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Famous Female Firsts: 78 Trailblazing Women Who Made History

Celebrate the history-making women who have blazed the trail toward equality

a collage of black and white portraits of famous womenRD.com, Getty Images (7)

Women who broke barriers

It’s hard to imagine a time when women couldn’t be doctors, pilots, business owners, registered voters or even marathon runners. But these achievements are relatively recent and were hard-won by women who faced a significant amount of opposition from a patriarchal society designed to work against them. Often, the first women to break certain barriers weren’t even recognized for their groundbreaking work—because men took credit for it, their contributions were willfully ignored or they simply went unnoticed and, therefore, were never recorded. This was especially true for women of color, as well as those without financial means. Despite facing adversity, these important women in history made it clear that their place was wherever they wanted it to be, and that inspiring sentiment paved the way for all of us today.

From the first female politicians to the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (which didn’t happen until 1987!) to the recent confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court justice, these are the women who broke the proverbial glass ceiling and wouldn’t take no for an answer. While society still doesn’t treat women as equals to men in some pretty significant ways, these pioneering women remind us that we need to fight for what we want—and what we deserve.

portrait of Ketanji Brown JacksonJustin Sullivan/getty images

Ketanji Brown Jackson, first Black woman Supreme Court justice

On June 30, 2022, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She replaced Stephen Breyer, who had been on the court for 28 years. Jackson, who has served as a federal judge and a public defender, among other things, joined the court during a time of intense controversy, less than a week after the 6–3 conservative majority voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The first women president of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980.Bettmann/Getty Images

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, first democratically elected woman president

Though it’s becoming increasingly common for women to be elected president of a country, someone had to be the first. That accolade goes to Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who, on June 29, 1980, became the first democratically elected female president of any country. After serving for 16 years, she also became the longest-serving elected female head of state. Although Iceland has elected two female prime ministers since, Finnbogadóttir remains the only woman to have been president of the country. Of course, we’re still waiting for the first woman to become president in the United States.

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Madam C.J. Walker, first female self-made millionaire in America

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who had been enslaved, this groundbreaking Black entrepreneur created a line of hair-care products formulated for Black women dealing with hair loss. In 1906, she married Charles J. Walker and began referring to herself professionally as Madam C.J. Walker. In addition to creating hair products, she established distribution centers to ensure that her 3,000 door-to-door salespeople—most of whom were Black women—had plenty to sell, and she  also founded a cosmetology school to train them. Following her financial success, Walker became a well-known philanthropist, funding scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donating to social services for orphans, the elderly and migrants. Here are more Black Americans who were left out of the history books.

ALBRIGHT United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright smiles as she answers questions after a meeting of the Security Council, at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Albright is on the short list to replace outgoing Secretary of State Warren ChristopherOSAMU HONDA/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Madeleine Albright, first female U.S. Secretary of State

In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Madeleine K. Albright the 64th Secretary of State of the United States. The appointment made her the highest-ranking woman in the federal government’s history. In 2004, Condoleezza Rice became the second woman, as well as the first Black woman, to hold the job. Five years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the nation’s third female Secretary of State. For a personal look at these women and their accomplishments, read their fascinating autobiographies.

Las Vegas Raiders Introduce Sandra Douglass Morgan As Team PresidentEthan Miller/Getty Images

Sandra Douglass Morgan, first Black female president in NFL history

In July 2022, the Las Vegas Raiders hired attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan to be the team’s president, making her the first Black woman to hold that title for an NFL franchise. Prior to her current role, Morgan was also the first person of color to serve as chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the first Black city attorney in Nevada.

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin New Shepard Space Vehicle Flies The Billionaire And Other Passengers To SpaceJoe Raedle/Getty Images

Wally Funk and the FLATs, first women to go through astronaut testing

In 1961, 22-year-old Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk became one of the first women to undergo the physical and psychological testing NASA required to become an astronaut. Funk was one of 13 Fellow Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs), who were also unofficially known as the “Mercury 13″—a nod to Project Mercury, NASA’s first human spaceflight program. Despite the fact that Funk and the other women performed better than any of the men of Project Mercury (including John Glenn), President Lyndon B. Johnson ended the program in 1962, preferring the optics of sending men to space at the height of the Cold War. Although Funk did not become the first woman in space, she did briefly become the oldest person to travel to space on July 20, 2021, at the age of 82. (Until William Shatner, 90, earned the title in October 2021.)

Aretha Franklin attends the Elton John AIDS Foundation's 25th Anniversary Gala at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in New YorkInvision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Aretha Franklin, first female Rock & Roll Hall of Famer

Here’s a bit of pop culture trivia: In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The late Queen of Soul may be most famous for her reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which the Hall of Fame views as Franklin’s “assertion of selfhood in the women’s movement.”

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Deb Haaland, first Indigenous person to serve in a Cabinet position

Deb Haaland made history in March 2021, when she was confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior of the United States—the first Indigenous person of any gender to hold a Cabinet position. A member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland has spent much of her career focused on environmental justice and climate change.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi Sits Down With LinkedIn Executive Editor Dan RothMonica Schipper/Getty Images

Indra Nooyi, first woman of color to head a Fortune 500 company

When Indra Nooyi was named the CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she became the first woman of color and the first immigrant to helm a Fortune 500 company—a position she held for 12 years. Born in India in 1955, Nooyi earned her MBA in 1974 from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, followed by a master’s degree in public and private management in 1980 from Yale. She spent the next 14 years working as a corporate consultant before being offered positions at both PepsiCo and General Electric in 1994. Nooyi chose PepsiCo, gradually working her way up through the company’s ranks until her historic appointment as CEO in 2006. Check out these other female CEOs who made history.

Oprah Winfrey attends the world premiere of "BOO! A Madea Halloween" in Los Angeles. Winfrey has a new book imprint called An Oprah Book under Flatiron Books. The first release will be Winfreyâ?™s â?œFood, Health and Happinessâ?? cookbook, coming out Jan. 3John Salangsang/Shutterstock

Oprah Winfrey, first woman to own and produce her own talk show

Oprah Winfrey wasn’t comfortable in her role as a TV news anchorwoman, and her empathy with her interviewees earned her criticism rather than accolades from her bosses. But this ironic failure led to her being hired as the host of a morning talk show in Chicago in 1984. Within a year, the network renamed it The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in 1986, the show entered national syndication and almost immediately became the highest-rated talk show in television history. The same year, Winfrey became the first Black woman in the American entertainment industry to establish and own her own production company, Harpo Studios. In 1988, Harpo acquired The Oprah Winfrey Show, making Winfrey the first woman to own and produce her own talk show.

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Sara Josephine Baker, first director of a child health bureau in the United States

Although Sara Josephine Baker, MD, DrPH, is probably best known today for her work in containing a 1907 typhoid outbreak in New York City, she made history a year later when she was appointed the first director of the city’s new Bureau of Child Hygiene, the first department of its kind in the United States. When Baker retired in 1923, New York City had the lowest infant mortality rate of any major American city. In the mid-1930s, she moved to New Jersey, where she shared a house with Ida Wylie—a novelist and her life partner—and another woman physician named Louise Pearce.

JEANE KIRKPATRICK Republican presidential hopeful Elizabeth Dole named Kirkpatrick, as her principal foreign policy adviser as she seeks the GOP nomination and James H. Burnley IV, former transportation secretary, as her main domestic adviserAP/Shutterstock

Jeane Kirkpatrick, first female U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Jeane Kirkpatrick first served as President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor during his 1980 presidential campaign. A year later, Reagan appointed her to be the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, making her the first woman to hold that position.

But she wasn’t the first American woman to make diplomatic history. In 1949, Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson became the first American woman to serve as the chief for a mission abroad with the title of Ambassador (at the appointment of President Harry S. Truman). Anderson continued her diplomatic career throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1965, she was appointed as an ambassador to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, becoming the first woman to sit on the Security Council.

Chief Wilma MankillerPeter Turnley/Getty Images

Wilma Mankiller, first woman elected as chief of a major Indigenous tribe

Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945, Wilma Pearl Mankiller grew up as a member of the Cherokee nation. Her family was relocated to San Francisco in 1957 as part of a federal program to “urbanize” Indigenous Americans, but she returned to her home state in 1974, where she immediately got to work improving rural services for her community, with initiatives in housing, health care and education. Mankiller continued to take on public-service roles, and in 1985, she was elected chief of the Cherokee, the second-largest Indigenous nation in the United States. She was reelected in 1991 and served as principal chief until 1995. Three years later, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Don’t miss these other untold stories about Native American heroes.

Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister 1992 Margaret Thatcher. ...baroness Thatcher...prime Ministers . Rexmailpix.Monty Fresco/Shutterstock

Margaret Thatcher, first female prime minister of the U.K.

This British stateswoman served as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and also earned the distinction as the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century. And this was after she bet against herself (and every other woman) in 1969, predicting that “no woman” would become prime minister or foreign secretary during her own lifetime. Her prediction obviously missed the mark, and she’s in good company with these other historical misses.

STS-7 mission specialist, Sally K. Ride on the flight deck of the space shuttle ChallengerREX/Shutterstock

Valentina Tershkova, Sally Ride, Mae Jemison, Jessica Watkins and Eileen Collins, first female astronauts

Russia’s Valentina Tershkova became the first woman in space in 1963, when she spent three days orbiting Earth 48 times in a space capsule.

In 1983, America sent its first woman into space—Sally Ride, who had joined NASA only five years earlier. And although she didn’t officially come out during her lifetime, in a statement prepared prior to her death, Ride confirmed she was gay, making her the first acknowledged LGBTQ+ NASA astronaut.

Nine years later, American doctor and engineer Mae Jemison made history as the first Black woman in space, as one of seven crew members aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. After that, it was another three decades before NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins became the first Black woman in space to be on an International Space Station crew.

Another important first occurred on February 3, 1995, when Eileen Collins became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. Collins made history again on July 23, 1999, when she became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. If you’d like to learn more, check out these other amazing facts about the women of NASA.

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Serena Williams, first (and only) tennis player to accomplish a Career Golden Slam in singles and doubles

Serena Williams, who announced her plans to retire from tennis in August 2022, spent the past three decades making history. This includes being the first—and only—professional tennis player of any gender to accomplish a Career Golden Slam in both singles and doubles. If you’re unfamiliar with tennis, a Golden Slam means that a player has won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and an Olympic gold medal. Williams completed her singles Golden Slam on August 4, 2012, when she won her first singles gold medal at the London Olympics. A decade earlier, Williams and her sister, Venus Williams, completed their doubles Golden Slam at the 2001 Australian Open—a year after winning Wimbledon and gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Sally J. Priesand, the only female rabbi in the world, speaks in New York, . She is an assistant rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New YorkMarty Lederhandler/Shutterstock

Sally Preisand, first female rabbi in the United States

Growing up in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, Sally Priesand didn’t see any women serving as rabbis. But this wasn’t limited to the area: At the time, it was virtually unheard of for a female to occupy leadership roles in any religion. Nevertheless, Preisand enrolled in rabbinical school after graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1968 and was fully ordained on June 3, 1972. Throughout her career, she spoke out for equality in the Jewish religion.

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Golda Meir, first female prime minister in the Middle East

In 1969, Golda Meir became the fourth prime minister of Israel and the first woman to hold the title. Born in 1898 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Goldie Mabovitch and her family immigrated to Wisconsin in 1905 and became part of a Zionist group that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After obtaining her teaching certification in 1917 and marrying Morris Meyerson (she officially changed her name from Meyerson to Meir in 1956), she, along with her husband, joined a collective settlement in Palestine in 1921, then moved to Jerusalem in 1924. For nearly three decades prior to her appointment as prime minister, Meir worked for the Israeli government in various roles.

O'Connor Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor smiles during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary CommitteeRON EDMONDS/Shutterstock

Sandra Day O’Connor, first female Supreme Court justice

In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as a Supreme Court justice, making a name for herself not only as the first female justice but also as one of SCOTUS’s most thoughtful centrists. But long before Justice O’Connor, another woman was making judicial history: In 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, and a year later, she became the first woman to argue a case before the country’s highest court.

Danica Patrick during media day for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach, FlaTerry Renna/Shutterstock

Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick, first female Indy contender and winner

Janet Guthrie, an aerospace engineer who was training to be an astronaut, turned to car racing when she was cut from the space program for not having completed her PhD. In 1977, Guthrie became the first female Indy 500 contender. A few decades later, Danica Patrick entered the IndyCar racing scene in 2005 and made her Indianapolis 500 debut later that year. In 2008, Patrick won the Indy Japan 300, which made her the first female winner in IndyCar racing history.

Terracotta Army statues depicting Chinese warriorsDEA/Getty Images

Fu Hao, first recorded female military leader

Though it’s impossible to know with certainty who was actually the very first woman in the world to lead a military, Fu Hao is a strong contender. Not only was she the first female military general on record in China’s history—having as many as 13,000 troops under her command—but during her lifetime in the 12th century BC, Fu Hao was also a high priestess and landowner. How do we know so much about her accomplishments? When her tomb was discovered in 1976, archaeologists found that it contained a large stash of weapons (including several battle-axes), as well as more than 700 jade objects, roughly 400 bronze objects and evidence of 16 human sacrifices.

Shirley Chisholm Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York presents her views in Washington, before the panel drafting the platform for the Democratic National ConventionJames Palmer/Shutterstock

Shirley Chisholm, first Black female member of Congress

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black Congresswoman, representing her district in New York state in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven terms. One year after her election to Congress, Chisholm became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972, she made history yet again when she became the first Black (and second woman) to make a bid for the presidency, during which she survived three assassination attempts. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg Final during the Weightlifting on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Carrara Sports and Leisure CentreScott Barbour/Getty Images

Laurel Hubbard, first openly transgender Olympic athlete

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games were rescheduled for the following year. But that’s not the only reason the 2021 Olympics made history: It was also the first time an openly transgender athlete competed in an individual event in the Olympics. Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, failed to advance to the finals of her event, but that didn’t take away from the significance of her inclusion. In an interview following the competition, she thanked the International Olympic Committee “for living up to the Olympic values and showing that sport is for all and that weightlifting can be done by all types of people.” Here are more Olympic moments that changed history.

Twenty-seven-years-old Joan Benoit of Freeport, Maine, waves the American flag enthusiastically in Los Angeles after finishing the first-ever Olympic women's marathon in the fastest-ever time for that distance. 2.24:52 for the 26-mile, 385-yard courseDieter Endlicher/Shutterstock

Kathrine Switzer, Nina Kuscsik and Joan Benoit, first major female marathoners

In 1967, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon, even though race officials had tried to stop her. Nina Kuscsik became the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon in 1972. And in 1984, American Joan Benoit became the first winner of the Women’s Olympic Marathon, finishing 400 meters ahead of Norway’s Grete Waitz.

Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello Testifying Before SenateBettmann/Getty Images

Antonia Novello, first woman to serve as U.S. Surgeon General

After training and practicing as a pediatric nephrologist, Antonia Novello, MD, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, decided to join the U.S. Public Health Service in 1979. She held a variety of roles throughout the 1980s, and then, in 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to the position of U.S. Surgeon General—making her both the first woman and the first person of color to fill the role. While Surgeon General, Novello continued her work involving AIDS but largely focused on the health of women, children and minorities. She stepped down from her position in 1993, after serving under two presidential administrations.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner during an interview with journalists on 29 September 2010 at the Governement House in Buenos AiresDANIEL GARCIA/Getty Images

Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner, first female elected president of Argentina

Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner was not only the second woman to serve as president of Argentina—she was also the first female president directly elected by the people. Her first term began in 2007. In 2011, she was reelected, making her the first woman to be reelected to the office as well. Her political approach has been given its own name: Kirchnerism.

Portrait of Junko Tabei with a mountain landscape in the backgroundJohn van Hasselt - Corbis/Getty Images

Junko Tabei, first woman to summit Everest

Junko Tabei stood just 5 feet tall and weighed only 92 pounds, but in 1975, she co-led a group of 15 women to the summit of Mt. Everest, becoming the first female ever to reach the peak. She would eventually ascend the highest summit on every continent.

Betty White Portrait in Beverly Hills, CaliforniaBob Riha Jr/Getty Images

Betty White, first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show

In 2018, Betty White made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the female entertainer with the longest television career—which, at the time, spanned nearly 80 years. Though White died three years later, at the age of 99, she still retains this record. This is hardly surprising, given that she’d been on television nearly as long as the medium had existed. She was among the first women on TV, appearing on several experimental broadcasts in the 1930s, and in the early 1950s, she became one of the first women to write, produce and star in her own nationally syndicated TV sitcom (Life with Elizabeth). Over the years, she played beloved characters like Sue Ann Niven on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, but her big female first happened in 1983, when she became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host (for NBC’s celebrity panel game show, Just Men!).

Jazz Singer Ella Fitzgerald Ella Jane Fitzgerald (april 25 1917 A June 15 1996) Also Known As The 'first Lady Of Song' 'queen Of Jazz' And 'lady Ella' Was An American Jazz And Song Vocalist. With A Vocal Range Spanning Three Octaves (d?3 To D?6) She Was Noted For Her Purity Of Tone Impeccable Diction Phrasing And Intonation And A 'horn-like' Improvisational Ability Particularly In Her Scat Singing. Fitzgerald Was A Notable Interpreter Of The Great American Songbook. Over The Course Of Her 59-year Recording Career She Was The Winner Of 13 Grammy Awards And Was Awarded The National Medal Of Arts By Ronald Reagan And The Presidential Medal Of Freedom By George H. W. Bush. Date Unknown.Mike Hollist/Shutterstock

Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Astrud Gilberto and Carole King, female Grammy firsts

At the very first Grammy Awards in 1958, Ella Fitzgerald, known as the First Lady of Song, was awarded two Grammys, making her the first woman to win two of the awards and the first Black woman to win one at all. In 1962, Judy Garland made Grammy history of her own, becoming the first woman to win for Album of the Year (Judy at Carnegie Hall).

Other female Grammy firsts include:

  • Astrud Gilberto: The first woman to win Record of the Year in 1964 for “The Girl from Ipanema,” an honor she shared with Stan Getz.
  • Carole King: The first woman to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year, solo, for “It’s Too Late” in 1971.

Vintage schoolhouse chairsVW Pics/Getty Images

Benigna Zinzendorf, founder of the first boarding school for girls in Colonial America

Back in 1742, at a time when girls were expected to marry young and spend their lives caring for their husbands and families, Henrietta Benigna Justine Zinzendorf von Watteville (who went by Benigna) founded the first boarding school dedicated to the education of girls in the 13 colonies, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Two months later, the school, known as the Bethlehem Female Seminary, moved roughly 70 miles north to Bethlehem, where, in addition to teaching the “household arts” (a fancy word for home ec), reading, writing and religion were also part of the curriculum. The school quickly earned a reputation for providing a high-caliber education to girls, counting the nieces of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among its students. She may not be one of the most famous women in history, but Zinzendorf deserves more credit for her work.

Frances Perkins Secretary of labor Frances Perkins testifies, before the house committee on interstate migration, advocating extension of the benefits of certain social legislation to the "Okies" and "Arkies," migrant farm workers she said the migrants should be placed under the wage-hour law, social security act and other legislation now covering other workersAP/REX/Shutterstock

Frances Perkins, first female member of a presidential cabinet

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins, a sociologist and political reformer from New York, as his Secretary of Labor. Perkins held the position until 1945, making her the longest-serving Secretary of Labor in U.S. history. During that time, she was a key figure in establishing the New Deal, even writing some of the legislation, including minimum wage laws. Perkins also chaired the President’s Committee on Economic Security in 1934, which resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935, making her instrumental in creating the agency.

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Amelia Earhart and Jerrie Mock, first women in cross-ocean aviation

We can’t talk about famous women in history without mentioning Amelia Earhart, who is probably best known for her mysterious disappearance during an ill-fated around-the-world-flight in 1937. A decade before Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean, however, she became the first woman ever to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1928, earning herself a ticker-tape parade and even an editorship at Cosmopolitan.

The first woman to successfully make the around-the-world flight, by the way, was Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock, who flew a single-engine Cessna-180 around the world in 1964.

A quiet city street in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1946Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Felisa Rincón de Gautier, first woman elected mayor of a major city in the Western hemisphere

When Felisa Rincón de Gautier was elected mayor of San Juan in 1946, she not only became the first woman to lead the Puerto Rican capital but also the first woman elected mayor of any major city in the Western hemisphere. Gautier, affectionately known as Doña Fela in Puerto Rico, served as San Juan’s mayor until 1968. During her time in office, she focused on street cleaning, hygiene, historic restoration and social services for children and lower-income communities.

Argentinian president visits Chile, Santiago - 27 Jun 2017 Michelle BacheletMARIO RUI/Shutterstock

Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, first female president of Chile

First elected president of Chile in 2006, Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, known publicly as Michelle Bachelet, was the first woman in her country to hold the office. Leaving office in 2010, she found she couldn’t stay away for long. In 2013, she was reelected president with more than 62% of the vote, making her not only the first female president of Chile but also the first person since 1932 to win the presidency twice in contested elections. She has served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights since 2018.

Gertrude Ederle SwimmingBettmann/Getty Images

Gertrude Ederle, first woman to swim across the English Channel

On August 6, 1926, Gertrude Caroline Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel—and accomplished the feat with a time almost two hours shorter than the fastest man to complete the swim. While that earned her a world record, it was far from Ederle’s first: Between 1921 and 1925, she set 29 U.S. and world records for swimming, as well as won a gold medal and two bronze medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Though she’s not one of the most famous women in history, at the peak of her career, she was one of the best-known athletes in the world.

Washington, Dc, March 4, 1917 - President Woodrow Wilson And Mrs. Wilson (Edith Galt Wilson) At The President's Second InaugurationNara Archives/Shutterstock

Edith Wilson, first female “Secret President”

Being married to President Woodrow Wilson not only made Edith Galt Wilson the first lady—it also made her the first woman known to have made executive decisions on behalf of the United States. This earned her the moniker “Secret President.” Edith’s run as the stand-in chief executive began in 1919, when Woodrow suffered a stroke. For many months, the nation didn’t know the president had fallen ill, but over time, people came to suspect that Edith was in charge. Years later, the extent of Edith’s political power was confirmed by historians.

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Edith Wharton, first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize

Another Edith became a “first woman” in 1921, when Edith Wharton became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Age of Innocence—a critique of upper-class society in turn-of-the-century New York City. It’s one of the books by female authors that belongs on everyone’s must-read list.

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Jeanne Baret, first woman to circumnavigate the globe

When a 26-year-old Frenchwoman named Jeanne Baret joined Louis de Bougainville’s round-the-world expedition in 1766, she did so as the assistant to the voyage’s botanist—and as a man. At the time, French law forbid women from traveling on navy ships, so Baret spent much of the trip disguised as a man named “Jean.” When her crewmates discovered her true identity, they brutally attacked Baret. She remained sequestered on board until 1768, when she disembarked in Mauritius. Baret may not be as well-known as some of the other important women in history, but in addition to making several valuable contributions to the field of botany, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Rankin Former U.S. congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana) prepares to leave Washington, for a speaking tour calling for a peace plank in the Republican and Democratic party platforms. As the first woman elected to Congress, she did not vote for war in 1917AP/REX/Shutterstock

Jeannette Rankin, first female member of Congress

Four years before women secured the right to vote in the United States, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives as a representative from Montana. At the same time, she also became the first woman ever to be elected to national office in the United States. She served two nonconsecutive terms in the House, coinciding with World War I and World War II.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presents human rights awards at Georgetown University, Washington, USA - 05 Feb 2018MICHAEL REYNOLDS/Shutterstock

Hillary Clinton and Victoria Woodhull, first female presidential nominees

In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former first lady, senator and Secretary of State, was nominated by the Democratic Party as its presidential candidate—the first woman from a major party ever to achieve this feat. And though she did not become president, Clinton does hold the distinction of being the first woman to win the popular vote in an American presidential election.

Clinton was not, however, the first woman to run for POTUS. That distinction goes to Victoria Woodhull, who ran unsuccessfully in 1872 as a member of the Equal Rights Party. And that’s only one reason Woodhull made history: She was also the first woman to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street, the first woman to start a weekly newspaper and a prominent activist for women’s rights and labor reform.

Aviatrix Baroness Raymonde de Laroche at the wheel of her aeroplaneTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

Raymonde de Laroche, first female licensed pilot

Although Raymonde de Laroche, a French engineer, wasn’t the first female aviator, she was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license. She learned how to fly in 1909 upon the suggestion of Charles Voisin, an aviation pioneer who also served as her instructor. The following year, de Laroche was awarded a pilot’s license, and she set a women’s altitude record of 15,700 feet nine years later.

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Marie Curie, first female Nobel Prize winner

Arguably the most famous female scientist of them all and one of the most important women in history, Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska in Warsaw in 1867, was a young revolutionary before she began her studies in physics and math at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was there that she met her husband, Pierre Curie, a physics professor. In 1903, the couple was awarded half the Nobel Prize for research on radiation led by Henri Becquerel (he got the other half). Curie earned her own Nobel Prize in 1911 in chemistry and remains the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize twice.

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Winifred Edgerton Merril, first American woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics

In 1886, Winifred Edgerton Merril became the first woman to receive a degree from Columbia University, as well as the first American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics anywhere in the United States. Much of her work was in the field of mathematical astronomy and included computing the orbit of the comet of 1883.

MAN HOLDING SCALE OF JUSTICEHarold M. Lambert/Getty Images

Arabella Mansfield and Ada Kepley, first female lawyers in the United States

In 1869, Arabella Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the United States when she was admitted to the Iowa state bar association after studying and apprenticing (an alternative to passing the bar exam after attending law school). The first woman to graduate from law school was Ada Kepley, who graduated the following year from the school that would eventually become Northwestern University.

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Lucy Hobbs Taylor, first female dentist in the United States

After previously being denied admission, Lucy Beaman Hobbs enrolled in the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in 1865 and graduated with a doctorate in dental surgery the following year. Hobbs then moved to Chicago, where she established a dental practice and married a Civil War veteran named James Myrtle Taylor. The couple later moved to Kansas, where Hobbs set up a new practice and campaigned for women’s rights.

Dr. Helen B. Taussig, co-developer of the blue baby operation, examines an X-ray at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where she is still active at the age of 69. She believes heart transplants one day may save infants born with severely malformed heartsWilliam A. Smith/Shutterstock

Helen Taussig, first female president of the American Heart Association

Born in 1898, Helen Brooke Taussig graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1927 and quickly emerged as a pioneer in pediatric cardiology. Taussig was also an early leader of the movement to ban Thalidomide, a drug for morning sickness that caused malformations in children’s limbs when their mothers took it during pregnancy.

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Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States

As the story goes, Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted to the Geneva Medical College in western New York state because the all-male faculty voted her in, thinking it was all a hilarious joke. Of course, Blackwell was completely serious, and ultimately, the joke was on them: She received her medical degree in 1849, making her the first woman in the country to graduate from medical school.

Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace (1815-1852) English mathematician and writer. Daughter of the poet Byron. Friend of Charles Babbage. Devised programme for his Analytical Engine. Portrait by Margaret Carpenter.Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer

There can’t be a discussion of important women in history without Ada Lovelace, who was not only the first female computer programmer but also the first computer programmer of any gender. A brilliant mathematician born in England, Lovelace wrote what many consider the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine. Her algorithm was published in an article in a British journal in 1843. Of course, computers have come a long way since then, and it’s fascinating to look back to see what computers looked like the decade you were born.

M.s. Blanchard, (madeleine Sophie Armand) French Aeronaut, 19th Century Engraving.Universal History Archive/REX/Shutterstock

Sophie Blanchard, first woman to pilot a hot-air balloon

Sophie Blanchard learned her aeronautical skills from her husband, who died of a heart attack beside Sophie while she was piloting a balloon. “Tiny” and “nervous,” according to Smithsonian, she nevertheless found flight to be a “sensation incomparable” and made her first solo balloon ascent in 1805. Unfortunately, Blanchard also became the first woman to die in an aviation accident, when her balloon caught fire and crashed to the ground in 1819.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe, first American author of an international bestselling novel

Though she spent the first 21 years of her life in Connecticut, it was her time living in Cincinnati—specifically, her involvement in anti-slavery movements—that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write her 1852 runaway hit, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though there’s no strict definition of what constitutes an international bestseller, many consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be the first international bestselling novel written by an American. But what we do know is that Stowe’s most famous book was the bestselling novel and the second-bestselling book of the 19th century, after the Bible. Also interesting: This book was censored in many states around the time of its release, and today, it has ended up on book-banning lists for other reasons.

42nd Street, Times Square New York News Stand 1970Scott McPartland/Getty Images

Ann Smith Franklin, first female newspaper editor in America

You’ve heard of Ben Franklin, but how about his sister-in-law, Ann Smith Franklin, who was married to Ben’s brother, James? After James died in 1837, leaving Ann a widow with five kids, she took over as publisher of the Mercury, a Rhode Island newspaper that Ann had helped James to launch. She later printed an almanac series and went on to be inducted into the University of Rhode Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame.

vintage colored illustration of Sacajawea On Lewis & ClarkGraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Sacagawea, first (and only) woman to accompany Lewis and Clark

In 1805, Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone tribe, became the first and only woman to accompany the Lewis and Clark expedition, exploring the West and seeking a route to the Pacific. Barely a teenager, and also a brand-new mother, Sacagawea kept her baby strapped to her back as she acted as a Shoshone interpreter, brokered deals for supplies and served as a skilled navigator. The fact that she was there may have been the difference between life and death for many on the expedition.

Close-up of a hand as it inserts a ballot into a box during the US Presidential election, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, November 2, 1948PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Lydia Taft, first woman to vote legally in America

In 1756, a century before women’s suffrage became a movement, Lydia Chapin Taft became the first woman to vote in America. Taft was the widow of an influential landowner in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, whose recent death was thwarting the town’s plan to help finance the ongoing French and Indian War. So to get stuff done, she was asked to vote in her dead husband’s place. Guess word of Taft’s voting never reached President Grover Cleveland, who famously said that “sensible” women don’t vote.

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Francesca Caccini, first known female opera composer

Italian Francesca Caccini was 38 years old when La Liberazione di Ruggiero, the opera she composed, was performed for the first time in Florence. The year was 1625, and Caccini was not only an accomplished composer but also a lute player, poet and music teacher. On top of that, she was the highest-paid musician of any gender in the court in the 1620s.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, Italian eruditeDEA/Getty Images

Elena Cornaro Piscopia, first woman to earn a doctorate

Born in Venice, Italy in 1646, Elena Cornaro Piscopia received an unusual comprehensive education, thanks to a series of tutors. Although her parents wanted her to get married, Piscopia wasn’t interested in that life, so at the age of 11, she joined a Benedictine monastery as an affiliated layperson. She went on to attend the University of Padua, where she was awarded her doctorate in philosophy in 1678.

Mary I of England (1516-1558).Universal Images Group/Shutterstock

Mary Tudor, first woman to rule England

Though Elizabeth I gets all the acclaim, it was her half-sister Mary Tudor, the only adult child of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who was crowned the first Queen of England, in 1553. This was after the death of Henry in 1547 and a short reign by Henry’s ill-fated teenage son, Edward (who was Henry’s child with his third wife, Jane Seymour). Known historically as “Bloody Mary” for her sometimes violent political acts, she died in 1558. A year later, Elizabeth began her historic rule.

Anne (1665-1714), Queen of Great Britain and Ireland from 1702. Portrait. Taken from [Angliae Notitia] [Magnae Britanniae Notitia, or the Present State of Great Britain, with divers remarks upon the antient state thereof]. Originally pub./prod. in London, 1669-1755.British Library/Shutterstock

Queen Anne, first female ruler of Great Britain

Following the 1702 death of her brother-in-law, William III, Anne Stuart was crowned queen of England. Five years later, the Treaty of Union came into effect, merging the kingdoms of England and Scotland to form Great Britain, making Anne the first ruler of Great Britain. Period. By the way, here’s why you should never call the current queen of England by her given name.

Stele with a hymn to Amun. Detail of hieroglyphic writing. Egypt.PHAS/Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock

MerNeith and Sobekneferu, first female pharaohs

Around 2950 BC, MerNeith—the daughter of one pharaoh, wife of another and mother of yet another—is believed to have ruled Egypt in her own right for some period of time. If that’s accurate, it would have made her not only the first female pharaoh but also the first female monarch in recorded history.

The first female pharaoh whose reign was confirmed by scientific evidence was Sobekneferu, who ruled Egypt between 1806 and 1802 BC, following the death of her brother, Amenemhat IV.

Arlene Francis American Actress. Box 0559 080515 00112a.jpg.ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Arlene Francis, first TV game show host

Born in 1907, Arlene Francis always wanted to be a serious actress. While live theater was her first love, it was her work on a sound stage that made history. Francis was a serious radio personality throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1943, she became the host of a new radio matchmaking game show called Blind Date. The show moved from radio to television in 1949, making Francis the first woman to host a television game show. She hosted the TV version of Blind Date until 1952 and also served as a panelist on CBS’s What’s My Line? for 25 years.

Us Director Kathryn Bigelow Holds Her Award As She Stands with Presenter and Us Singer Barbara Streisand (r) at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood California Usa 07 March 2010 Bigelow Won For Achievement in Directing For 'The Hurt Locker ' the Oscars Are Awards Presented For Outstanding Individual Or Collective Efforts in Up to 25 Categories in Filmmaking United States HollywoodPaul Buck/Shutterstock

Barbra Streisand and Kathryn Bigelow, film-industry firsts

In 1984, Barbra Streisand became the first woman ever to win a Golden Globe Award for Best Director. The film was Yentl, in which Streisand also starred, playing a woman pretending to be a man. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director. The film was The Hurt Locker, and one of the other nominees was Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron, for Avatar. If you haven’t seen these flicks, get to it—they’re two of the best movies of all time.

TAYMOR Julie Taymor holds her two Tony Awards backstage at New York's Radio City Music Hall . Taymor, the driving force behind "The Lion King," won for Best Direction of a Play and for Best Costume DesignRICHARD DREW/Shutterstock

Julie Taymor and Cyndi Lauper, theater-world firsts

It wasn’t until 1998 that a woman won a Tony Award for Best Director of a musical. That was Julie Taymor, who won for The Lion King. In 2013, Cyndi Lauper became the first woman to win a Tony Award (solo) for Best Original Score, for Kinky Boots.

National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.UCG/Getty Images

Sylvia Rivera, first transgender person featured in the National Portrait Gallery

Born in the Bronx in 1951, Sylvia Rivera spent much of her life as an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, especially LGBTQ+ people of color. Rivera, along with her friend and fellow activist, Marsha P. Johnson, made history in 1971, when they established the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) House, America’s first youth shelter for trans youth. After several more decades of campaigning, Rivera died in 2002 from complications related to liver cancer. Thirteen years later, she became the first transgender person to have their picture hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Additional reporting by Lauren Cahn.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for RD.com. She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.