- To celebrate Women’s History Month, we are highlighting 50 women who were leaders in their fields, breaking barriers by becoming the first to achieve exceptional feats.
- Hattie Caraway was the first woman elected to the US Senate after winning 92% of the vote in a special election in 1932.
- Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 and was also the first acknowledged gay astronaut.
- Vanessa Williams was the first black woman to win the Miss America pageant in 1984. For its first three decades, the show didn’t even allow black women to enter.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For generations, women of all backgrounds, colours, and gender expressions have been changing the world with their historic firsts.
Though it might seem normal for women to fill certain roles today, for the first woman of colour in Congress, Patricia Mink, and the first female Supreme Court Justice,Sandra Day O’Connor, it was anything but. They had to face discrimination based solely on their gender, and work twice as hard to overcome those obstacles, proving to the world that women could do it.
This Women’s History Month, we are reflecting on truly exceptional women from history by highlighting 50 who were the first to achieve a title or award in their field, including sport, science, art, entertainment, and politics.
Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed military operation in the United States.
Though best known for her work helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, Tubman was also the first woman to lead an armed expedition. During the Civil War, she led the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
There was talk of replacing Andrew Jackson with her on the $US20 bill.
Marie Curie was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, and she’s the only woman who’s won twice.
Polish scientist Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 for her research on spontaneous radiation. She won the prize for chemistry eight years later in 1911 for her work in radioactivity. In 1929, President Hoover presented her with a gift of $US50,000, donated by American friends of science, to assist in her research of radium.
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Wharton was born at a time when women were expected to do little more than marry and have children, which makes her achievement all the more impressive.
Madam C. J. Walker was America’s first female self-made millionaire.
After suffering with her own scalp and hair loss issues, Madam C. J. Walker created her own line of hair care products for black women. In 1905, she began selling Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
Walker was the daughter of slaves and was born just after the Emancipation Proclamation. Though technically free, black men and especially women still faced extreme barriers to entry in the business world.
Walker was like the original Mary Kay; she had agents who went door-to-door selling her beauty products. These women earned a solid wage of between $US5 and $US15 a day, which equates to between $US128 and $US384 a day in today’s dollars.
Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
To protect herself from the extreme cold and potential jellyfish stings in the Channel, she coated her body in lanolin, a type of grease that comes from sheep. The entire swim took her 14 hours and 31 minutes, which was faster than some male swimmers who had completed the trip.
In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly a plane across the Atlantic Ocean, and she was the first person to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Before mysteriously disappearing while trying to circumnavigate the globe from the equator in 1937, Earhart achieved multiple accolades. Not only was she the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific, but she was also the 16th woman in history to receive a pilot’s licence.
Hattie Caraway was the first woman elected to the US Senate.
Hattie Caraway’s husband, Thaddeus Horatio Caraway, was a prominent politician at the time and Caraway notably worked on his campaigns behind the scenes. In the 1920s, Thaddeus Caraway served four terms in the House of Representatives and two terms in the Senate representing Arkansas. After he passed, Hattie was chosen to take over his seat in the Senate in 1931. Caraway then won the 1932 election with 92% of the vote.
Caraway served in the Senate for 14 years and was a supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal reforms.
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award.
Hattie McDaniel was given the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her work as “Mammy” in the film version of “Gone With the Wind.”
Frida Kahlo was the first Mexican artist with work purchased by an internationally renowned museum.
Frida Kahlo became the first Mexican artist to be shown in the Louvre after the French museum purchased a self-portrait of hers titled “The Frame” in 1939.
Marcenia Lyle Stone, also known as Toni Stone, was the first woman to play big-league professional baseball.
Stone overcame double discrimination as not only the first woman to play in professional baseball, but also the first black woman to break such a barrier. She played second baseman for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in 1953.
Stone faced taunts by her teammates, who said things like, “Go home and fix your husband some biscuits,” but she did not let it stop her. In 1953, she hit a fastball pitch by legendary player Satchel Paige.
Judy Garland was the first woman to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.
At the fourth Grammy Awards in 1961, Judy Garland made history as the first woman to take home a win in one of the “big four” categories. She won Album of the Year for “Judy at Carnegie Hall.”
Nearly 30 years later, in 1990, her daughter, Liza Minnelli became the first woman to receive a Grammy Legend Award.
In 1962, Rita Moreno became the first Latina woman to win an Oscar.
Rita Moreno won an Oscar in 1962 for her performance as Anita in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical “West Side Story.” She became the first Latina Oscar winner.
However, after winning her Oscar, she said she still faced discrimination in Hollywood, telling the Miami Herald, “Before ‘West Side Story,’ I was always offered the stereotypical Latina roles. The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns. I was always barefoot. It was humiliating, embarrassing stuff. But I did it because there was nothing else. After ‘West Side Story,’ it was pretty much the same thing. A lot of gang stories.”
Moreno is also one of the few (and only Latina) EGOT holders, as she has an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony.
Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to travel into space.
Valentina Tereshkova of Russia became the first and youngest woman to fly into space when she was launched aboard Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. Tereshkova was a textile factory assembly worker and an amateur parachutist before being recruited into the Russian cosmonaut program.
Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, even as officials tried to forcibly remove her from the racecourse.
In 1967, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, even though women were not allowed to compete at the time. As she was running, a race official ran up to her and tried to forcibly remove her from the course, captured in an iconic photo by the Boston Globe.
After the race, Switzer advocated for women’s sports to be taken seriously and for the women’s marathon to be added to the Olympic Games.
“It changed everything,” she told NBC News. “It changed my life and it changed millions of women’s lives.”
Patsy Mink was the first woman of colour elected to Congress.
A fierce gender equality advocate, she wrote the bills Title IX, the Early Childhood Education Act, and the Women’s Educational Equity Act. She didn’t want future women to suffer the same gender-based discrimination that she had.
Her work writing Title IX was instrumental in changing women’s education by mandating that they receive equal treatment to men.
In 1972, she also became the first Asian-American woman to run for president.
Katharine Graham was the first female Fortune 500 CEO and the first woman to be publisher of a major US newspaper.
The Washington Post was started by Graham‘s father, Eugene Meyer. After his death, her husband, Philip Graham, became president, but after a long battle with mental health, he died by suicide in 1963.
In the wake of tragedy, Graham assumed the presidency of the Washington Post and transformed the paper into the powerhouse it is today. She was a key supporter of the Post’s investigation of the Watergate Scandal in 1972-74.
In 1972, Graham took over as CEO of the Post, thereby making her the first woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Juanita M. Kreps was the first woman to serve as secretary of commerce.
Juanita Kreps was also the first woman to sit on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange. She served as President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Commerce from 1977 to 1979.
According the New York Times, while serving President Carter, she was “an advocate for women and older workers, the unemployed, minority-owned businesses, and development in depressed urban areas.”
Susan B. Anthony was the first woman in America depicted on a coin.
Suffragette Susan B. Anthony spent the majority of her life fighting for women’s right to vote and other liberties. In 1888, Anthony helped to merge the two largest suffrage associations into one, which would become known as the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. She led the group until 1900 and died in 1906, 14 years before women were given the right to vote.
In 1979, it was announced that Susan B. Anthony’s portrait would be issued on US dollar coins.
Mary E. Clarke was the first woman to achieve the rank of major general in the United States Army.
She served in the Army for 36 years. She was the last ever director of the Women’s Army Corps, as it was dissolved at the end of her tenure.
Later in her career, she also became the first woman to command a major Army post, at the US Army Military Police and Chemical Schools’ training centre in Fort McClellan, Alabama.
Patricia R. Harris was the first woman to serve as secretary of health and human services.
She earned a law degree from George Washington University and then was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar, where she practiced in front of the US Supreme Court.
She was appointed co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy, which helped build the foundation for her career in politics. She later became secretary of health and human services in 1980.
Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the United States Supreme Court.
Appointed in 1981 by President Reagan, by 1982 she published an opinion against women-only enrollment in a Mississippi nursing school, saying it “tends to perpetuate the stereotyped view of nursing as an exclusively women’s job.”
She went on help pass bills loosening abortion laws and providing more severe consequences for sexual harassment and assault.
Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.
Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 aboard the space shuttle Challenger. She beat out 1,000 other well-qualified candidates for a spot in NASA’s space program.
Before making the trip to space, Ride was asked such questions as what makeup she would wear and how space might affect her ability to get pregnant, to which she responded, “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”
Ride is also remembered as the first acknowledged gay astronaut, as her obituary referred to Tam O’Shaughnessy as “her partner of 27 years.”
Vanessa Williams was the first black winner of the Miss America pageant in 1984.
Less than a year after taking the title, nude photos surfaced of Williams, which were published in Penthouse without her consent. She was forced to give up her title, but still managed to achieve a highly successful career in music, film, and on stage.
Barbra Streisand was the first — and so far, the only — woman to win the Golden Globe for best director.
Streisand was presented with the award for best director at the 41st Annual Golden Globe Awards in 1984 for her film “Yentl.” She also won the award for best picture.
In 2018, Streisand publicly called out the Golden Globes while presenting the award for best director after no women were nominated for best director that year.
“Backstage I heard they said I was the only woman … to get the best director award, and you know, that was 1984. That was 34 years ago. Folks, time’s up!” she said. “We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for best director. There are so many films out there that are so good directed by women.”
Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic marathon.
Joan Benoit won the gold medal for the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Benoit won the Chicago Marathon in 1985 and held the record for the fastest time for an American woman until 2017. In 2000, Benoit was inducted into the Maine Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ellen was the first woman to come out on national TV and the first female comedian to be asked to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch.
DeGeneres started out in stand-up comedy before landing a spot on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. She became the first and only female comic to be invited by Johnny Carson to sit on his famed couch during her first visit in 1986.
DeGeneres went on to get her own television sit-com called “Ellen.” The comedian made history in April 1997 when her character became the first lead in sitcom history to come out as gay on air.
Helen Hayes was the first woman to win an EGOT.
Helen Hayes’ career spanned more than 80 years before her death in 1993. She is one of 15 people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award, and was the first woman to achieve the prestigious honour.
She won an Emmy in 1953 for her role in “Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.” In 1977, she won a Grammy for best spoken word recording for “Great American Documents.” Hayes won two Academy Awards – one for best actress for “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” and one for best actress in a supporting role for “Airport.” Finally, she won a Tony Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in the American Theatre.
Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2008, she won her 18th Grammy, making her one of the most decorated musical artists in history.
Toni Morrison was the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize.
Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In her acceptance speech she said, “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world.”
Her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” was released in 1970 and centres around a young black girl entrenched in white beauty standards, who longs for blue eyes.
In 1997, Madeleine Albright, the first woman US secretary of state, was sworn in under President Bill Clinton.
Madeleine Albright, born in the Czech Republic, served as US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997 and was the first woman to become US secretary of state in 1997.
Nominated by President Bill Clinton, Albright was unanimously confirmed by the US Senate. Albright held the post until 2001.
Jodie Foster was the first known LGBTQ woman to win an Oscar for best actress and the first known LGBTQ person to win two acting awards.
An openly bisexual woman, Jodie Foster became the first LGBTQ woman to win an Academy Award for best actress and the first LGBTQ woman to win two. Foster won her first Oscar in 1989 for “The Accused” and again in 1992 for “Silence of the Lambs.”
Julie Taymor was the first woman to win a Tony Award for best director of a musical.
In 1998, Julie Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony Award for best direction of a musical for her production of “The Lion King” on Broadway. Her incredible life-sized puppets in the show also helped her take home the Tony for costume design.
Oprah Winfrey was the first black female billionaire.
She is best known for her award-winning talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which was on the air from 1986 to 2011. By the end of the show’s first year on television, it had grossed $US125 million, $US30 million of which went to Winfrey.
Danica Patrick was the first woman to lead the Indy 500 and the first to win the pole position at the Daytona 500.
Patrick dropped out of high school to pursue a career in race car driving. She travelled to England to train and compete at the Formula Ford Festival, where she finished second, the highest-ever finish by either a woman or an American in the event.
In 2005, she became the fourth woman to race in the Indy 500. She finished in fourth place, the highest ever for a female driver.
In 2013, during her first full season on the Nascar Sprint Cup circuit, she won the time trials at the Daytona 500, and was the first woman to do so.
Halle Berry was the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actress.
In 2001, Halle Berry became the first African American to win an Academy Award for best actress for “Monster’s Ball.”
In her acceptance speech, Berry said, “It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of colour that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I’m so honoured.”
In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2017, Berry told Teen Vogue’s Elaine Welteroth that her win is now meaningless to her as Hollywood has yet to give women of colour the accolades and opportunities they deserve.
“That moment really meant nothing,” Berry said. “It meant nothing. I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”
Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive a Nobel Prize.
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan activist known as the founder of the Green Belt Movement. She was a proponent of environmental issues as well as women’s rights and spoke at the UN various times. In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2008, Sarah Palin, then-governor of Alaska, became the first female vice-presidential nominee of the Republican party.
On August 29, 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain announced Palin as his running mate, and both were chosen for the ticket against President Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Prior to being selected as McCain’s running mate, Palin served as the ninth governor of Alaska from 2006 until her resignation in 2009.
In 2010, Taylor Swift, became the first woman to win Album of the Year twice.
2010 proved to be an exciting year for Swift. At that year’s Grammy Awards, Swift became the youngest artist to ever win Album of the Year when she won for “Fearless.” Though that record has since been broken by Billie Eilish, Swift remains the first woman to win two album of the year awards for “1989” and “Fearless.”
Adele has also won the award twice, for “21” and “25.”
Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Academy Award for best director.
Kathryn Bigelow is the first and only woman to win the Academy Award for best director. She won in 2010 for her movie “The Hurt Locker.” The film took home five other awards, including best picture and best original screenplay.
At the time, Bigelow was the fourth woman to be nominated for best director. Since 2010, only one other female director, Greta Gerwig, has been nominated for the award.
Lauryn Williams was the first American woman to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Lauryn Williams is an American sprinter and bobsledder. In the London Summer Olympics in 2012, she won gold in the 100-metre sprint. In the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 she won gold in the two-woman bobsled.
She now owns a financial planning firm called Worth Winning in Houston, Texas. On her website, she explains how she helps young people with their finances: “I am someone who understands where you are coming from and can provide strategies to address your questions and concerns.”
Tammy Duckworth is the first woman with a disability elected to the House and the Senate.
Tammy Duckworth became the first disabled woman elected to Congress in 2012. She is a Iraq War veteran, and lost her legs while when her helicopter was struck during her deployment. She told the Washington Post, “I was hurt in service for my country. I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow.”
Laverne Cox is the first openly trans woman to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy.
Cox was also on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline, “The Transgender Tipping Point,” which helped push transgender rights to the forefront.She told Time, “More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanising, that demystifies difference.”
Hillary Clinton is the first woman to have won a presidential primary.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first American woman to win a presidential primary. Before her presidential run, she was the first first lady and first woman from New York to win a seat in the Senate, in 2001.
Though she planned to run for president in 2008, she ceded the nomination to President Obama. As she did, she made a speech saying, “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it.”
Faith Spotted Eagle is the first Native American to secure an electoral vote for president.
Faith Spotted Eagle became the first Native American and first Native American woman to receive an electoral vote for president in 2016. The vote was actually cast unbeknownst to her, as she wasn’t even running for president. Democratic Washington state elector Robert Satiacum voted for her while protesting against Hillary Clinton.
Spotted Eagle has been one of the greatest activists against the Keystone Pipeline, herself experiencing Native land destroyed by the US government as a child. She told the Los Angeles Times: “My dad looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, my girl … someday you’re going to have to do something about all of this.'”
In 2018, chef Dominique Crenn became the first woman in the United States to receive Michelin’s highest distinction of three stars.
French chef Dominique Crenn is the first and only female chef in the US to receive a highly coveted three-star Michelin rating. She was given the honour for her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, in San Francisco, California. In November 2019, Crenn banned meat from all of her restaurants.
She is also a member of the LGBTQ community and is currently engaged to “NCIS” actress Maria Bello.
Stacey Cunningham became the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange.
Stacey Cunningham became the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange on May 25, 2018. Cunningham began her career at the NYSE as an intern and made history as the first female president in the institution’s 227-year-old history.
“I do look forward to a day when a woman taking a job isn’t newsworthy,” Cunningham told Savannah Guthrie of NBC. “But we aren’t quite there yet.”
At 22, Valentina Sampaio, became the first trans Victoria’s Secret model.
When asked if the Victoria’s Secret fashion show should include trans models, boss Ed Razek told Vogue, “Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy.”
However, after huge public backlash, Razek retired and the company hired its first trans model, Valentina Sampaio. She told Elle, “This represents a victory for society, not just the trans community but for all people who are currently underrepresented in fashion.”
Stephanie Kurlow is credited as the first Hijabi ballerina.
Kurlow began taking ballet lessons when she was just 2 years old, but quit when she turned 9 and her family converted to Islam, according to Pointe Magazine. Kurlow was reportedly unable to find ballet studios that catered to Muslim ballet dancers in regards to the uniform.
After seeing her daughter struggle, Kurlow’s mother opened a ballet academy, and she’s been dancing ever since.
Nancy Pelosi is the first woman to serve as speaker of the House and the first person in more than 60 years to serve nonconsecutive terms as speaker.
Nancy Pelosi entered politics in 1987 after winning a special election in California’s eighth congressional district, which includes San Francisco. In 2002, Pelosi was chosen to be the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives.
In 2010, the Democrats lost the House and Pelosi became minority leader once again. In January 2019, the Democrats regained control of the House and Pelosi was reinstated as the speaker, making her the first speaker in over 60 years to serve nonconsecutive terms.
Billie Eilish is the first woman to take home the “Big Four” at the Grammy Awards: album, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist.
Following the breakout success of her first studio album, “When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We Go?” Billie Eilish had an equally successful night at the 2020 Grammy Awards. She swept the competition and ended up taking home the “Big Four” awards – album, record of the year, song of the year, and best new artist.
She is the first woman to do so, and the second person in history to walk away with all four awards after Christopher Cross in 1981. Eilish, 18, also beat Taylor Swift’s record as the youngest recipient of the album of the year award.
- Read more:
- 35 of the most powerful women in the world in 2020
- 11 of the most powerful women who are running the 2020 presidential campaigns from behind the scenes
- 15 honours throughout history that only one woman has achieved
- 31 photos show what life was like for women 100 years ago
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.