25 Trailblazing Female Firsts

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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 (It was later rescinded.)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

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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

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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

Circa 1975. Getty

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

Breedlove driving a car. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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

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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

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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

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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."

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

1. Apple AirPods Pro; $219

Apple

You may not know it by looking at them, but these tiny earbuds by Apple offer HDR sound, 30 hours of noise cancellation, and powerful bass, all through Bluetooth connectivity. These trendy, sleek AirPods will even read your messages and allow you to share your audio with another set of AirPods nearby.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

2. Sony Zx220bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (Open Box - Like New); $35

Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

3. Sony Xb650bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones; $46

Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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5. Jashen V18 350w Cordless Vacuum Cleaner; $180

Jashen

If you're obsessive about cleanliness, it's time to lose the vacuum cord and opt for this untethered model from JASHEN. Touting a 4.3-star rating from Amazon, the JASHEN cordless vacuum features a brushless motor with strong suction, noise optimization, and a convenient wall mount for charging and storage.

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6. Evachill Ev-500 Personal Air Conditioner; $65

Evachill

This EvaChill personal air conditioner is an eco-friendly way to cool yourself down in any room of the house. You can set it up at your work desk at home, and in just a few minutes, this portable cooling unit can drop the temperature by 59º. All you need to do is fill the water tank and plug in the USB cord.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Gourmia Gcm7800 Brewdini 5-Cup Cold Brew Coffee Maker; $120

Gourmia

The perfect cup of cold brew can take up to 12 hours to prepare, but this Gourmia Cold Brew Coffee Maker can do the job in just a couple of minutes. It has a strong suction that speeds up brew time while preserving flavor in up to five cups of delicious cold brew at a time.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

8. Townew: The World's First Self-Sealing Trash Can; $90

Townew

Never deal with handling gross garbage again when you have this smart bin helping you in the kitchen. With one touch, the Townew will seal the full bag for easy removal. Once you grab the neatly sealed bag, the Townew will load in a new clean one on its own.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

9. Light Smart Solar Powered Parking Sensor (Two-Pack); $155

FenSens

Parking sensors are amazing, but a lot of cars require a high trim to access them. You can easily upgrade your car—and parking skills—with this solar-powered parking sensor. It will give you audio and visual alerts through your phone for the perfect parking job every time.

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10. Liz: The Smart Self-Cleaning Bottle With UV Sterilization; $46

Noerden

Reusable water bottles are convenient and eco-friendly, but they’re super inconvenient to get inside to clean. This smart water bottle will clean itself with UV sterilization to eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria. That’s what makes it clean, but the single-tap lid for temperature, hydration reminders, and an anti-leak functionality are what make it smart.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Do You Remember? 12 Memorable Events That Happened on September 21—the Internet’s Favorite Day of the Year

Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
George Pimentel/Getty Images

“Do you remember the 21st night of September?” Earth, Wind and Fire first asked the question back in 1978. In the years since—with many thanks owed to writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s viral videos celebrating the song and the day—September 21st has become something like the internet’s birthday or, as some have called it, “the most important day of the year.”

In honor of the ceremonious occasion, here are 12 memorable things that have happened on September 21st. After reading them, not only will you remember the 21st night of September—you’ll remember exactly what makes it worth singing about.

1. The Last Day of Summer

September 21 frequently marks the last official day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, as the Autumnal Equinox often falls on September 22 (which is the case in 2020).

2. The Ganesha Milk Miracle

Palani Mohan/Getty Images

In what has become known as the “Ganesha Milk Miracle,” India was briefly brought to a standstill on September 21, 1995, when statues of the elephant deity Ganesha appeared, when offered, to sip milk by the spoonful. Millions of people stood outside the country’s temples, hoping for a glance of this marvel, which stopped as quickly as it started. Milk prices increased by fourfold.

3. Belize Independence Day

After years of diplomacy talks, in 1981 Belize became a nation independent from the United Kingdom.

4. H.G. Wells’s Birthday

H.G. Wells was born on September 21, 1866. His work later influenced and has been referenced by author Stephen King, who was born on the very same day, 81 years later.

5. Mad Men Made Basic Cable TV History

Jon Hamm stars in Mad Men.Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences confirmed what everyone was thinking in 2008 when it named Mad Men the year’s Outstanding Drama Series, making AMC the first basic cable network to ever win the award. Bonus: Bryan Cranston also took home his first Emmy (of an eventually record-breaking four) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad.

6. Benedict Arnold Became a Traitor

General Benedict Arnold committed the act that would make his name synonymous with treason and betrayal. In 1780, he met with British Major John Andre, offering to hand over his command of West Point in exchange for money and a high ranking within the British army.

7. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit Was Published

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—which would eventually go on to sell 100 million copies, be translated into more than 50 languages, and most importantly, introduce the world to the concept of second breakfast—was published in 1937. In its honor, Tolkien Fans everywhere will celebrate Hobbit Day on September 22 (presumably with some second breakfast, amongst other felicitations).

8. Sandra Day O’Connor Confirmed as First Female Supreme Court Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn into the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger while her husband, John O'Connor, looks on.The U.S. National Archives, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0 to become the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Four days later, on September 25, O'Connor was officially sworn in.

9. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” Made its Debut

In 1968, Jimi Hendrix released his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” While this was the first cover of the song, it became the definitive version as well.

10. NASA’s Galileo Mission Concluded

NASA, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

After becoming the first spacecraft to visit an asteroid (visiting two, actually) and successfully completing its mission to gather information about Jupiter and its moons, NASA concluded its Galileo mission in 2003. In order to avoid an unwanted crash between Galileo and the Jupiter moon of Europa—and in a poetic twist, to protect its own discovery of a possible ocean underneath Europa’s icy crust—Galileo was plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

11. Perry Mason Made His Television Debut

Perry Mason premiered in 1957 and with it, we got America’s first weekly, hourlong primetime series to follow one character, which created the DNA for all of your favorite courtroom procedurals to follow (including all the Law & Orders, and then some), and a lawyer with a strikingly high success rate (yes, even for a fictional lawyer).

12. National Pecan Cookie Day

A tray of pecan cookies—just in time for Pecan Cookie Day.rojoimages/iStock via Getty Images

September 21 marks National Pecan Cookie Day, likely because pecan trees become ready to harvest in September. But really, who needs an excuse to eat a pecan cookie?