25 Historic Firsts in Women’s Rights

By Amber Healy - September 12, 2018
Credits: Her vote might not have been recognized and her story is underknown, but Brent was the first woman to cast a vote. Image: Business Management Daily

There is nothing women can’t do (including pee standing up, but that’s neither here nor there).

Yet for time immemorial, they’ve always had to fight harder to get half as far. Nevertheless, they persisted and for that we are all richer.

Here’s a look at some of the most incredible women who made history and blazed a trail we ladies continue to walk today.

1. First Policewoman: Marie Owens

Credits: Owens broke new ground in law enforcement with a focus on giving kids a better chance at a decent life.

Left a widow at a young age after her husband died of typhoid, Marie Owens needed a job. She had five kids to feed. But the year was 1888: to call her options limited is generous. Given her maternal state, she was first hired in 1889 with the Chicago health department as one of five female factory inspectors tasked with enforcing child labor laws and making sure kids were in school where they belonged. Of course, no one wanted to play nice and eventually the women were banned from the industrial shops without a warrant. In 1891, Owens was moved to the regular police department and made detective sergeant, complete with the ability to arrest and with a shiny police star. Now she could go into places and help protect children, all while thinking of her own.

For those with no other option, Owens worked to establish classrooms inside shops for those who worked to help them have access to education. When she retired in 1923, just four years before her death, Owens was a well-respected and effective cop, but, as so often happens, her history was soon wiped away.

Source: Was Chicago home to the country’s 1st female cop?

2. First Woman to Drive Around the World: Aloha Wanderwell

Credits: 43 countries behind the wheel of a Model T. That's impressive for anyone in any era. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Aloha Wanderwell (born Idris Galcia Welsh) was a Canadian-American woman who was inspired by the adventure and travel books her father read to her when she was young. By the time she was 16, Wanderwell decided she’d make travel and adventure her life’s work, setting out to traverse the world. She met Captain Wanderwell in Paris when she read an ad looking for “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer for Lucky Young Woman” and quickly earned her spot on the trip that set out to go around the world.

Off she went, becoming the first woman to drive around the world, relying, at times, on oxen or villagers to help move her vehicle when road conditions were impassible or nonexistent. She drove through 43 countries in a Model T at the same age most people now get their license. Wanderwell also took some of the first film footage of the Bororo people in Brazil, became one of the first women to cross India and Cape Town down to the Nile River and filmed the first flight around the world.

Source: Aloha Wanderwell

3. First Transgender Woman Elected to Public Office: Althea Garrison

Credits: Republican Aletha Garrison was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1992. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

There was a big hubbub on election night, 2017, in the United States when Danica Roem won a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates – she’s the first openly transgender legislator in a state that’s been red for a very long time, even in progressive areas. But she wasn’t the first. That accomplishment goes to Aletha Garrison, who was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1992. As a Republican, no less! But Aletha wasn’t out as a transgender woman at the time; instead, the Boston Herald newspaper outed her and her career in the House lasted just one term.

In 2012, Stacie Laughton was elected to the House of Representatives to represent New Hampshire, but she never served a day due to questions over her eligibility – she had been convicted of conspiracy to commit credit card fraud and falsifying physical evidence prior to her gender reassignment surgery.

Sources: Danica Roem Is Really, Really Boring, Is Danica Roem the First Transgender State Legislator in the U.S.?



4. First Woman CEO of a Company: Anna Bissell

Credits: Bissell inherited her company but she turned its signature product into an American household staple. Photo: The Bissell Company

While she inherited her position, it was still quite the achievement when Anna Bissell took over control of the Bissell sweeper company way back in 1889. She was the first female CEO in American history, taking over for her husband, Melville, who invented the carpet sweeper in 1876 and left the company to his wife when he died. Anna Bissell was an aggressive marketer, impressing even Queen Victoria and making her company’s product a household staple, selling for just a dollar and fifty cents and making sure it was sold in the largest retailers, including Wanamaker’s, one of the country’s first department stores. But she also took care of her employees, becoming one of the first to provide pension plans and workers’ compensation for Bissell employees.

Source: Celebrating America’s First Women CEOs

5. First Woman to Win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism: Anne O’Hare McCormick

Credits: Amongst the long list of her accomplishments, Anne O’Hare McCormick was the first woman to sit on the board of the New York Times. Photo: Find A Grave

It was on a fluke that Anne O’Hare McCormick started her career in journalism: She wrote to the editor of the New York Times asking if the paper would be interested in pieces she’d send back while in Europe with her husband. The response was a simple “try it.” It was 1921 and there were very few women in journalism at the time in any capacity. In June of that year, her first piece was published in the paper, she noted the presence of Benito Mussolini at an address by the then-king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, and she was one of the few journalists to notice him.

Not only did O’Hare McCormick interview Mussolini, Hitler agreed to talk with her, as did Stalin and, decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt before his death. She continued writing for the Times before becoming the first woman on its editorial board. In 1937, O’Hare McCormick became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in one of the major journalism categories, an achievement that wouldn’t be met for another 14 years. When she joined the paper’s board, she insisted that she would not “revert to ‘woman’s-point-point-of-view’ stuff,” but would instead continue her work on world affairs, publishing three columns a week.

Source: She Was The Times’s First Female Pulitzer Winner


6. First Woman to Host Saturday Night Live: Candice Bergen

Credits: Bergen's hosting and continuing returns to Saturday Night Live helped put the comedic spotlight on women. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Long before she broke numerous barriers, and Dan Quayle’s brain, as Murphy Brown, Candice Bergen was the first woman to host Saturday Night Live. But maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that she was the first woman to host and that it happened in 1975, the show’s first year: When Lorne Michaels was building the cast for his counter-culture late-night comedy show, the first person he hired was comedienne Gilda Radner. Bergen became the first woman member of the Five Timers Club, a distinction given to SNL hosts who have appeared on the show at least five times.

In 1976, the show announced actress Jane Curtin as its first female co-anchor on its ‘Weekend Update’ segment; in 1978, in the show’s third season, it introduced Yvonne Hudson as the first black woman to appear on the show, starting with guest appearances before being added as a featured player in 1980.

Source: 16 Times Women Changed the Game on Saturday Night Live

7. First Woman Named Principal Dancer With an American Ballet Company: Debra Austin

Credits: Austin's accomplishment is impressive on a variety of levels, especially considering African Americans couldn't even join ballet companies until the 1950s. Photo: North Carolina Arts Council

It’s a distinction that she still fights to make right and clear: Debra Austin, not Lauren Anderson, was the first woman selected as the lead dancer in a major American ballet company. This matters because it wasn’t until the 1950s that black dancers could even join ballet companies because they were considered “not suited” for ballet or “too strong” for the art form’s delicate image. Some women claim they were asked to use powder to lighten their skin to help them soften their image

Austin began dancing at 8 years old and earned a scholarship to the School of American Ballet when she was 12. By 19, she was the first African American dancer with the New York City Ballet before leaving for Zurich. A few years later, in 1982, she was hired by the director of the Pennsylvania Ballet to be their principal dancer, starring in Swan Lake, Coppelia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among others. Austin retired from dance in 1990 before rejoining that director at the Carolina Ballet in 1997, where she still teaches. A mistake in an interview transcript is the source of Anderson getting the title, something she herself acknowledges. But when Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to be principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater in 2015, the error was once again sent out into the world.

Source: Pioneering dancer proves her point(e)




8. First Woman to Pilot a Space Shuttle: Eileen Collins

Credits: Collins was not only a shuttle pilot, she later went on to become the first female mission commander. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

From a small town in Upstate New York to the International Space Station, Eileen Collins dreamed about going to space from a young age. A graduate of Syracuse University with a BA in mathematics and economics, she earned her master of science degree in operations research from Stanford and a master of arts degree in space systems management. Her path to space kept her going, joining the Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training Program and, while there, she was selected for the astronaut program. Collins was officially an astronaut in July 1991 and became the first woman to pilot a space shuttle in 1995, serving as second-in-command on a Discovery mission to the Russian Space Station Mir.

In 1999, she became the first woman to command a mission, running the trip of the Space Shuttle Columbia to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Collins also was in charge of the flight in 2005, the first trip back to space after the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, when the craft burned upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Collins was the only woman to command a space shuttle until 2007, when Pamela Melroy led Discovery in one of the program’s final missions.

Sources: Eileen Collins, NASA’s 2 Female Space Shuttle Commanders


9. First Woman Named Master of the Queen’s Music: Judith Weir

Credits: It might not be a position you've heard about, but accomplished composer and instrumentalist Judith Weir has the task of providing the original soundtrack to royal events until 2024. Photo: Signum Records

The Brits love their lofty and important sounding titles, but this one really does, and should, have a place in the world. The Master of the Queen’s Music is a position within the Royal Household, on par with Poet Laureate, bestowed on an exceptional musician. The person with the title is called upon to compose music for important royal events for a period of a decade. In 2014, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who was given the title in 2004, retired from his service. The honor was then given to Judith Weir, the first woman to have the name. Weir played oboe with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and studied composition at Cambridge before working as a teacher in schools and adult education programs in southern England. Weir has written several operas that have been performed in the UK, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States, including one called Miss Fortune that premiered in 2011.  Weir will remain Master of the Queen’s Music – a position that dates back to the Middle Ages – until 2024.

Sources: The Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir


10. First Woman to Run the Boston Marathon: Kathrine Switzer

Credits: Switzer is grabbed by race official Jock Semple in an attempt to tear her bib number off. Photo: UPI / Boston Herald

Hard to believe this is a thing for which being first was a big deal, but Kathrine Switzer made a lot of men really mad when she signed up to run the Boston Marathon. And it wasn’t even just other racers who were angry – race officials themselves physically tried to grab and prevent her from competing. Switzer first ran the Boston Marathon in 1967, as a Syracuse University student, and registered as K.V. Switzer. Three kilometers (two miles) into the race, an official named Jock Semple realized she was a woman and tried to remove her racing bib number.

Switzer’s boyfriend was running with her and pushed Semple away. Still, it was enough to get her disqualified for the event and forcing her to endure catcalls and jeers from other runners and spectators. Even journalists gave her a hard time for trying to run the race. Instead of giving up, Switzer went to Canada and started her own racing club, eventually getting sponsors and creating a series of races in 27 countries that included millions of women over time. In 2017, Switzer not only returned to Boston and wore the same bib number, 261, that she used the first time around, her number was retired when she finished the marathon.

Source: First Woman to Officially Run Boston Marathon Makes Triumphant Return

11. First Woman to Design, Build and Fly an Aircraft: Lilian Bland

Credits: On her way to making aviation history, Bland literally wore the pants in her efforts to get her biplane off the ground. Photo: Belfast Telegraph

Nothing would keep Lilian Bland on the ground. Born in Kent, England, in 1878, she and her father moved to Belfast after the death of her mother in 1900. Bland was a noticeable woman about town, wearing pants (!), smoking and drinking, riding horses like a man and very skilled as a hunter, marksman and fisher. But her real goal was taking to the skies. In 1910, she decided to design and build her own biplane glider, using bicycle handles as the controls. When she felt she’d mastered the glider, after taking some test flights from a nearby hill, she ordered an engine from Manchester. Instead of waiting for the fuel tank to arrive, Bland improvised yet again, using an empty whiskey bottle as a tank and filling it with fuel using her aunt’s trumpet. It didn’t exactly work but a few months later, in August 1910, she flew her biplane, called Mayfly, some nine meters (30 feet) off the ground. She didn’t go far, but it was enough to make her the first woman to fly in Ireland. Her father was alarmed at his daring daughter and promised to buy her a car if she promised to stop flying, so she taught herself to drive a Model T. She was known as the “flying feminist” for her antics.

Source: Lilian Bland, the first woman to fly an aircraft in Ireland

12. First Woman Appointed to a Municipal Judgeship: Mary O’Toole

Credits: The Irish-born O'Toole made a lasting legal impression on America with her numerous presidential appointments to the bench. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

She was born in Ireland but Mary O’Toole made her mark on history in the United States, primarily, as the first woman appointed as a judge. O’Toole attended Washington College in the early 1900s, earning her Bachelor of Laws degree in 1908 and her Master of Laws in 1914. She was appointed judge of a municipal court, named to the District of Columbia Municipal Court by President Warren G. Harding in 1921, later reappointed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and appointed for a third time by President Herbert Hoover in 1929. She paved the way for other graduates of what is now the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC, including Kathryn Sellars, the first woman to be appointed to a judicial bench under federal authority, and Pearl McCall, the first woman Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.

Sources: Mary O’Toole, AUWCL Celebrates 120 Years of Pioneering Women in Law


13. First All-Women Special Operations Unit: Norway’s Fsk Hunter Troop

Credits: Not all first are because of the efforts of a single individual, as demonstrated by Norway's first and only special operations unit made entirely of women. Photo: Sherdog Forums

Women serving in combat roles is still somewhat controversial around the world, but in Norway bucked the trend with their development of the world’s first all-female special operations unit, the FSK (Forsvarets Spesialkommand). Norway’s male troops had been working side-by-side with Delta Force and Navy SEAL unit but they couldn’t speak with women in Muslim households. The women wouldn’t talk to them. So Norway got creative, organized the Jegertroppen, or Hunter Troop, the world’s first and only special operations unit made entirely of women. The unit was established in 2014, requiring a yearlong training program and rigorous standards in order to prove the women are ready, capable and prepared to meet the challenges of their deployment. Only 13 of the 317 candidates made it through the first course, but the women are praised for their excellent marksmanship and observation skills. It also opens up the possibility of the women interacting with and engaging Muslim women, something not possible before.

Source: ‘Hunter Troop’ Is The World’s First All-Female Special Operations Unit

14. First Woman on a Postage Stamp: Queen Victoria

Credits: This stamp itself may have been flawed in its design, but Queen Victoria took the crown for being on it. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The first postage stamp in the world was also the first to feature a woman – the rare case where a woman was featured before men. The Penny Black, designed by a series of artists in the 1800s, was the world’s first adhesive stamp, replacing the former British system of charging the recipient of a letter by the number of pages used and how far it was being sent to determine shipping price. It immediately made letter writing a more accessible and affordable way to communicate over long distances. But the Penny Black, with its image of a teenage queen who had, in reality, already entered her 20s, lasted only a year. Because black ink was used to cancel the stamp and, since it was practically invisible against a dark background, Brits quickly realized they could reuse them. A year after its release, the Penny Black became the Penny Red. Some 68 million stamps were printed within that year, making the stamp one of the most valuable to collectors.

Source: Penny Black: the turbulent history of the short-lived stamp

15. First Woman Race Car Driver: Sara Christian

Credits: Christian was the first woman behind the wheel in a NASCAR race. Photo: The Clog

Long before Danica Patrick made headlines by joining the men on the starting line for a NASCAR race, there was Sara Christian. Christian was the first race car driver in NASCAR history, joining in the organization’s first race at the Charlotte Speedway in June 1949. She and her husband Frank also made history as the first — and only — husband and wife team to compete in an event together and against each other. When all was said and done, Frank finished in 6th place while Sara came in 18th. She drove a 1949 Oldsmobile in that race, qualifying one car ahead of the man who won the race in Daytona before WWII broke out.

Later that year, Christian started 21st out of 44 racers and placed 6th during a race in Pennsylvania; the race’s winner, Curtis Turner, invited her to join him in celebrating his victory. At the end of the season, Christian finished 13th in the point standings and had recorded a fifth-place win at a race in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania, the only top-five NASCAR finish for a female driver. NASCAR named her its Woman Driver of the Year.

Sources: Top 11 Best Most Notorious Female Race Car Drivers Of All Time, Sara Christian

16. First Woman President of the UN General Assembly: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Credits: The list of Lakshmi Pandit 's political accomplishments is a long one. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The daughter of an aristocrat who had a private education at a time when India was under colonial rule, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was active in the Indian Nationalist Movement and was put in jail three times by British authorities. She started working in government, becoming an advocate for self-government in 1937 and became the first woman to hold a cabinet membership. She led the Indian delegation to the United Nations after India became independent, then served as India’s ambassador to Moscow, Washington and Mexico before being elected as the first woman to president of the UN General Assembly in 1953. Lakshmi Pandit later served as the Indian High Commissioner to London and ambassador to Dublin; she served as governor of the Indian state of Maharashtra from 1962 until 1964.

Source: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit


17. First Woman National Leader: Khertek Anchimaa-Toka

Credits: Anchimaa-Toka earned her position as Presidium of the Little Khural - she was elected to it.

Here’s another reason to step in to the way-back machine to get a better sense of the path forward: In April 1940, Khertek Anchimaa-Toka was named chairperson of the Presidium of the Little Khural, a position she held until early October 1944. With that, she became the first woman ever elected to head a nation who didn’t inherit the position from a father or husband. Her history-making nation had, at the time, fewer than 100,000 residents. Anchimaa-Toka was the third child of six children born to her parents; the 1918 smallpox epidemic killed her father and one of her sisters, leaving her mother to care for the family. When she was six, Anchimaa was sent to live with a more affluent branch of her family.  The country fell under Russian rule in 1920, but the Soviets prioritized education for women and, when the Tuvan alphabet was introduced, she was among the first to learn it. At the age of 18, she was one of 75 young students selected to study in Moscow and was just one of 11 of the group to graduate from the Communist University of the Toilers of the East.

As a public servant, she focused a great deal of energy on the betterment and education of women. During WWII, she sided with the Allies and helped the Soviet forces until her nation voted to join the USSR in 1944. After that point, she became deputy chair of the Tuvan executive committee, a position she held until 1961.

Sources: 6 of the First Women Heads of State, Washington Post, Khertek Anchimaa-Toka

18. First Woman to Run for President: Victoria Woodhull

Credits: It was difficult enough for Woodhull running for president in an era when women in politicss were rare, but she also did the unthinkable of having a former slave as her running mate. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Hillary Clinton was the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party, but she wasn’t the first to dream of the Oval, nor was she the first to throw her hat into the ring. Long before Hillary, or Geraldine Ferraro (first woman nominated for vice president by a major political party), before Shirley Chisholm (first African American woman in Congress and the first to seek the presidential nomination, way back in the late 1800s, there was Victoria Woodhull.

An Ohio resident and member of the Equal Rights Party, Woodhull ran against Ulysses S. Grant, the sitting president at the time. Keep in mind, her bid was half a century before women finally secured the right to vote in the United States. Woodhull’s thinking was that she couldn’t vote for herself, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t run and try to convince men to vote for her. Woodhull’s politics were decidedly progressive for her time: she believed that men and women should have the right and ability to marry, divorce and remarry, though she was once jailed for printing an article a few days before an election accusing a preacher of having an extramarital affair. Not even the editor of the local paper could get her out of that one – that was Woodhull too. Among the many hurdles of the time that prevented Woodhull from reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was her age. At the time of the inauguration, in March of 1873, she would not have turned 35, the constitutionally mandated age to be fit for the office. She also chose a notable and barrier-breaking running mate: Abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, although there are disputes about whether he accepted the nod.

Source: Female U.S. Presidential Contenders Before Hillary Clinton in 2016

19. First Woman to Climb Mt. Everest: Junko Tabei

Credits: If it was a mountain and people told her she was too small to climb it, Tabei made sure to prove the naysayers wrong. Photo: Jaan Künnap / Wikipedia Commons

She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Junko Tabei was born in the Fukushima prefecture in Japan in 1939, considered by many to be weak and fragile due to her small stature. She fell in love with the mountains at a young age and made her first hike through Mount Nasu in Nikko National Park when she was just 10. After graduating from school, she joined mountaineering groups, traveling mostly with men who figured she couldn’t possibly be serious about climbing and was using the group as a cover to find a husband.

By the mid-1960s, she had more than proven her seriousness, climbing all of Japan’s highest mountains. She later married a mountaineer – during a climb up Mount Tanigawa. In 1969 she did something her younger self would’ve appreciated: She created the Joshi-Tohan mountaineering club for women. The group’s slogan: “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.” She led the group on the first women-only climb of Annapurna III in Nepal, making history as only the second group to reach the peak. Junko became the first woman to top Everest in 1975 at the age of 35 after years of trying to get the proper permits from the Nepalese government. Still, there were other hills and mountains to conquer, and by 1992, she became the first woman to climb all the highest peaks on each continent. One of her last climbs came in 2016, months before she’d die of cancer, when she led a group of young people who had survived the Fukushima meltdown up the summit of Mount Fuji.

Sources: Biography – Junko Tabei, Climber, Junko Tabei, First Woman to Conquer Everest, Dies at 77

20. First Woman to Host an Entertainment Show: Carol Burnett

Credits: Texas-born Burnett, left, managed to get Americans laughing on her way to making television history. Photo: The Carol Burnett Show

The woman who pulled on her earlobe to say hello to her deaf grandmother wasn’t just a sweetheart, she was a pioneer. Carol Burnett was the first woman to host her own entertainment show. The native of Texas got her start in showbiz when her parents got divorced and she went to live with her grandmother in Hollywood at the ripe age of 7. She moved to New York City 14 years later after studying theater at UCLA and, within five years, she earned a Tony nomination for Once Upon a Mattress and was a regular co-host of The Garry Moore Show.

In 1967, she launched The Carol Burnett Show, a variety program with a rock star cast including Tim Conway, Vickie Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Harvey Korman. The show lasted 11 years and won 25 Emmys and spawned a handful of successful spinoffs, including Mama’s Family, a Lawrence-led program that became the first comedy to run in syndication instead of on a major network. Of course, Burnett was the latest ceiling breaker in a history of women running the show: Lucille Ball was the first woman to run a television production company and to retain full ownership rights to the program (with Desi Arnaz, of course), to say nothing of being the first woman to appear pregnant and have a baby on TV; in 1971, she was the first woman to receive the International Radio and Television Society’s Gold Medal for her work.

Sources: Carol Burnett: First Woman of Comedy, Lucille Ball Biography


21. First Woman to Drive a Vehicle: Mary E. Landon

Credits: Skipping buggies and carriages, Mary Landon went straight for something with four wheels and an engine. Photo: Howard County Historical Society

Best put any and all jokes aside: Mary E. Landon worked as a stenographer for the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Factory in Kokomo, Indiana. In the summer of 1899, Mrs. John S. Landon, as she was known at the time, was the only woman in the company and, one day, she drove a grand total of 1.6 kilometers (one mile). With her experience typing notes for the company, along with manuals explaining how to drive its vehicles, she found the whole thing rather easy and kind of a thrill. She was celebrated by the company and the local newspaper for being the first woman to drive an automobile – women had been driving buggies and carriages and the like forever, but never a mechanized vehicle. The company’s president took great pride in her accomplishment, saying that their cars were “safe enough for a woman to drive.” She also received a certificate for her accomplishment.

The first woman to formally receive a driver’s license, on the other hand, was Anne French of Washington, D.C. She lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, right in the middle of politics, and earned the right to drive about 20 years before she could vote. She drove a car purchased by her father, a doctor, for $600; she drove him around because he didn’t much like to drive. And just for fun: Alice Huyler Ramsey and a group of three other women were the first to drive themselves across the country, from New York City to San Francisco, a trip paid for by the Maxwell Company. They needed to stop 11 times to change their tires.

Sources: How women’s experience with the automobile fundamentally differs from men’s, Women in Transportation History: Mary E. Landon, 1st Woman to Drive a Gas-Powered Car

22. First Woman to Vote: Margaret Brent

Credits: Her vote might not have been recognized and her story is underknown, but Brent was the first woman to cast a vote. Image: Business Management Daily

When talking or thinking about suffragettes, most of us will picture black and white photos of women in ruffled shirts, sashes from shoulder to waist, maybe wearing hats, definitely carrying banners. Or maybe it’s that scene from Mary Poppins, with Mrs. Banks and others singing “Votes for Women!” at the top of their cheery lungs. All of that is wrong. The first woman in the world to cast a vote did so in 1647. Margaret Brent of Maryland, then a colony in the as-yet-beholden-to-the-crown American experiment. Brent assumed she not only had the right to vote, but that she could do so twice, on account of her being a property owner and because Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, gave her power of attorney. She was denied, but her bold move made her infamous. The first woman to successfully vote was Deborah Moody, in 1655, in New Netherlands before it became New York. She was able to vote because she had a land grant in her name.

Canadian women whose relatives served in the military for Canada or Great Britain during WWI, or those who had served themselves, were allowed to vote as of September 1917; the doors began to open more widely when Manitoba granted women the ability to vote in January 1916, followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta that May. The first British woman to vote was Lily Maxwell in 1867 – her name somehow wound up on a list of registered voters because she, as a shop owner, was a ratepayer and someone messed up. Thanks to a clerical error, she cast a verbal vote for Liberal Member of Parliament Jacob Bright and those in the room reportedly cheered her action.

Sources: First Woman to Vote – Claimants, Women’s Suffrage in Canada, Lily Maxwell: The first woman to vote


23. First Woman Rabbi: Regina Jonas

Credits: Growing up poor in her Jewish neighborhood, Regina Jonas "...felt called to something bigger, more powerful and spiritual."

For actual centuries, being a rabbi was a man’s job. Being any kind of spiritual leader of a house of worship was for men only, really – a position that remains true in the Catholic Church – but some religions have embraced the holy feminine not just as a figurehead but as a real leader. Regina Jonas was born in Berlin in 1902 and grew up in a poor, mostly Jewish neighborhood. From a young age, she felt called to something bigger, more powerful and spiritual.

She had a natural love of Jewish history in addition to Bible and Hebrew studies in school; classmates remember her talking about becoming a rabbi. Surprisingly, there were several rabbis who supported her in her quest, including Max Weyl, known for being open toward religious and spiritual education for girls.

In 1923, Jonas passed a preliminary exam, going on to attend a teacher’s seminar that gave her the ability to teach Jewish religion to girls at a school in Berlin. Next up was the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a school that had always allowed female students since it opened in 1872, but she was the only one who sought to become a rabbi. Initially denied her goal, as the workload for Jewish teachers grew, so did the demand for new leaders.

In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann agreed to bestow upon Jonas the title she so well earned. Sadly, as a Jew in Germany during WWII, she and her mother were deported to Auschwitz in October 1944 and were likely killed the same day.

Source: Regina Jonas

24. First Woman to Receive a Doctor of Law Degree: Juliana Morell

Credits: Morell knew three languages before she was seven and her father was accused of murder - a solid foundation for her interest in law.

Turn back the history book pages to the 1600s to find the first female lawyer, a Spanish Dominican nun named Juliana Morell. Most of her life was spent with the Dominicans after her mother died, living with them for her education until there was no more they could teach her. She was a fast and eager student, continuing lessons in Latin, Greek and Hebrew at the ripe age of seven. Her father, however, was accused of murder around this time, so he and his daughter picked up and left Spain for Lyon, France.

By the age of 12, living in hiding but continuing her education, Morell was studying not just math and music but ethics, astronomy, physics and law, defending her theses on ethics and morality in public. Law was her passion, earning a degree of doctor summa cum laude in 1608 and specializing in civil and canon law. Still, she entered into the convent in June 1610, three years later taking responsibility for a convent she’d run until her death in 1653. She published several books during her lifetime, mostly on topics of a spiritual nature.

Source: Juliana Morell, Yet Another “Tenth Muse”

25. First Woman to Receive a Pilot’s License: Raymonde De Laroche

Credits: de Laroche started with hot air balloons and eventually found her way behind the controls of a rickety airplane.

The ground was never enough for Raymonde de Laroche. Born about 20 years before the Wright brothers made their first successful flight, the young Frenchwoman wanted to be up in the air with the birds. In the late 1800s, of course, women could do few things men could do, like vote or hold many jobs outside the home, so her intentions to become a pilot were fodder for ridicule.

Undeterred, de Laroche was determined to make her dream a reality and bestowed upon herself the title of Baroness, thinking it would make her sound more impressive and of better standing in society. After working in theaters and taking lessons on the sly with captive hot air balloons, she met aviation pioneer Charles Voisin when she was 23.

He promised her she’d learn to fly and set about teaching her, letting her take controls of a 50-horsepower single-seater plane in October 1909. She obeyed every order he gave from the runway, except one: he told her not to take off but she couldn’t resist. The power she’d dreamt of was in her hands, so she made a few laps of the airfield, turned into the wind and took off. Granted, it was only 4.5 meters (15 feet) or so in the air and she landed safely about 274 meters (300 yards) after leaving the earth, but it was enough. She was the first woman to operate a plane solo. Within a week, she flew 6.5 kilometers (four miles) by herself. Within a year, she passed the flight test of the Aero Club of France, the first of five women to be licensed in France. She later took part in air shows and other demonstrations as part of Voisin’s team.

Source: Raymonde de Laroche

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