for higher educational and career goals.