From Nelson to Oprah: Iconic heroes to inspire your next baby's name

(from left to right) Jesse Owens (instagram/ blacksporthistory); Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (pinterest/ mailonline); Betty Friedan (instagram/ therenaissancewoman); Nelson Mandela (pinterest/ mailonline). Main image (Parent24)
(from left to right) Jesse Owens (instagram/ blacksporthistory); Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (pinterest/ mailonline); Betty Friedan (instagram/ therenaissancewoman); Nelson Mandela (pinterest/ mailonline). Main image (Parent24)

If you're pregnant and looking for inspiring baby names, consider the first names of these powerful characters who have helped to shape history and society for a more equal life for all. 

[We know people are people though. Some are saints, but most of us can be a bit of a mixed bag, do some great things in life, but also have troublesome personal lives. We focused on the good stuff here.]

For more baby name ideas, from vintage to quirky, click here.


1. Ada Lovelace

Meaning: Noble/nobility
Origin: German

Ada was a female British mathematician cited as the world's first computer programmer.

2. Ai Weiwei

Meaning: Power
Origin: Chinese

Weiwei is a Chinese artist who uses his art to make political statements, especially about freedom of speech. The Chinese government even put a 4-year ban on him travelling, but his passport was returned to him in 2015. (Weiwei is his first name and Ai his surname.)

3. Albert Einstein

Meaning: Noble, bright
Origin: German

Albert was a German-born physicist who developed the Theory of Relativity, which changed modern physics. He is considered one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century. In 1921 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

4. Alfonsina Strada

Meaning: Noble, ready
Origin: Italian

Alfonsina was the only woman to ever compete in the 3,613 km Giro d'Italia cycle race, one of the hardest! She completed it in 1924, and even though she did not win, she proved to the public that women are just as strong as men. 

5. Amelia Earhart

Meaning: Work
Origin: German

One of the most famous aviators ever, Amelia was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She wanted to be the first woman to fly across the entire world but she never made it to her destination, and her plane's wreckage was never found. 

6. Angela Davis

Meaning: Angel
Origin: Latin

This radical African-American activist is popularly known for her involvement in the Black Power movement and the Black Panthers. Her bravery against racism during the civil right movement is admirable and can teach us to always face the bully and never back down. Today, she is a lecturer at UCLA and continues to comment on social justice issues. 

7. Audre Lorde

Meaning: Noble strength
Origin: French from English (Audrey)

Audre was an author, poet, activist and feminist. She explored and challenged societal ideas of female identity through writing. She has always pushed for intersectionality through her work. 


8. Bantu Steve Biko

Meaning: People
Origin: Nguni

Bantu was an anti-Apartheid activist. He strongly believed in liberating black people from the mental constraints of slavery and apartheid through the Black Consciousness Movement. 

Also read: Give African kids African names

9. Barack Obama

Meaning: Thunderbolt, lightning or blessing
Origin: Arabic

Barack became the 44th president of the United States in 2008, and the first African American to be elected to that office.

Not all heroes wear capes—but some do.

A post shared by Barack Obama (@barackobama) on

10. Barbara Walters

Meaning: Foreign woman
Origin: Latin

Barbara is an American journalist who became the first female co-host of a news show in the USA. She paved the way for women in journalism, broadcasting and the workforce. 

11. Betty Friedan

Meaning: Pledged to God (from Elizabeth)
Origin: Hebrew

Betty was a writer, activist and feminist. She wrote a book titled The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which is often cited as the sparking the second wave of feminism in the 20th century. This book challenged the ideas of traditional roles that were given to women and showed that women sought fulfilment in life from more than motherhood and being a wife. 

Let’s find out. #BettyFriedan

A post shared by The Renaissance Woman (@therenaissancewoman_) on


12. Chinua Achebe

Meaning: May God fight on my behalf
Origin: Igbo, Nigerian

Chinua is sometimes referred to as the "father of modern African literature". Achebe's books were a response to the unjust and often incorrect representation of African people by European writers. 

13. Cleopatra

Meaning: Glory of the father
Origin: Greek

Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. She was such a smart, alluring and powerful leader that her death meant the end of the Egyptian dynasty and Rome took over the ruling of the country.


14. Diana, Princess of Wales

Meaning: Divine
Origin: Latin

Diana was a British monarch and humanitarian. She worked with many charities around the world, mostly those that helped orphaned children and people living with HIV and Aids. 

Also read: IN PICTURES: What Prince William and Queen Elizabeth looked like as babies


Eric and 29 other strong baby names for boys


15. Fatima Meer

Meaning: Captivating/a woman who abstains
Origin: Arabic

Fatima was a South African writer and anti-apartheid activist who pushed forward the rights of Indian and Muslim people. She was close friends with the Mandela family, wrote the foreword to Nelson Mandela's book and was detained with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for 6 months. 

Women’s Month Day 17: Born in Durban, the late Prof Fatima Meer was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. She became an activist from an age of 16 when she helped raised money for the famine in Bengal. She assisted in the family-owned newspaper ‘Indian Views’ where she learnt the power of words. With the exposure of the newspaper she became aware of the racial discrimination that existed in South Africa. She was the first non-white woman to be appointed as lecturer at a white South African University. #shadesofbrown #fatimameer #antiapartheid #womeninhistory #southafricanhistory #southafrica #southafrican #southafricanwomen #southafricanindian #womensmarch #womenpower #girlpower #capetown #durban #johannesburg #throwbackthursday

A post shared by Shades of Brown (@_shadesofbrown_) on

16. Frantz Fanon

Meaning: Free man
Origin: German 

Frantz was a Martinique psychoanalyst and philosopher who is most famous for his written works that critiqued colonisation and the impact it especially had on enslaved people. In his famous book Wretched of the Earth, he wrote, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” 

17. Frida Kahlo

Meaning: Peaceful
Origin: German

Frida is one of the most famous painters to ever live. She was a Mexican self-portrait, surrealist artist and feminist, who never shied away from expressing herself and stood firmly for what she believed in.


18. Gloria Steinham

Meaning: Glory
Origin: Latin

Gloria is considered the Mother of Feminism. She led the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She is also famously known for going undercover as a Playboy waitress to expose the sexism injustices of the club and magazine in 1963.


A post shared by Gloria Steinem (@gloriasteinem) on


19. Harvey Milk

Meaning: Battle worthy
Origin: French

Harvey was a political activist who fought for the rights of the gay community in the 1970s. Not only did he fight for gay rights but he was an intersectional activist that wanted to better the lives of working-class, black and brown men and women. 

20. Helen Joseph & Helen Suzman

Meaning: Bright/shining light
Origin: Greek

Helen Joseph: Helen was an English born anti-apartheid activist who used her white privilege to shed light on the racial divide of the country during the apartheid era. She was a founding member of the Congress of Democrats, which considered themselves white allies to black freedom fighters. Her fight for freedom saw her being banned for many years by the apartheid government but even that would not deter her from fighting for equality for all.

Helen Suzman: Another big figure in the South African human rights movement, Helen was born to Jewish immigrant parents. In 1953 she joined Parliament, where she tirelessly fought against discrimination and human rights violations. 

21.  Huey P. Newton & Hugh Masekela

Meaning: Intellect
Origin: German

Huey: One of the founding members of the Black Panther, he became a prominent figure in the Black Power movement that fought for the liberation of black people in the US during the 60s.

Hugh: This South African jazz musician and composer is often referred to as 'the father of South African jazz'. At 21, he was exiled to America and began using his music to sing about the state South Africa was in. While he was not physically in the country, his defiant music played a huge role in the anti-apartheid movement. 


22. Iris Chang

Meaning: Rainbow
Origin: Greek

Iris was a Chinese-American author, journalist, historian and human rights activist. Most of her work focuses on the experiences of Chinese Americans and their place in American society. 


24. Jesse Owens

Meaning: Gift
Origin: Hebrew

Hilter thought that the 1936 summer Olympics in Nazi Germany would be a great way to present the strength and agility of the Aryan race, however, a black American athletic by the name of Jesse Owens proved him wrong. Jesse won the most gold medals during the sporting event for the 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters and 4×100 meter relay. This record would only be broken 48 years later!

One of the most famous olympians of all time, Jesse Owens. Born in 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, there is no doubt he faced tremendous adversity, never letting it jeopardize his dreams of Olympic Gold. He is most famous for his historic performance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. He won Gold in four events: 100m, 200m , 4x100 m relay and the long jump. The significance of his legendary performance was that he did it in front of the fascist Hitler regime, showing that race determined nothing in the heat of competition. #jesseowens #trackandfield #olympics #blacksportshistory ... ... ... This post is related to a university project/study on the impacts of African Americans in sports and how it relates to their quality of life in today’s United States. #followforfollow and #share if you would like to contribute to its success!

A post shared by BlackSportsHistory (@blacksportshistory) on

25. Joan of Arc

Meaning: God is gracious
Origin: English from Hebrew (Johanna)

Joan was a martyr and saint, famously known as being led by a divine power to lead the French army into battle against England to redeem the crown back into the hands of the French monarch. As promised, she led the army to victory when she was only 17! While she was tried and charged with witchcraft, dressing as a boy and nonconformity, and was burnt at the stake at the age of 19, Joan stood firmly behind her beliefs and is remembered as a martyr. Today she is the Patron Saint of France.


26. Karl Marx

Meaning: Free man
Origin: German

Karl was a German philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary sociologist. He was the author of Das Kapital and a co-writer of the Communist Manifesto. These works were anti-capitalist and would later be the base of Marxism that would inspire figures such as Tupac and John Lenon. 


27. Lillian Ngoyi

Meaning: Lily, a flower
Origin: Latin

Lillian is known as the Mother of Black Resistance, having played a large part in leading women in the fight against apartheid. 


28. Malala Yousafzai

Meaning: Sad/grieved
Origin: Pashto

Malala is a Pakistani activist for female education. Her defiant spirit was the cause of the Taliban wanting to see her dead; at the age of 15 she was shot in the head by a Tabilan gunman. Malala survived and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17, making her the youngest recipient of the esteemed award. She continues to fight for equal education and now studies philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford.

29. Malcolm X

Meaning: Disciple of Saint Columba
Origin: Scottish

Malcolm was a very radical Civil Rights Movement leader who believed in gaining freedom through any means possible. He was part of the Nation of Islam and later reverted to traditional Islam. It was during this time that he began doing away with his violent ideologies about freedom and began taking a softer approach to the liberation movement. In his autobiography, he wrote, "I was no less angry than I had been, but at the same time the true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision.”

30. Martin Luther King Jnr

Meaning: Warlike
Origin: Latin

Martin was a Baptist minister and political activist who led the Civil Rights Movement. He played a huge role in the creation of the movement and ending the legal segregation of black Americans. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and is widely remembered for his famous "I have a dream" speech. 


31. Nelson Mandela

Meaning: Son of Neil
Origin: English

Nelson was South Africa's first democratically elected president. He was imprisoned by the apartheid government for 27 years on Robben Island for "treason", because of his efforts to fight the oppressive system of racist apartheid government. 

32. Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela

Meaning: Mother of attempts, efforts, struggle
Origin: Nguni

Winnie was Nelson Mandela's second wife. During the years when he was imprisoned, she continued with the fight against apartheid. She too was detained for several months for fearless and radical attempts to overthrow the government. She is remembered as a philanthropist, race and gender activist and anti-apartheid icon. 


33. Oprah Winfrey

Meaning: A fawn
Origin: Hebrew – the name derives from the Orpah, but was misspelt by the midwife on the birth certificate.

Oprah is an American journalist, talk show host, philanthropist, media mogal and first black female billionaire. First broadcast in 1986, her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show earned her international success. The show ran for 25 years, after which she launched her own television network. She is a huge advocate for female education and opened a school for girls in South Africa in 2007.

34. Oscar Wilde

Meaning: God's spear
Origin: Irish

Oscar was an author and poet, known for his witty and vibrant writing and for being imprisoned for homosexual behaviour. Oscar also became editor of a women's magazine in the late 1800s when the magazine's readership began depleting. Readership increased once more under his editorship because he believed that women wanted to read content that covered a variety of topics and not just fashion and frivolous topics. 


35. Pablo Picasso

Meaning: Small
Origin: Latin

Pablo was one of the greatest influencers in modern art and one of the founders of the Cubist movement. Pablo was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer who did not conform to the academic techniques of art.


33. Rosa Parks

Meaning: Rose, a flower
Origin: Latin

Rosa was a famous Civil Rights activist who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her act of defiance against the Jim Crow laws sparked the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. This helped to launch more efforts and protests to end segregation on public buses. 

34. Ruth Bader Ginsburg & Ruth First

Meaning: Compassionate friend
Origin: Hebrew

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The US Supreme Court Justice. During her long-spanning career, Ruth has advocated for the fair treatment of women.

Ruth First: Journalist, academic and anti-apartheid activist. Ruth was born to Jewish immigrants who taught her and her brother the importance of treating everyone fairly, regardless of race and class. At university, she met other like-minded freedom fighters and together they began plotting against the apartheid government. Ruth had to eventually flee the country because the government had labelled her a threat and a communist. She was tragically killed by a letter bomb but her work and efforts to eradicate the unfair treatment of people by the apartheid government will always be remembered. 


35. Salvador Dali

Meaning: Saviour
Origin: Spanish

Salvador was a Spanish artist and surrealist icon. Dali was influenced by Freud and many of his paintings explore a dream world. His famous painting The Persistence of Memory is a true testament to this. 

36. Sophia Williams-De Bryn

Meaning: Wisdom
Origin: Greek

Sophia is the last surviving member of the Women's March that took place in Pretoria in 1956. She dedicated her younger years to fighting the unfair laws of the apartheid government. 

37. Stokely Carmichael

Meaning: From the tree-stump meadow
Origin: English

Stokely was a Civil Rights activist who led the SNCC and the Black Panther party in the 1960s. He is responsible for coining the term Black Power, after being frustrated with nonviolent protests. Defining the term, he said: ''It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organisations.'' Fun fact: he was once married to South African jazz legend and icon Mariam Makeba. 


38. Trevor Noah

Meaning: From a large village
Origin: Welsh

Trevor is a South African comedian. He got his big break as a presenter on a children's show and soon became a household name. In 2015, he took over from Jay Leno and now hosts The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in the US. He often uses anecdotes from his life growing up in Soweto as material for his stand-up comedy shows. 


39. Virginia Woolf

Meaning: Virginal, pure
Origin: Latin

Virginia was an English author whose books are credited for being early Modernist tests that challenged patriarchy. She also addressed topics such as depression, fascism and war in many books. 

"You cannot find peace by avoiding life"

A post shared by Virginia Woolf (@virginiawoolf_) on


40. William Shakespeare & William Edward Burghardt Du Bois

Meaning: Resolute protection
Origin: German

Shakespeare: An English poet and playwright, William Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer of the English language of all time. His works are still studied and made into movies, centuries after his death.

Du Bois: One of the most influential African-American activists, William Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard Universtiy. He later dedicated his life to his Pan-African beliefs to help organise freeing colonised African countries from European powers. 

41. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Meaning: Travelling wolf
Origin: German

Wolfgang was an Austrian composer who created operas, symphonies and sonatas that shaped the classical era. He was considered a child genius, has influenced many composers since and has been widely celebrated throughout the years.

Who are your favourite historic icons? 


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