Icons in Women's History - Viola Davis

Alysa Grimes

Viola Davis grew up poor and hungry in a rat-infested apartment with her two parents and five siblings. She and her sisters would wrap bedsheets around their necks to protect themselves from rat bites while they slept. Her pursuit of friendship and extra-curricular activities often centered around whether free food was available. Somehow, she discovered and pursued her love for acting in high school.


Ms. Davis earned scholarships to study theater—first at Rhode Island College and then at The Juilliard School. After completing her education, she started acting on Broadway. In 2001, Ms. Davis won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as a mother fighting for abortion rights in King Hedley II. Then in 2010, she won another Tony award for Best Actress in a Play for her role as Rose Maxson in the revival of Fences.


Throughout her career, Ms. Davis also worked in TV and film. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work as lawyer Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. She then won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Rose Maxson in the film adaptation of Fences in 2016. Ms. Davis is the only African-American woman to win a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar.

Ms. Davis decided to use her past to help others by raising money for the Hunger Is campaign, run by Albertsons Companies Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. Hunger Is aims to combat childhood hunger by providing funds to programs focused on combating childhood hunger. As of 2015, she had raised $4.5 million dollars for the campaign.


Ms. Davis is also an outspoken feminist: she gave a powerful speech on intersectional feminism at the Women’s March this year in Los Angeles, California. As a survivor of sexual assault, she spoke out for all the other women affected, especially those faceless women who don’t have the money, constitution, social stature, or confidence to speak for themselves.


Ms. Davis is an inspiration. She managed to transform her incredibly difficult childhood into an award-winning acting career. She has taken her personal obstacles and used them to help others who are struggling with the same issues. She is a voice for women and children everywhere.