Famous Female Firsts: Aretha Franklin and 57 Trailblazing Women Who Made History
Celebrate the history-making women who have blazed the trail toward equality.
MerNeith and Sobekneferu, first female Pharaohs
Around 2950 BC, MerNeith, the daughter of one pharaoh, wife of another, and mother of another, is believed to have ruled Egypt in her own right for some period of time. 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. These are just two impressive women in history—here are 20 confidence-boosting from seriously awesome women in history.
Mary Tudor, first female 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 was succeeded in death by Elizabeth in 1558.
Juliana Morell, first woman to graduate from a doctoral program
Born in Barcelona in 1594, Juliana Morell was so brilliant that by the age of four, her teachers informed her father they had nothing left to teach her. Home-schooled after that, Juliana had written and defended theses on ethics and morality by the tender age of 12. In 1608, she became the first female ever to earn a university doctoral degree.
Francesca Caccini, first 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. She wrote or co-wrote 15 more opera works before her death in the 1640s.
Queen Anne, the first female ruler of Great Britain
In 1707, Queen Anne was crowned ruler of England. That very same year, the kingdoms of England and Scotland merged to form Great Britain, making Anne the first ruler of Great Britain, period. You should never call the current queen of England by her given name.
Lydia Taft, first woman to vote legally in America
In 1756, a century before woman’s suffrage became a movement, Lydia Chapin Taft became the first female to vote in America. Lydia 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, Lydia was asked to vote in her dead husband’s place. Guess word of Lydia’s voting never reached President Grover Cleveland, who famously said that “sensible” women don’t vote. He really said that, but here are some famous quotes that were totally wrong.
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.
Ann 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 Newport, Rhode Island newspaper, which 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.
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, Sophie nevertheless found flight to be a “sensation incomparable.” Unfortunately, Sophie also became the first woman to die in an aviation accident, when her balloon caught fire and crashed to the ground in 1819.
Ada Lovelace, first female computer programmer
Ada Lovelace was not only the first female computer programmer, but also the first computer programmer overall. A brilliant mathematician born in England, she wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for an early computing machine called the “Analytical Engine.” It calculated Bernoulli numbers, thanks to Lovelace’s data input. It’s not shocking since there is a proven advantage that the female brain has over the male brain.
Elizabeth Blackwell, first woman to graduate from medical school in the United States
Apparently, Elizabeth Blackwell was admitted as a prank among the men at the Geneva Medical College in western New York state, but the joke was on them when Dr. Blackwell received her medical degree in 1849.
Helen Taussig, first female president of the American Heart Association
Born in 1898 Helen Brooke Taussig, was also a scientific pioneer in the movement to ban Thalidomide, a drug for morning sickness. It caused malformations in children’s limbs when their mothers took it during pregnancy.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor, DDS, first female dentist
Initially denied admission to dental school, Lucy Beamon Hobbs Taylor at first studied privately with a professor but then gained admission in 1865 to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. There, she earned her Doctorate in Dental Surgery the following year. The man she later married, James Taylor, followed her into the practice of dentistry. After James’ death, Lucy became a woman’s rights advocate.
Arabella Mansfield and Ada Kepley, first female lawyers in the United States
In 1869, Arabella Mansfield, born Belle Aurelia Babb, 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.
Winifred Edgerton Merril, PhD, first female mathematics PhD
In 1886, Winifred Edgerton Merril became the first woman to receive a degree from Columbia University, as well as the first woman to receive a PhD in mathematics. Proving that practice makes perfect, the vote to award her a doctorate was made unanimously by the Board of Trustees on Merril’s second try.
Marie Curie, first female Nobel Prize winner
Arguably the most famous female scientist of them all, 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 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 female Nobel Prize winner.
Raymonde de Laroche, first female licensed pilot
A former actress who’d been born Elise Raymonde Deroche in Paris in 1882, Raymonde de Laroche was inspired to take up flying after seeing the Wright Brothers’ flight demonstrations in 1907 in France. Though she wasn’t the first female aviator, de Laroche was the first woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1910.
Jeannette Rankin, first female Member of Congress
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives as a representative from Montana. At the same time, Rankin also became the first woman ever to be elected to national office in the United States.
Edith Wilson, first woman “Secret President”
Edith Galt Wilson was the first lady of Woodrow Wilson and the first woman who is known to have made executive decisions on behalf the United States, earning her the moniker, “Secret President.” Mrs. Wilson’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 Mrs. Wilson was in charge. Years later, the extent of Mrs. Wilson’s political power was confirmed by historians. America’s first ladies are all quite accomplished—and you may not know these fascinating facts about them.
Edith Wharton, first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize
Another Edith became a “first woman” in 1921 when Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence. Wharton was the first woman ever to win this prestigious literary prize, and appropriately, the book, itself, was a critique of society. Judge these books by female authors that belong on everyone’s must-read list for yourself.
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. Ederle, who lived to be 98 and died in 2003, was also an Olympic swim champion and five-time world record-holder in five swimming events.
Amelia Earhart and Jerrie Mock, first women in cross-ocean aviation
Amelia Earhart may be best known for her mysterious disappearance during an ill-fated around-the-world-flight (the first woman to successfully make the around-the-world flight was Jerrie Mock, who flew a single-engine Cessna-180 around the world in 1964). 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. Her solo plane travel is just one of the fascinating facts about Amelia Earhart.
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, his Secretary of Labor, a job she kept until 1945.
Arlene Francis, first TV game show host
Arlene Francis, born Arlene Francis Kazanjian in 1907, always wanted to be a serious actress. Instead, she became a serious radio and television personality and the first woman to host a television game show, Your Big Moment. That was in 1949, and Francis continued that gig until 1952. She also served as a panelist on CBS’s What’s My Line, for the show’s entire 25-year television run.
Fitzgerald, Garland, Gilberto, and 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 and the first African American to win at all. In 1961, Judy Garland made more Grammy history by becoming the first woman to win for Album of the Year (Judy At Carnegie Hall). Other female Grammy firsts include:
- Astrud Gilberto: first woman to win Record of the Year in 1964 for “The Girl From Ipanema,” an honor she shared with Stan Getz
- Carole King: first woman to win Song of the Year and Record of the Year, solo, for “It’s Too Late” in 1971.
Junko Tabei, first woman to summit Everest
Junko Tabei stood just 5-feet tall and weighed only 92 pounds, but her diminutive size was matched by enormous fortitude, bravery, and stamina. 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.
Valentina Tershkova, Sally Ride, and Eileen Collins, first female astronauts
In 1983, America sent its first woman into space—Sally Kristen Ride, who had joined NASA only five years earlier. The first female astronaut of all time, however, was Russia’s Valentina Tershkova, who in 1963 spent three days in space and orbited our planet 48 times in a space capsule. The first female pilot and commander of a U.S. spacecraft was Eileen Collins, who captained Space Shuttle Mission STS-93 in 1999.
Kathrine Switzer, Nina Kuscik 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, 1972. In 1984, American Joan Benoit became the first winner of the Women’s Olympic Marathon, finishing 400 meters ahead of Norway’s Grete Waitz. It’s one of the 13 moments that changed women’s history forever.
Shirley Chisolm, first African American female member of Congress
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American Congresswoman. In 1972, she made history yet again when she became the first African American (and second woman) to make a bid for the presidency. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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 Kiev, Russia, Meir came to Wisconsin with her family and became part of the pro-Israel, Zionist, movement. For nearly three decades prior to her appointment as prime minister, Meir worked for the Israel government in various roles.
Sally Preisand, first female rabbi in the United States
In the 1950s and ’60s in Cleveland, Ohio, where Sally Priesand grew up, it was virtually unheard of for a female to occupy leadership roles in any religion. Nevertheless, Preisand enrolled in rabbinical school after a stint at the University of Cincinnati and was fully ordained in 1972. Throughout her career, she spoke out for equality in the Jewish religion.
Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick, first female Indy contender and winner
No complaints about woman drivers, please: 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. She didn’t take the lead, but Danica Patrick did. In 2005 and in 2008, Patrick became the first woman ever to win an Indy Car Series.
Margaret Thatcher, first female prime minister of England
Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher (aka Baroness Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, FRIC), born 1925, was a British stateswoman who served not only as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom but also the longest-serving British PM 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 during Thatcher’s own lifetime. Her prediction missed the mark just like these 12 other historical predictions that completely missed the mark.
Jeane Kirkpatrick, first female U.S. Ambassador to the UN
Jeane Kirkpatrick had first served as President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy advisor during his 1980 presidential campaign before being appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1981.
Sandra Day O’Connor, first female Supreme Court Justice
Also in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated by President Regan to serve as Supreme Court of the United States. With little prior judicial experience, O’Connor nevertheless made a name for herself as one of SCOTUS’s most “thoughtful centrists.” But long before Justice O’Connor, another woman was making judicial history: In 1880, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Barbara 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 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. They might be fictional, but the 10 strongest female literary characters of all time will inspire you.
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 (solo) a Tony Award for Best Original Score for Kinky Boots.
Oprah Winfrey, first woman to own and produce her own TV talk show
Oprah Winfrey wasn’t comfortable in her role as a TV news anchorwoman from ages 19 through 24, and her empathy with her interviewees earned her criticism, rather than accolades from her bosses. It wasn’t until she was given the opportunity to host her own talk show that Winfrey began to feel comfortable in her own skin. “I’ve found my home,” she remarked to Time. Her own talk show debuted in 1986, and Winfrey is now considered one of the most influential women on television.
Aretha Franklin, first female Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer
In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock ‘n 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 now views as Franklin’s “assertion of selfhood in the women’s movement.”
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 African American woman, to hold the job. Five years later, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the nation’s third female Secretary of State.
Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, first female president of Chile
First elected president 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 re-elected president with over 62 percent 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.
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 but also the first directly elected by the people. Her first term began in 2007. In 2011, she was re-elected, making her the first woman re-elected to the office. Her political approach has been given its own name: Kirchnerism.
Hillary Clinton, first female presidential nominee (major party)
In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, was nominated by the Democratic Party as their presidential candidate. She was the first woman from a major party ever to achieve this feat. Clinton was not the first woman to run for POTUS, however, that was Victoria Woodhull, who ran unsuccessfully in 1872. Woodhull is one of the 9 incredible women you didn’t learn about in history class that you should know.