From Mary Walker, the first woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Katharine Graham, the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company, these pioneering women—and their winning moments—helped set the stage for the generations that followed.
1. The first women's rights convention is held in New York
Informed that they wouldn't be able to vote or speak at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott grew frustrated at their lack of voice in American society. As they stewed in the women’s section, they decided something needed to be done about it. By 1848, Stanton, Mott, and friends had organized a two-day women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The pair, alongside 66 other women and 32 men, crafted the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled off the Declaration of Independence, the convention wrote out their list of demands, including for women’s right to vote.
Although this pioneering convention was largely mocked by the country, what was accomplished in those two days eventually kicked off Suffrage and the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, only one of the signers would see one of the convention’s main goals come to fruition when women could finally vote for the first time in 1920.
2. MARIA MITCHELL IS ELECTED TO THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES.
On a clear night in October 1847, Maria Mitchell was sitting on the roof of her father’s business and consulting her star charts with a telescope. All of a sudden, she saw a blurry light streak across the sky—a comet. She had discovered what was later nicknamed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” and the accolades came rolling in. Mitchell was the first female professional astronomer, and in 1848, she became the first woman to receive entry to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mitchell would remain the only woman in that honored group until 1943.
This accomplishment opened the world up to Mitchell, who believed that women could achieve anything men could, and she traveled to Europe, meeting with famed astronomers along the way. In her later years, she went on to work at Vassar College—becoming the first female astronomy professor. That didn't mean she settled for getting paid less than a man, according to the college. She received equal pay in the 1870s for her work while inspiring young women to reach for the stars.
3. VICTORIA CLAFLIN WOODHULL RUNS FOR PRESIDENT UNDER THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY.
Although no woman has been elected to the highest office in the land yet, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first to make the attempt. In 1869, with help from Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ohio-born Woodhull and her sister opened the first female-run stock brokerage on Wall Street in New York City, though they were never allowed a place on the floor. This move gave Woodhull the leverage and money she needed to run for president in 1872.
"Notorious Victoria" ran on women’s suffrage, welfare for the poor, 8-hour workdays and regulation of monopolies, among other things. Unfortunately, her radical views on religion and marriage, among other things, made her a tough sell. It didn't help when her unconventional campaign style landed her in trouble with the law. Days before the election, Woodhull was jailed for sending out "obscene" publications that took shots at her opponents. She eventually agreed to a plea deal that involved dropping out of the presidential race.
4. MARY WALKER RECEIVES THE MEDAL OF HONOR.
After graduating from Syracuse Medical College, Dr. Walker set her sights on volunteering for the Union. Her parents were abolitionists and she wanted to devote her skills to the North by signing up as a surgeon. Because women were not allowed to do that kind of advanced medical work, she settled for volunteering for the Union Army.
A few years into the war, Walker had worked her way up in the ranks and was sent to Virginia in 1863 as a field surgeon. While aiding a Confederate surgeon on a particularly bloody day of battle in 1864, Walker was captured by the Confederacy. She was held there for four months until she was swapped for another prisoner of war. For her efforts, in 1865, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, becoming the first woman to be given the honor. Favoring men’s clothing and her freedom, Walker remained a staunch advocate for the rest of her days. She was even permitted to wear male clothing by an act of Congress. Walker’s medal was taken away from her in 1917 (some argued that she was ineligible because the award was meant only for soldiers), but President Carter restored it to her posthumously in 1977.
5. MARGARET SANGER OPENS THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN AMERICA.
The future activist started as a nurse in 1912 in New York City. After watching women die by the dozens of self-induced abortions, she renounced nursing and decided to find a solution. She founded a magazine called Woman Rebel to start her "birth control" (a phrase that she coined) movement. The issues were promptly banned by the New York Post Office, and the threat of imprisonment caused her to flee the country. “Enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty,” Sanger wrote in 1914. When the charges had been dropped, she returned in 1916 to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Her organization later became Planned Parenthood and she fought for the rest of her life to provide safe contraception for women.
6. SEPTIMA CLARK FIGHTS FOR THE RIGHT TO TEACH.
Septima Clark, a Civil Rights activist, put the issue of education at the front of the movement. Due to sacrifices from her parents, a former slave and a laundress, Clark was able to earn two degrees and train to be a teacher. Unfortunately, in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, black teachers weren’t allowed to teach in 1918. That didn’t deter Clark. That year, she went door-to-door gathering about 20,000 signatures of fellow African Americans who wanted black teachers in the black schools. The ban was struck down, and Clark spent many of her years teaching elementary school children.
7. EDITH WHARTON WINS A PULITZER FOR THE AGE OF INNOCENCE.
At age 11, Edith Wharton attempted to write her first novel. Like many of New York City’s elite who were raised in what was considered the Golden Age of New York, she traveled to Europe extensively and got to experience the best of what life had to offer. She would eventually write more than 85 short stories and a dozen novels. But her life experiences would go on to heavily influence one book in particular, The Age of Innocence, which examined and even skewered the New York society. In 1921, toward the end of her life, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but it was contentious. Many members of the board wanted to take her prize back, but she retained it—making her the first woman to win a Pulitzer. She would go on to also be nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.
8. GRACE HOPPER INVENTS A COMPUTER LANGUAGE.
In 1934, Grace Hopper was on a path all of her own. She graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University. When World War II arrived, she flew from her academic post at Vassar to join the Navy’s war effort in 1943. There, she put her vast intelligence to use by working on the Harvard Mark I computer, which would help an atomic bomb engineer determine that the bomb would implode rather than explode. After the war, she started working on UNIVAC, the latest computer, and argued that a computer language should be written in English. Although her idea was laughed off, Hopper was determined, publishing papers outlining her reasoning. She finally implemented her own English-based coding language, called COBOL, in the Navy and eventually in the wider world. She's also responsible for the term "computer bug." Throughout her life, Hopper would go back into active duty Navy service and served a total of 42 years, earning her the nickname “Amazing Grace.”
9. KATHARINE GRAHAM LEADS A FORTUNE 500 COMPANY.
Journalism was always in the cards for Katharine Graham, who grew up with a father who worked as the publisher of The Washington Post. Graham became interested in media at an early age and after a stint at a few papers, got a job on The Washington Post’s editorial staff. Eventually, she convinced her husband to buy the paper from her father. The couple worked together to create a media empire by acquiring the competition. In her 1997 memoir, she described her relationship with her husband as "that of a chief executive officer Phil and a chief operating officer me."
In 1963, that changed when her husband committed suicide. Unexpectedly, Graham found herself at the helm of a media empire. She raised the Post to the fifth most profitable media company in the country, landing her a spot as the first woman CEO of a company on the Fortune 500 list. Under Graham, the Post published the Pentagon Papers and broke the news of the Watergate scandal. Before her death, Graham received the Freedom Medal and a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir.
10. ARETHA FRANKLIN IS INDUCTED INTO THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME.
Considered the “definitive soul singer of the Sixties” by Rolling Stone, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit where her father was a pastor and known for his voice. She toured with her gospel group in her teenage years and later transitioned into R&B tunes with the help of several record companies. By 1960, her voice was all over the radio and she was a force, collaborating with the Beatles and receiving awards from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Still, it wasn’t until 1987 that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Franklin as one of the greats—and she became the first woman to join the ranks.
11. KATHRYN BIGELOW WINS AN OSCAR FOR BEST DIRECTOR.
Before becoming one of the most well-known film directors in Hollywood, Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter. After making her first short film called The Set-Up in 1978, Bigelow decided that her passion lay elsewhere. More than three decades later, in 2010, that passion helped her make history. She took home the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, a film that examined the work of bomb disposal by teams in Iraq and Afghanistan up-close. Only four other women had been nominated for best director before her victory.