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While women have made groundbreaking advances in everything from politics to reproductive rights, the fight still continues for equal access to jobs, pay and better opportunities.
In the face of discrimination and hostility, there have been women who paved the way for generations to come. Women who in the past two centuries were pioneers achieving or accomplishing something in a traditionally male-dominated role, sport, business, government position or occupation.
Women who changed history.
In her 20s, Elizabeth Blackwell pursued a career in medicine after a dying friend said that her suffering would have been eased if she’d been treated by a female doctor. After repeated rejections from numerous medical schools, Blackwell was accepted at a college in rural New York, but many stories say it was as a joke.
Even so, she pursued the acceptance and after the dean of the school put it up to a vote, she was admitted. Despite having to sit separately from her classmates and being excluded from labs, Blackwell earned the respect of her professors and peers. She graduated at the top of her class in 1849 to become the first woman in America to receive a medical degree.
The daughter of abolitionists, Mary Edwards Walker was encouraged to be educated and outspoken. Following in Elizabeth Blackwell’s footsteps, Walker graduated from medical school and opened a practice with her husband that ultimately closed after the community found it difficult to accept a female doctor. After the start of the Civil War, Walker tried serving as a doctor but was denied and practiced as a nurse instead.
After working on the frontlines, she was eventually granted permission to practice surgery, becoming the first U.S. female surgeon in the army. During her service, she was captured and held as a prisoner of war for four months. For her contributions, Walker was given the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal for valor in combat awarded to members of the armed forces, in 1865. Walker remains the only woman to have ever received the award.
After losing her husband to typhoid fever in 1888, Marie Owens took a job with the Chicago Health Department enforcing child labor laws in factories. A mother of five herself, Owens was a passionate advocate for children’s welfare.
Working as an inspector, Owens was limited in her ability to enter certain buildings if she didn’t have a warrant. But after public outcries over conditions in the city’s sweatshops grew, the Chicago Police Department made Owens a detective sergeant. Given powers of arrest and a police star, she was the first known policewomen in not only Chicago, but the U.S.
Owens went on to serve 32 years with the department.
Born to enslaved parents, Maggie Lena Walker had an affinity for numbers and a shrewd entrepreneurial sense. At the age of 14, Walker joined the Independent Order of St. Luke’s, an organization that helped the sick and elderly in Virginia and she quickly moved up the ranks.
By 1902, Walker was publishing the organization’s newspaper, encouraging other African Americans in the community to establish their own institutions.
Soon after, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank to help combat the oppressive conditions of the segregated South and provide a place where African Americans could conduct business without discrimination. In doing so, Walker became the first woman to charter a bank in the U.S.
Born in Missoula, Montana, Jeannette Rankin was a highly educated woman who had a brief stint as a social worker before becoming involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Successful in her efforts, she became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, helping the women of Montana gain voting rights in 1914.
In a landmark move, she ran for a congressional seat representing the state of Montana. In 1916, she became the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin would go on to be the only congressperson to vote against U.S. involvement in both World Wars, saying, “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
Realizing she didn’t have enough votes to win a second term, Rankin opted out of the 1918 election, but ran again in 1940 and won, earning a second term in the House.
The distinction of first female Marine goes to Opha Mae Johnson, a 40-year-old civil service worker who enlisted in the U.S. Marines in August 1918. Joining a full two years before women were allowed to vote, Johnson performed mostly clerical and office work. Not the only woman to try to enlist during World War I, she was one of only a few hundred that managed to pass the intense requirements to get in.
Like most women who took on men’s roles during the war, Johnson was relieved of her duties when it ended. But not before climbing the ranks and becoming a sergeant.
While Amelia Earheart is often the most talked-about female aviator, Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman holds her own significant place in history. The daughter of sharecroppers, Coleman aspired to better opportunities. After reading and hearing stories about World War I pilots, she decided to pursue her pilot’s license but was denied entry into U.S. flight schools. Undeterred, Coleman learned French and attended the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in France.
In 1922, she became the world’s first black woman to receive a pilot’s license. That same year, she also became the first African American woman to make a public flight in the U.S. She died in an aviation accident at the age of 34.
Nellie Tayloe Ross found herself in an unexpected dilemma after her husband, Wyoming Governor William B. Ross, died of appendicitis less than two years after taking office. An ambitious Southern woman, Ross wanted to run for the office, but the idea of a woman in politics, let alone a female governor, was controversial.
Riddled with uncertainty, Ross agreed to run for governor with minutes to go before the deadline and ended up winning the election. Earning more votes than her husband had in the previous contest, Ross was inaugurated on Jan. 5, 1925, becoming the first woman governor in the nation.
A schoolteacher and wife, Bertha Knight Landes entered politics in 1922 as one of the first female members of the Seattle City Council. She served for four years then became council president and eventually acting mayor when the city’s mayor left town to attend the Democratic National Convention in 1924. In some controversial moves, Landes fired the city’s police chief after he ignored prohibition, then she led a city-wide cleanup of corruption in Seattle.
In 1926, she ran for the mayor’s office and won, becoming the city’s first official woman mayor, along with the first female mayor of any major U.S. city.
Born the daughter of a semi-pro baseball player in 1894, Lizzie Murphy was an avid athlete who enjoyed skating, running and swimming. Her first love, however, was baseball. She left school to work at a woolen mill at the age of 12 and played the sport in her free time. It wasn’t long before her talents were noticed and she gained notoriety, drawing fans who wanted to see a girl playing with the boys. Murphy became a regular with Ed Carr’s All-Stars of Boston, a team that played dozens of games throughout New England and Canada.
“Spike Murphy” hit the pinnacle of her career when her team met up with the Boston Red Sox for an exhibition game at Fenway Park in 1922. Though she never made it to bat, it was still the first time a woman played against a major league baseball team, making her the first female to play professional baseball.
When people talk about female heads of state, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel are names that often come up, but it was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who served as their forerunner.
After the assassination of her husband, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1959, members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party appealed to Bandaranaike to step in and become the party’s leader. Upon winning the general election in 1960, she became the world’s first female prime minister. Carrying on her husband’s legacy of socialist policies and neutrality in international relations, Bandaranaike served until 1965 before returning for another term in 1970 and again in 1994.
Not only is Katharine Graham’s story one for the history books, her role in American media helped write them. A socialite and the daughter of The Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer, Graham married a Harvard lawyer in 1940 and began working at her father’s newspaper.
When the time came for her father to relinquish his role as publisher, he tapped Graham’s husband, Philip, instead of her. But when her husband died in 1963, Graham found herself at the helm.
Under Graham’s tenure at The Washington Post, the Pentagon Papers were published and the Watergate scandal was uncovered, resulting in the resignation of Richard Nixon. As one of the country’s most powerful media magnates, Graham became the first woman CEO to lead a Fortune 500 company.
In 1963, Russian-born Valentina Tereshkova boldly went where no woman had gone before. A skydiving enthusiast, the cosmonaut’s parachuting abilities caught the interest of the Soviet space program. Hoping to score another “first” against the United States by putting a woman in space, the Soviets began training her for flight.
On June 16, Tereshkova left the earth’s orbit aboard the Vostok 6, becoming the first woman in the world to reach space. It wasn’t until two decades later in 1983 that the U.S. followed suit by sending astronaut Sally Ride into space, making her the first American woman to achieve the distinction.
The daughter of a wealthy nightclub owner, Barbara Walters grew up surrounded by celebrities, something that would serve her well during her distinguished media career. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Walters worked a variety of media jobs before eventually landing at NBC.
A writer on the “Today” show, Walters later began appearing on air. While her initial role was to smile and charm viewers as the “Today Girl,” Walters was soon moved to news and would go on to become the first female co-host of the show. She left her coveted position to make history once more when she became the first woman to co-anchor the evening news on ABC. She went on to interview more celebrities and statesmen than arguably any other journalist in history.
As a pilot, physicist and aerospace engineer, Janet Guthrie had the need for speed. Though she wanted to be an astronaut, Guthrie was eliminated from NASA’s qualifying tests after a doctorate became a requirement. Instead, she bought herself a Jaguar coupe and began entering autocross racing competitions.
By 1972, Guthrie was racing full-time. Three years later she was invited by legendary race car designer Rolla Vollstedt to test drive a car for the Indianapolis 500. It would prove fateful, paving the way for Guthrie to eventually become the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 1977.
Raised on a ranch in El Paso, Texas, Sandra Day O’Connor was admitted to Stanford at just 16, earning an economics degree before continuing on to law school in 1950. She finished school in two years instead of three, but O’Connor still struggled to find work as a lawyer. To prove her worth, she worked as an attorney for free after turning down a job as a legal secretary and, in 1970, won a seat in the Arizona State Senate. O’Connor was reelected twice and served as the first female majority leader in any state senate before eventually being appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court of Appeals.
She worked in the state supreme court until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated her for the ultimate honor. After being unanimously approved by the Senate, she would become the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Forever remembered as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, her father a Baptist minister and famous gospel singer. With talent clearly in the DNA, Franklin followed in her father’s footsteps and by the age of 14, she released her own gospel recording. Columbia Records signed her to a record deal in 1960, and her legendary career was underway.
Franklin would go on to establish herself as one of the most significant performers in American music. With a career that spanned decades, Franklin was acknowledged for her contributions in 1987 by being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She was the first woman in history to be admitted.
Born the only daughter in a hockey family in 1972, Manon Rheaume knew how to skate by the time she was 3. Before long, her brothers had her fending off shots as their goalie in the net. Eventually, Rheaume joined a women’s hockey team, and by 1991 was the first woman to play in a major junior hockey game.
Playing on the Canadian women’s national team, she went on to earn a gold medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championships and was invited to attend NHL training camp with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Surviving the first round of cuts, she played in a preseason exhibition game in 1992, making her the first woman to play in the NHL. Six years later, Rheaume would win a silver medal with Team Canada in the 1998 Olympics, the first Winter Games to include women’s hockey.
One of six children in a family that struggled to make ends meet, Linda G. Alvarado worked her way through college as a laborer for a landscape firm and climbed up the ranks. After borrowing $2,500 from her parents, she started her own construction company, Alvarado Construction, in 1976, and it would go on to become one of the most successful construction firms in the U.S. Not only was Alvarado a pioneer in the construction field, she also made history in 1992 when she purchased the Colorado Rockies baseball team with her husband, becoming the first woman and first Latino to own a Major League Baseball team.
To pay her way through school, Janet Reno worked as a waitress and dorm supervisor while attending Cornell University. After earning a chemistry degree in 1960, she continued on to Harvard Law School and graduated as one of just 16 women in a class of 500. She initially struggled to find a job, but eventually worked her way up to partner at the law firm of Lewis & Reno.
Reno spent two decades working in various government and judicial roles before President Bill Clinton appointed her to one of the highest offices in the country in 1993. The honor earned her a place in the history books as the first female attorney general in the United States.
As a toddler, Madeleine Albright fled Czechoslovakia with her parents when the Nazis invaded during World War II. In 1949, her family immigrated to the United States, where she went on to earn degrees from Wellesley, Johns Hopkins and Columbia before representing the U.S. at the United Nations. She also served as a member of President Clinton’s National Security Council.
She made history in 1997 when she was appointed and sworn in as the first female secretary of state and became the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government. In honor of her distinguished career and service, Albright was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
A California native, Kathryn Bigelow studied art in college before going on to earn her master’s degree in film from Columbia University. Her 2009 film “The Hurt Locker,” an intense story of elite soldiers disarming bombs in Baghdad, cemented Bigelow’s place in history.
When the Oscar nominations were announced in 2010, Bigelow’s war film earned nine, including Best Picture and Best Director. She took home both top prizes at the 82nd Academy Awards and became the first woman in history to take home Best Director. She remains the only woman to do so.
Far from needing an introduction, Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful and recognizable women on the planet. Television’s highest-paid performer, Academy-Award nominee, producer, philanthropist and media mogul, Winfrey got her start after winning the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant. After a stint in radio, she moved on to television, where she worked as a reporter and anchor. She soon ended up with her own talk show.
She founded Harpo Productions in 1986, becoming the first woman in history to own her own television production company and produce her own talk show. Since then she has continued to rack up accomplishments including being the richest self-made woman in America, and the richest African American of the 20th century.
A long-time women’s football player, Welter earned two gold medals playing at the International Federation of American Football’s Women’s World Championship. Welter got her first chance to play with the boys when the Texas Revolution (a men’s Indoor Football League team) invited her to training camp. She made the team and in 2014 became the first woman to play running back in a men’s professional league.
Not long after, the Texas Revolution made her a coach, another first for a woman in a men’s professional football league. Welter’s big break came when the Arizona Cardinals hired her as a linebackers coach in 2015, making her the first female to coach in the NFL.
After joining the Air Force ROTC program while attending college at the University of New Hampshire in the ‘80s, Lori J. Robinson would go on to build an impressive resume of positions and assignments, including working at the Pentagon and commanding various forces across the world.
Honored with countless awards and decorations, Robinson became the first woman to lead a combatant command and the highest-ranking woman in the military in U.S. history when she was named Commander, United States Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense in 2016. Though Robinson might not be a household name, she should be, along with these other inspiring women you probably have never heard of.
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