Famous Women's Firsts Throughout History
Women have faced mountainous struggles to be treated equally all through history while their male counterparts dismiss them as being the fairer sex.
Time and time again, women trailblazers prove them wrong with groundbreaking achievements. Every notable accomplishment paves the way for future generations and gets us one step closer to actual equality.
That's why these women's firsts won't be the last.
First Woman to Obtain a Doctoral Degree: Elena Cornaro Piscopia
The trailblazer: Elena Cornaro Piscopia was a Venetian noble who was the first woman to receive an academic degree and a doctoral degree.
A child prodigy, Piscopia read philosophy at an early age and was sent to the University of Padua to learn about philosophy. She didn't expect to attain a degree, but her father, a wealthy and powerful Venetian, insisted she apply for a doctorate.
After first being denied because of her womanhood, she applied a second time. This time, the school relented. After showing her teachers that she did, in fact, know a thing or two about philosophy, she achieved her degree on June 25, 1678, at the age of 32.
She devoted the rest of her life to helping the poor and died far too young at the age of 38 from what was most likely tuberculosis.
First Female Surgeon: Margaret Ann Bulkley (aka Dr. James Barry)
Year: Circa 1813
The trailblazer: While it's difficult to pinpoint who was the first woman surgeon in modern times, we believe it's Dr. James Barry.
Dr. James Barry was born as Margaret Ann Bulkley. She studied at Edinburgh Medical School and graduated in 1813 from the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Female surgeons were banned, so Barry lived and dressed as a man of the time would. Accepted as a man, Barry enlisted in the British military and, after befriending the governor of Cape Town in South Africa, became Colonial Medical Inspector.
She was one of the first surgeons to successfully perform a cesarean section in 1820. Her true gender was not revealed until after her death, during an autopsy.
First Woman to Run an Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman
The trailblazer: Born into slavery between 1820 and 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, Harriet Tubman received a blow to her head from a two-pound weight after trying to keep another slave from being beaten. It was an early sign of her tenacious abolitionist spirit, which would drive her to become one of the most important figures in Black and American history. It also left her with headaches and narcolepsy.
While Tubman did not create the Underground Railroad, she is credited for being the first woman conductor, and she did so with a bounty placed on her head for escaping slavery in 1840.
Tubman traveled the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania, then became a conductor, making 19 trips between 1860 and 1860 from the South to the North, rescuing over 300 people. They called her Moses.
First (and Only) Woman to Win the Medal of Honor: Mary Edwards Walker
The trailblazer: Mary Edwards Walker was a volunteer surgeon for the Union Army during the Civil War and was captured by the Confederacy after crossing enemy lines as a spy. She was acting as a surgeon tending to wounded civilians, but was doubling as a spy for the Union. Imprisoned on April 10, 1864, Walker spent four months in captivity before being exchanged for a Confederate surgeon on Aug. 12.
A staunch suffragette, Walker wore men's clothing and frequently argued for women's rights. She was given the Medal of Honor — America's highest personal military decoration — by President Andrew Johnson in 1865.
Walker's medal was taken away from her and 910 others in 1917 when the U.S. Army reviewed their merit. The government believed her civilian status made her ineligible. She died in 1919. The Department of the Army restored her medal posthumously in 1977.
She is still the only woman to receive the award.
First Female Olympic Gold Medalist: Hélène de Pourtalès
The trailblazer: Hélène de Pourtalès was the first woman to compete in the Olympic Games, the first female Olympic gold medalist and the first woman to represent Switzerland at the Olympics. While she represented Switzerland, she was born in New York City in Manhattan.
The 1900 Olympics in France was when women first entered the competition. De Pourtalès won by crewing her husband's yacht in the one- to two-ton class and winning the gold.
But the 1900 Olympics were strange because they were held in conjunction with the World's Fair. Many athletes had no idea they were competing in the Olympic Games until years later.
First Woman to Win the Nobel Prize: Marie Curie
The trailblazer: Marie Curie is not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She also is the first and only woman in history to win it twice.
A Polish and naturalized French woman, Curie won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with her husband Pierre Currie and Henri Becquerel for the theory of radioactivity, a term which she coined. The three discovered polonium and radium.
In 1911, she produced radium as a pure metal and furthered research in radioactivity, which was pivotal to its use in treating tumors. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, which is believed to have been caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.
First Woman to Receive a Pilot's License: Raymonde de Laroche
The trailblazer: You didn't need a pilot's license to operate small aircraft back in 1910, but you did if you wanted to compete. Born in Paris, France in 1882, as Elise Raymond Deroche, she was the daughter of a plumber and had a sense of adventure and flair, changing her name to the more dramatic Raymond de Laroche and earning the nickname "Baroness."
While training for her license, she slammed into some trees, fell 20 feet and broke her collarbone, let it heal, then made her way to Egypt where she flew in an air meet and finished in eighth place. She earned her pilot's license in 1910, which meant she could compete in any aviation competition.
She flew around the world and won the second Femina competition, where she flew 200 miles in four hours and, after World War I ended, set a woman's altitude record in 1919 for flying 13,000 feet into the air.
Tragically, she died at the age of 33, while training to be a test pilot. She was a passenger.
First Female Combat Pilot: Marie Marvingt
The trailblazer: Marie Marvingt's nickname was "Finacée of Danger," so you know she's badass. Marvingt was a French woman who, among being a balloonist, mountaineer, flight nurse and pilot, managed to become the first female combat pilot in history.
Marvingt was a well-known pilot in France and in America, where she made headlines (lots of which fawned over her beauty). She was a nurse in the French military during World War I, and, while the French military as a whole wasn't open to letting women pilot combat aircraft, they were more relaxed about it than the United States. While she wasn't allowed to head into battle, she was allowed to train men to fly.
She along with Helene Dutrieu also performed scouting missions, which, while not wholly embraced, was acceptable enough. But the real breakthrough came on March 25, 1915. After a bomber pilot was too injured to fly on his mission to bomb a German airbase near Metz, she convinced the base commander to let her pilot the plane. She and five other male French pilots set out and bombed their target.
"After that, she made several solo reconnaissance flights over the Italian front, but her activity as a war pilot was irregular, unrecorded and usually extemporaneous," writes Rosalie Maggio in her book, "Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger." "If anyone inquired, Marie was a volunteer nurse."
First Woman to Serve in Congress: Jeannette Rankin
The trailblazer: Jeannette Rankin was born on June 11, 1880, near Missoula, Montana. She joined the suffrage movement in 1910 and became a lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association and helped Montana women gain the right to vote in 1914. After that, she ran for a House seat in her home state for the Republican Party in 1916 and won a vacant seat.
Rankin served in Congress for two years, from 1917 and 1919, and supported a pacifist platform that was against the U.S. getting involved in World War I, which proved unpopular, although she ran again in 1941, won, and served until 1943.
Again, she voiced her pacifist views and opposed entering into World War II (making her the only person in Congress to serve during both wars and be against American involvement). Reaction to her decision to oppose the war was intensive enough that she did not seek reelection.
"I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won't be the last," she said in 1916.
First Woman to Open a Birth Control Clinic in America: Margaret Sanger
The trailblazer: On Oct. 16, 1916, sex educator Margaret Sanger took a $50 donation from one of her speaking events and opened a women's clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It was the first birth control clinic in America, which distributed flyers about safe sex, condoms and diaphragms.
The clinic was only open for 10 days before New York's vice squad cracked down on the clinic, closed it, and arrested Sanger. But the effect this clinic had was already taking hold. Public support for Sanger and a safe sex movement was growing.
In 1921, Sanger formed the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood.
First Woman to Receive a Pulitzer Prize: Edith Wharton
The trailblazer: After just four years of the Pulitzer Prize's existence, Edith Wharton became the first woman to receive a Pulitzer in 1921 for her classic novel, "The Age of Innocence."
Oddly, it wasn't her gender that caused controversy. There were some deliberations between jurors who had wanted the prize to go to Sinclair Lewis for "Main Street," but that choice was overturned by the board. Wharton received a $1,000 cash prize, or about $14,500 today, as a reward.
"The Age of Innocence" is still read in schools.
First Black and Native American Woman to Hold a Pilot License and Fly: Bessie Coleman
The trailblazer: Bessie Coleman was born on Jan. 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. Her father, George, was a Cherokee sharecropper while her mother, Susan, was a Black maid. Bessie's father left the family in 1901, seeking to escape discrimination in Oklahoma, but Bessie's mother stayed in Texas with her family.
Bessie helped her mom pick cotton and wash laundry, saving up enough money to attend what is now Langston University in Oklahoma. But she still couldn't afford it and dropped out after one year.
In her early 20s, she made her way to Chicago and met up with her brothers who had served in World War I and did a tour of France. They both teased and regaled Bessie with tales of women being able to fly planes in that country. She decided that the sky was her calling and began learning how to write French so she could apply to flight schools over there.
In France, roughly two years out of flight school, Bessie became famous for doing loop-the-loops and figure-8s in the sky. She was a stunt performer, and she refused to perform anywhere where segregation was encouraged. She toured the United States in order to inspire her fellow women.
Bessie died on April 30, 1926. She was a passenger during a test flight. A wrench became stuck in the engine and the plane tipped over. Bessie wasn't wearing her seat belt. The plane crashed, and the pilot died as well.
First Female FBI Agent: Alaska P. Davidson
The trailblazer: Little is known about Alaska Packard Davidson's personal life. Born in Warren, Ohio in 1868, she only had a few years of public schooling and one child, who died in 1902, and married twice.
What we do know about her is that she was the first female special FBI agent.
Then-FBI director William J. Burns hired Davidson to combat interstate sex trafficking in 1922. At the age of 54, Davidson had no experience in the law enforcement field. For whatever reason, Burns selected her, and she was given training in New York City. She was paid $7 per day, plus an extra $4 when she had to travel.
Davidson only served for two years before J. Edgar Hoover personally requested her resignation, ostensibly to reduce the workforce but really because he did not believe women should be in the FBI. In the 1920s, there were three other women who were in the FBI, but they were also dismissed by 1929.
The FBI did not have another female agent until 1972.
First Woman to Drive Around the World: Aloha Wanderwell
The trailblazer: Aloha Wanderwell was born Idris Galcia Hall on Oct. 13, 1906 in Winnipeg, Canada. Her father died in World War I. Aloha grew up to be a six-foot-tall woman with a restless spirit who had been fascinated by her father's collection of adventure books at a young age.
In 1922, she read an advertisement in the Paris Herald seeking a "lucky young woman" to join an around-the-world expedition. She then met a man named Walter "Cap" Wanderwell — real name: Valerian Johannes Piecynski — who was leading the expedition. Cap gave her the stage name Aloha Wanderwell. The two set off on the Work Around the World Educational Club, an organization founded by Cap and his ex-wife to promote world peace. She was just 16 when she joined the mission, and she and Cap became romantically involved.
The troupe drove their Model Ts around Europe, Egypt, the Middle East and India. They sailed to Malaysia and drove its unpaved roads, then visited Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They went to Russia, then Japan, then sailed to North America.
Aloha wrote books about her experience and is estimated to have traveled 380,000 miles around the globe.
First Woman to Swim Across the English Channel: Gertrude Ederle
The trailblazer: Known as "Queen of the Waves," Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim 21 tortuous miles across the English channel. It only took her second attempt to push off from Dover, England, to reach Cape Griz-Nez, France, at the age of 21 in 1926.
Her father and sister rode a boat alongside her, calling out encouragement, with her father promising her a new car if she made it. Before Ederle, only five men had swum the Channel, and the best time was 16 hours and 33 minutes. It took Ederle 14 hours and 31 minutes.
She died in 2003 at the age of 98.
First Woman to Actually Serve in the United States Senate: Hattie Wyatt Caraway
The trailblazer: Rebecca Latimer Felton is credited with being the first female senator, but she only served for one day. Felton filled a vacant seat for the governor of Georgia, Thomas W. Hardwick, to secure the vote of women voters who didn't like him because he opposed the 19th Amendment — the amendment that allowed women to vote. Felton's single day of service was a political move, and while she has a role in American political history, the first real female senator was Hattie Wyatt Caraway.
Hattie served a full term in the United States Senate representing Arkansas from 1931 to 1945. Her husband was Thaddeus Horatius Caraway. He was a congressman in the House who died in office in 1931. There was a precedent of widows taking their husbands' seats, and Hattie was appointed to the vacant one left by her husband in 1931. However, rather than retire, she ran the following year and won.
"The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job," she told reporters. She was reelected again 1938 but was defeated in 1944.
First Woman to Fly Solo Across the Atlantic Ocean: Amelia Earhart
The trailblazer: Amelia Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, but she was a passenger. When she landed, the media flocked to her. Publisher George Putnam — who would later be known as Mr. Earhart following their marriage — published her biography, married her, and supported her 1932 trek across the Atlantic, this time as a solo woman pilot.
Earhart had been flying since 1921, after saving up $1,000 for flying lessons (roughly $15,000 in 2020). She became the 16th woman in the United States to receive a pilot's license and broke Raymond de Laroche's record by flying at an altitude of 14,000 feet.
Earhart, of course, went missing after attempting to be the first woman to fly around the world. She left Miami and fell out of radio contact near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean with 7,000 miles remaining in her trip.
First Ordained Women's Rabbi: Regina Jonas
The trailblazer: Regina Jonas was the first woman to officially be ordained a rabbi. She was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1902 in Scheunenviertel, a poor Jewish neighborhood. She attended the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1924 and, in 1930, wrote a thesis that questioned whether or not women could be rabbis.
"I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it," she wrote in her opening paragraphs. Jonas was ordained a rabbi in 1935.
Jonas was one of the 11 million people murdered in the Holocaust. Her name was almost forgotten. It wasn't until the Berlin Wall came down and the archives in East Germany were rediscovered that documentation of her achievement was uncovered.
First Black Woman to Win an Academy Award for Acting: Hattie McDaniel
The trailblazer: The daughter of freed parents, Hattie McDaniel began her entertainment career working minstrel shows and Black touring ensembles from the mid-1910s through the mid-1920s before beginning a singing career. She, her two sisters and her brother set out to Los Angeles in 1931, picking up a radio gig that paid her so low that she still had to work as a maid.
Through several film appearances, she nabbed a role in "Judge Priest" starring Will Rogers, then picked up more and more parts, all of them as a maid. Eventually, she won the competition for Mammy in "Gone With the Wind" — and that wasn't easy. Surely, the producers felt some pressure to give the part to Elizabeth McDuffie, Eleanor Roosevelt's personal maid whom the first lady wrote a letter of recommendation for.
McDaniel was paid $450 a week ($8,430 in 2020) for her role with a seven-week guarantee ($58,800). Famously, she skipped the film's premiere because Georgia's segregationist laws would force her to stay in a Black-only hotel and not permit her to step foot in the theater with her fellow white actors.
In 1940, she was given the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Here's McDaniel's acceptance speech.
First Woman to Race in NASCAR: Sara Christian
The trailblazer: Sara Christian was the first woman to drive in a NASCAR race. Her husband owned the car, and she drove an SS Oldsmobile stocker for the 1949 Strictly Stock race at the Charlotte Speedway, qualifying 13th.
She finished fifth at the ninth race at the Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the highest finish by a woman driver in the top level of NASCAR racing until 2011 when Danica Patrick finished fourth at the Nationwide Series at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
She raced in six of eight events in 1949, finishing 13th, but only competed once in 1950 before retiring.
First Woman to Win Multiple Grammys: Ella Fitzgerald
The trailblazer: Ella Fitzgerald was one of the best jazz singers of all time, and when the Grammys came around, they paid her the respect she deserved. The first Grammy Awards took place in 1958, and Fitzgerald took home Best Female Vocal Performance and Best Jazz Performance.
Over the next 40 years, she accumulated 13 Grammys and a lifetime achievement award in 1967. She was active until just a few years before her death, giving her final televised performance in 1992.
She died in 1996 at the age of 79, having won a swath of accolades and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts and five honorary doctoral degrees, among many others.
First Woman to Win Album of the Year Grammy: Judy Garland
The trailblazer: The Grammy's Album of the Year award was established in 1959, with the first award going to Henry Mancini's "The Music from Peter Gunn."
In 1962, "The Wizard of Oz" star Judy Garland's "Judy at Carnegie Hall" won the prestigious award. A double album performed live, this album was the result of a comeback for Garland, who left the film industry after struggling with drug abuse.
During this time, she was often introduced as "The World's Greatest Entertainer" and sold out crowds around the country. The record has never gone out of print.
First Woman in Space: Valentina Tereshkova
The trailblazer: Two decades before America sent a woman into space, the Russians sent Valentina Tereshkova into the cosmos for three days, alone. She's still the only woman to venture into space alone.
Driven by the space race and to not allow the United States to send a woman into space before them, the Russians began training cosmonauts in 1962. Tereshkova was selected because of her skydiving training.
She had received less than a year of training before launching in the Vostok 6, entering space at the age of 26 years old.
First Black Woman in Congress: Shirley Chisholm
The trailblazer: Brooklyn-born Shirley Chisholm became the first woman in Congress in 1968, representing New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms, from 1969 to 1983.
Not only that, Chrisholm was the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1964 and the first black woman to ever run for president. While that campaign was underfunded and she was not taken seriously by the Democratic Party, her time in the House was successful and compassionate, opposing the draft and calling for increases in social services while reducing military spending.
Her campaign slogan was "Unbought and Unbossed," which is pretty boss.
First Woman to Climb Mount Everest: Junko Tabei
The trailblazer: Junko Tabei was both the first woman to climb Mount Everest and the first woman to climb the Seven Summits.
Tabei was born in 1939 in Miharu, Japan, and pursued mountain climbing from a young age. In 1971, she sought a climbing permit but had to wait four years for placement, then had to scrabble together $5,000 in fees by teaching piano. Due to her gender, she had a tough time finding a sponsor, but finally received some sponsorship from Nippon Television and a Japanese newspaper.
In 1975, she led the Japanese Women's Everest Expedition, which was made up of 23 support climbers, four cameramen and 500 porters. Lacking funds, some of her gear was homemade. Her pants were made from old curtains, and her waterproof gloves were sewn from the cover of her car. During the climb, Tabei was nearly suffocated from an avalanche and had to be pulled out by her ankles to safety.
After climbing Mount Everest, she became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, achieving the feat in 1992 after climbing Puncak Jaya. Tabei died in 2016 at the age of 77. There's an asteroid named after her.
First Woman on the Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor
The trailblazer: Sandra Day O'Connor was the first female Supreme Court Justice of the United States after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
She was instrumental in writing the lead opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the constitutional right to have an abortion. In 2009, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
O'Connor retired in 2006 and was succeeded by Justice Samuel Alito.
First Female United States Poet Laureate: Mona Van Duyn
The trailblazer: A denizen of the small Iowa town Eldora, Mona Van Duyn started her career as a teacher in the 1940s, publishing her first book of poems, "Valentines to the Wilde World," in 1958.
Her work encapsulated day-to-day life and other domestic affairs, like love and marriage, and infused them with irony and wit. By 1992, she had won virtually every major poetry award in America and was appointed Poet Laureate.
Read some of her poetry here.
First Woman to Win an Academy Award for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
The trailblazer: It's odd to think that it took until 2010 — 89 years after the first Academy Awards — that a female filmmaker would win the Best Director award. But that's how long it took, and Kathryn Bigelow won it for the 2009 war film "The Hurt Locker."
She is also the first and only woman to win that Academy Award, the BAFTA Award for Best Direction and the Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Director.
First Woman in American History to Lie in State: Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The trailblazer: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a force on the Supreme Court and a feminist icon. Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents in 1933, Ginsburg graduated joint first in class from Columbia Law School in 1959. In 1972, she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one.
Appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993, Ginsburg's role on the bench gradually shifted from moderate liberal to a stalwart voice for women's rights as the court's balance was offset by the right wing. She was beloved by millions, and, when she died on Sept. 18, 2020, she was mourned around the world. On Sept. 29, she was laid to rest in state at Arlington National Cemetery, becoming the first woman to ever lie in state.
Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court for 27 years.
First Woman Vice President, First Black Woman Vice President, First Asian-American Vice President: Kamala Harris
The trailblazer: On Nov. 7, 2020, Kamala Harris became vice president-elect of the United States of America, shattering institutional barriers by becoming the first Black and Asian-American person and first woman to achieve such a position.
"While I may be the first woman in this office," Harris said, addressing the election night crowd in a suffragette white suit, "I won't be the last."