25 Trailblazing Female Firsts
Gender discrimination has been an unwelcome fact of life for centuries, with women at various times having to fight for the right to do something as simple as owning a credit card or serving on a jury. While the ignorance of lawmakers and society at large has been a perpetual obstacle, there are plenty of women who navigated sexism and made their mark on history. Take a look at 25 who refused to be defined by their gender.
1. MARIE OWENS // FIRST AMERICAN FEMALE POLICE OFFICER
When her husband, Thomas, died of typhoid in 1888, Marie Owens needed to support her five children: She got a job enforcing child labor laws, first with the Chicago Department of Health and then the city's police department. Proudly sporting a police star and powers of arrest, Detective Sergeant Owens spent her career uncovering illegal child hires and promoting educational resources among employers. She was so successful that her tenure lasted well beyond a later official mandate that effectively stopped the hiring of women. (It was later rescinded.) When she died in 1927 at age 70, she had logged more than 32 years on the force.
2. VALENTINA TERESHKOVA // FIRST WOMAN IN SPACE
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States were jockeying for position in the uncharted territories of space travel. Aboard the Vostok 6 in 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made history for Russia by becoming the first woman to orbit the earth. (To allow the U.S. those honors, argued General Kamanin, would "hurt the patriotic feelings of Soviet women.") Tereshkova took pictures of the planet and the moon, and logged reports of the physical effects of spaceflight. (She also had a brush with disaster when she discovered that her craft was programmed to ascend but not descend, a fault that was quickly fixed.) Her trip remains the only solo female excursion into orbit, although it might not have been the most hygienic: Tereshkova forgot to pack her toothbrush.
3. SALLY PRIESAND // FIRST AMERICAN ORDAINED FEMALE RABBI
When Sally Priesand was a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s and 1960s, it was virtually unheard of for a female to occupy any of the religious roles traditionally held by men. Undeterred, she enrolled in rabbinic school after a stint at the University of Cincinnati. When she began applying at synagogues, she found that the idea of a woman rabbi was almost incomprehensible to her interviewers. Despite the lack of opportunities, she was fully ordained in 1972 and spoke out valiantly for equality in the faith through her retirement in 2006.
4. KATHRYN BIGELOW // FIRST FEMALE BEST DIRECTOR OSCAR WINNER
Since the first ceremony in 1929, the Academy Awards passed their Best Director statuette to a male every single year—and through 2010, only four females had even been nominated for the honor. But the streak ended that year when Kathryn Bigelow beat out frontrunner (and former husband) James Cameron for her work on The Hurt Locker, an intense Iraqi war drama. Her nomination and win helped shine a light on the disparity in the film business, though these statistics are still true today—no woman has been nominated since Bigelow's historic win. According to The New York Times, 93 percent of the top 250 films of 2009 were directed by men; unfortunately, in 2016, the number of women directors for top 250 films was still at just 7 percent [PDF].
5. JUNKO TABEI // FIRST WOMAN TO SUMMIT MT. EVEREST
At just 5 feet tall and 92 pounds, Junko Tabei co-led a group of 15 women to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1975, becoming the first female ever to reach the peak. Tabei’s effort came after she organized an all-female climbing club after graduating college, encountering resistance from men who believed the treacherous journey was unfit for women. She would eventually ascend the highest summit on every continent.
6. ARLENE PIEPER // FIRST WOMAN TO FINISH A MARATHON
Pieper took on the Pikes Peak marathon in 1959 as a personal challenge and to advertise her and her husband's gym. She chose Pikes Peak because the Boston Marathon wouldn’t allow females to enter the race. Pieper finished in just over nine hours but wasn’t informed she was the first woman to finish a marathon until 2009.
7. SARAH BREEDLOVE // FIRST FEMALE SELF-MADE MILLIONAIRE
Inheritances are nice but can prove to be little indication of one’s entrepreneurial spirit. When Sarah Breedlove made her fortune, she knew it had come solely as the result of her work ethic. Born to former slaves in 1867, Breedlove was widowed at age 20 and spent years scraping to get by. At the turn of the century, she began advertising a hair-growth tonic she claimed had regrown her own lost locks, and around the same time she met Charles J. Walker, who would become her third husband. The business was so fertile that her salespeople sometimes made up to $15 a day in an era when white blue-collar workers could expect $11 a week. Breedlove—who became best known by her company name, Madam C.J. Walker—died in 1919, regarded as America's first self-made female millionaire.
8. ALASKA P. DAVIDSON // FIRST FEMALE FBI SPECIAL AGENT
Before chauvinistic J. Edgar Hoover took hold of the proto-FBI in 1924, the bureau appointed "refined" Alaska Davidson to the title of special agent. Davidson’s primary focus was on what might now be considered human trafficking: transporting women across state lines for lurid purposes. Davidson was 54 when she started, defying ageism as well as gender inequality.
9. NELLIE TAYLOE ROSS // FIRST WOMAN ELECTED GOVERNOR
From 1925 to 1927, Nellie Tayloe Ross was the sitting governor of Wyoming. While her status as the first female to hold that office is laudable, it came at a steep price: Ross was appointed to run for the seat after her husband, Governor William Bradford Ross, died before his re-election. It was believed Wyoming would be hospitable to a female governor, and history bore that out: Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote, in 1869. Ross was later director of the U.S. Mint from 1933 to 1953.
10. SUSAN B. ANTHONY // FIRST WOMAN ON AN AMERICAN COIN
A devoted proponent of women’s rights, Susan B. Anthony fought for decades so women could own property and enjoy other basic rights men took for granted. To celebrate her achievements, in 1979 the U.S. Treasury put Anthony’s likeness on one dollar coins, marking the first time an actual woman had been featured on non-commemorative U.S. currency. Previously, only Lady Liberty had been bestowed the honor.
11. LIBBY RIDDLES // FIRST FEMALE IDITAROD WINNER
Mushing dogs across 1150 miles of Alaskan landscape is never for the weak of heart, which is why winners of the Iditarod dog sled competition are hailed as formidable competitors. In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to cross the finish line ahead of the pack (she'd also raced in 1980 and 1981). Braving a terrific storm near the end of the line, Riddles took first in just over 18 days of trekking.
12. NANCY LIEBERMAN // FIRST FEMALE NBA COACH
Before her current role as assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, Lieberman won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games. That team experience eventually led to coaching positions that culminated in a 2009 post for the Texas Legends NBA developmental league (or, D-League)—the job that made Lieberman the first female head coach of any NBA-affiliated team.
13. KRYSTYNA CHOJNOWSKA-LISKIEWICZ // FIRST WOMAN TO SAIL AROUND THE WORLD SOLO
A native of Poland, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz met her husband through a shared love of the water. But after studying sailing and buying a yacht, the amateur sea captain decided to make a solo venture of her ambition to sail around the world. Launching her journey from the Canary Islands in February 1976, it took her just over two years to land in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
14. AMELIA EARHART // FIRST WOMAN TO FLY SOLO ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN
With no way of knowing she’d become one of the most influential women of the 20th century, all Amelia Earhart had when she made the first female solo flight across the Atlantic was ambition. Earhart had previously been a passenger on the flight in 1928, causing her to feel like "a sack of potatoes." Dissatisfied with the passive experience, she made the trip solo in 1932, opening the door for future generations of female aviators to take control of the burgeoning aviation industry.
15. MARGARET ABBOTT // FIRST AMERICAN FIRST-PLACE FEMALE OLYMPIAN
In 1900, 22-year-old Abbott took first place in the Paris Olympics golf competition. Her secret? Practical dress. Other female entrants wore skirts and high heels: Abbott showed up for business, earning a porcelain bowl for her efforts. (There weren’t any gold medals to hand out that early in the Games’ history, and Abbott also wasn't aware it was an actual Olympic event—she went onto the green thinking it was a regular competition, and it was only after she died that it was realized that the golf game counted as that year's Olympics.)
16. MO'NE DAVIS // FIRST FEMALE TO PITCH A LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES SHUTOUT
In 2014, the then 13-year-old Davis made Little League history by becoming the first female to ever pitch a winning shutout game in the county's adolescent World Series tournament. The predominantly male competition had seen only three female pitchers make it to the World Series before, but only Davis pitched a shutout. She later donated her jersey to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
17. MARGARET BRENT // FIRST WOMAN TO DEMAND A VOTE IN THE AMERICAN COLONIES
In 1648, it was unheard of for any woman to stand before any official assembly and ask—let alone demand—a right to vote. But that’s exactly what Margaret Brent did in the Maryland Assembly that year. Brent, a prominent landowner of the time, spoke out frequently about being represented in official matters in the state’s assembly. While she didn’t succeed, her prowess in handling property like cattle helped keep the colony intact during politically tumultuous times.
18. OPHA MAY JOHNSON // FIRST FEMALE MARINE
From 1775 to 1918, the United States Marine Corps refused to admit any women. When the rule was relaxed, Opha May Johnson was the first to enlist [PDF]. Johnson signed up as a reserve clerk at the age of 40, a trailblazing decision that eventually led to females occupying roles as commanders and generals.
19. EMELINE ROBERTS JONES // FIRST FEMALE DENTIST IN THE U.S.
Excising teeth was a man’s vocation until Emeline Roberts Jones began to think otherwise. The Connecticut native began working on patients officially in 1855, after disclosing to her dentist husband that she had been secretly extracting and filling teeth. After his death, Jones traveled with a portable dental chair in and around Connecticut and Rhode Island to provide for her family. In 1914, the National Dental Association made her an honorary member.
20. GENEVIEVE R. CLINE // FIRST FEMALE FEDERAL COURT JUDGE
In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge appointed the U.S. Treasury’s appraiser of merchandise at the port of Cleveland to be the first female judge to sit on a federal court. Cline sat on the U.S. Customs Court for 25 years, paving the way for future female jurists like Florence Allen and Burnita Shelton Matthews.
21. DIANE CRUMP // FIRST FEMALE KENTUCKY DERBY JOCKEY
Horse racing was never hospitable to female jockeys, preferring compact males to drive the thoroughbreds to victory. Diane Crump was escorted by security through throngs of admirers—and some naysayers—en route to mounting her horse for her first professional race in 1968. Despite chants of "go back to the kitchen," Crump persevered, and two weeks later she won her first professional race on her way to the Kentucky Derby in 1970.
22. ARETHA FRANKLIN // FIRST FEMALE INDUCTEE INTO THE ROCK 'N' ROLL HALL OF FAME
Born in 1942, Franklin’s soulful performances over the decades led to her becoming the first woman to be inducted to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987 (inductions had started the previous year, and 16 men were included at the time). She would later be joined by artists like the Supremes and LaVern Baker, although the Hall of Fame still skews predominantly male.
23. ROBIN HERMAN // FIRST FEMALE REPORTER IN LOCKER ROOMS
In the 1970s, it was unthinkable that a female reporter could—or would even want to—be granted access to the testosterone-fueled locker rooms of pro sports teams. In addition to not being taken seriously in a male-dominated field, there was a belief that the often-naked athletes made for an inappropriate atmosphere for mixing genders. Robin Herman broke that ceiling in 1975: As the NHL reporter for The New York Times, she convinced the two coaches at the NHL All-Star Game to allow her in the back. Women would continue to fight for such access—one even sued to be allowed in locker rooms during the World Series—but Herman has remained a touchstone for equality in sports journalism.
24/25. BARBARA BUTTRICK AND JOANNE HAGEN // FIRST TELEVISED FEMALE BOXERS
Boxing and television went hand-in-glove during the medium’s early years, providing an intimate view of pugilism to a nation that embraced prizefighting. In 1954, female fighters Barbara Buttrick and Joanne Hagen made history by becoming the first two women to strap on gloves for TV cameras. Hagen, the U.S. Women’s Boxing Champion, defeated Buttrick in an eight-round decision. "She’s a real battler," Hagen said of her opponent, "and I’m only sorry we both couldn’t have won."