The Color Purple, the novel that would earn Walker the Pulitzer prize and bring her fame beyond her previous books and poetry, also brought fierce criticism from those furious with her portrayal of violent black men. But Walker's work has always been about the experiences and inner lives of black women – she coined the term "womanism" that describes a movement of black feminists who felt ignored by mainstream feminism.
The eighth child of sharecroppers, Walker grew up in segregated Georgia. When she married the white Jewish civil rights lawyer Mel Leventhal, they were the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi, defying threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A longtime activist, she has been a vocal member of the civil rights movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and in recent years has protested against the Iraq war and been part of a mission to deliver aid to Gaza.
One half of the most famous pair of sisters in the sporting world, Venus Williams rose from poverty to break open the world of women's tennis. That the sisters are inspirational is without doubt; the question is how to choose which one inspires most.
Brought up in the tough LA suburb of Compton, both smashed through a staggering amount of obstacles – the poverty they were born into and racism in tennis, not to mention the shooting of their sister in a gangland murder.
But while there is a debate over who is the better player, it was Venus who first took women's tennis to a new level with her power and 127mph serve, becoming the first black woman player of the modern era to make world no 1, in 2002 – and then reinvented herself as an entrepreneur. She was the inspiration for the younger girl's career ("I wanted to do everything just like Venus", Serena admitted), decided the pair should branch out from tennis into the fashion world, and battled for women to win equal prize money to the men at Wimbledon.Now, at the age of 30, she has five Wimbledon titles, seven grand slams, 43 WTA titles and three Olympic golds, as well as an interior-design company and a fashion line. Commentators watching the sisters have never found any bitterness between them. Serena insists they are a team: "To be a part of that is super cool. I mean, we're the Williams sisters, you know."
Not only did she pave the way for other female comedians, the characters that Victoria Wood, 57, creates have always celebrated a very ordinary kind of British woman: in Dinnerladies, it was the middle-aged women of the title; in Acorn Antiques, it was Mrs Overall, the cleaner who routinely stole the show. Since winning TV's New Faces in 1973 her lasting professional relationships have mainly been with women, such as Julie Walters and Celia Imrie. Often found on lists of the best comedians, voted for by public and her peers alike, Wood finds the comedy in everyday women's lives: insecurities, weight loss, the school run and ageing. She even made jokes about her hysterectomy.
Wood won two Baftas for her wartime drama Housewife, 49 – which she wrote and starred in – proving her talents are not just confined to comedy.
"Whip me if you dare," was Lubna Hussein's defiant message to judges in Sudan, where the former journalist was arrested for the crime of wearing trousers. Hussein soon attracted international attention as a symbol of women's oppression in countries with strict interpretations of Islamic law.
She was arrested at a restaurant in Khartoum in 2009 under restrictive decency laws, beaten in a police van and held with 12 other trouser-wearing women who had also been arrested. Ten of the women pleaded guilty and were given 10 lashes and fined, but Hussein asked to go to trial. As a press officer for the UN, she was offered immunity from prosecution but she resigned so that she could face the charge, inviting women's rights campaigners, protesters and journalists to her trial – and where her sentence could be 40 lashes. "I am not afraid," she said in an interview. "It is my chance to defend the women of Sudan." Hussein was not sentenced to flogging, but was fined and briefly imprisoned when she refused to pay; other women who haven't been given international attention have since been flogged under public decency laws. Despite death threats, Hussein continues to speak out about women's rights in Sudan.
In 2006, at a concert in Zimbabwe, Africa's "premier diva", aged 50, launched an attack on Mugabe: "I can't understand someone who is burning his own country and abducting his own people. If you live by violence, you die by violence." The audience prevented her being pulled of the stage and she managed to flee.
In Benin, where Kidjo was brought up, she faced opposition because singers were not seen as respectable. But more serious problems arrived in the 1980s when she refused to praise the communist regime in her work. She fled to Paris and was unable to speak to her parents on the phone for fear of putting them in danger. Today she is wildly popular – gathering Grammy awards, A-list collaborators such as Alicia Keys, and playing at events including Nobel peace prize ceremonies – but she still pens political songs, is a UN goodwill ambassador, supports groups such as Oxfam, and Unicef and has a foundation to improve access to education for African girls.
Deborah Sorrentino is a writer and ceramic tile artist iving in Syracuse, NY capturing the bold and beautiful moments in her life with words and paint.