The Coolest Women’s Firsts in History

March 10, 2019 by Steven M. Peters

Did you know that the first person to ever get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was a woman? Joanne Woodward is one of many holders of the title, “the first woman to,” opening doors for future generations.

History has countless of examples of women who accomplished great feats, sometimes before men. They are breaking barriers in male-dominated fields. The first woman to fly a fighter jet did so for more than a century ago. Women have recently made it into professional contact sports such as football. A decade ago an NFL team had a female coach. A pattern of being trailblazers is clear.

Gender discrimination has been an obstacle for women for centuries, preventing them from being becoming scientists, inventors, pioneers before they did. Female firsts have changed public opinion about what women are capable of.

To compile a list of the coolest women’s firsts in history, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed scores of historical articles and biographies of women in various fields — from housewives to scientists. The following list is a selection of women’s achievements that opened doors for others.

Click here for 30 of the coolest women’s firsts in history.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Juliana Morell
> First woman to: Earn a university degree
> Year: 1608

Juliana Morell, a Dominican nun, was the first woman to earn a university degree. She was educated in various languages starting at the age of four. At 12, she successfully defended her thesis in ethics and dialectics.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sophie Blanchard
> First woman to: Pilot a hot air balloon
> Year: 1805

Sophie Blanchard was afraid to ride in a carriage, but not afraid to fly high. Her daring and extremely dangerous balloon flights, which she demonstrated at special events, attracted thousands of spectators. She was the world’s first female balloonist. In 1819 she became the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marie Owens
> First woman to: Become a police officer
> Year: 1891

The debate about who was the nation’s first woman cop has been going on for some time, with various cities claiming to have had the first. But after long-lost records resurfaced as a federal agent was researching the Chicago police, evidence was found that Marie Owens became a police office there in the 1890s.

Source: / Getty Images

Marie Curie
> First woman to: Win a Nobel Prize
> Year: 1903

Marie Curie was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize — and she won it for physics in 1903. A few years later she earned the same award but for chemistry, making her the first, and so far the only, woman to have been so honored twice.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Raymonde de Laroche
> First woman to: Get a pilot’s license
> Year: 1910

Aviator Charles Voisin suggested Raymonde de Laroche take up flying over dinner. He even taught her himself. She died during a flight that would have made her the first female test pilot.

Source: sdasmarchives / Flickr

Eugenie Shakhovskaya
> First woman to: Become a military pilot
> Year: 1914

Little is known about the life of Princess Shakhovskaya. She took up flying in 1911 in Germany. She gave it up to become an instructor but the Imperial Russian Air Force convinced her to go back. She flew reconnaissance missions and did not fight in combat.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marie Marvingt
> First woman to: Fly a fighter plane in combat
> Year: 1915

Marvingt was an athlete and won gold medals in several sports, including skiing and rifle shooting. She competed with such passion, she was called a poor example for young women in France who were expected to be more ladylike. At one point she even disguised herself as a man to serve in the army. She flew fighters in World War I and made it her life’s mission to make planes part of medical support for injured people.

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

Margaret Sanger
> First woman to: Open first birth control clinic
> Year: 1916

Sanger was not only the first woman but also the first person to open a birth control clinic in the United States. It was in Brooklyn, New York. She was a nurse who was inspired by the story of a woman who died from complications of an unintended pregnancy.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Ederle
> First woman to: Swim across the English Channel
> Year: 1926

Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, and she did it in style. She was more than two hours faster than the former (male) record holder. She even wore a two-piece bathing suit, an unconventional choice for the time.

Source: sdasmarchives / Flickr

Amelia Earhart
> First woman to: Fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean
> Year: 1932

Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, five years after the first man to do so. She took off from Newfoundland, Canada, and landed in Ireland after about 15 hours. She and her co-pilot mysteriously disappeared during a flight that would have made her the first woman to fly around the world.

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

Frances Perkins
> First woman to: Become presidential cabinet member
> Year: 1933

Perkins was a teacher and very active in the movement for women’s right to vote and for better working conditions. Largely because of her efforts, a law was passed limiting the work week to 54 hours for women and children. She was President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and a key figure behind his signature New Deal.

Source: 136879256@N02 / Flickr

Margaret Bourke-White
> First woman to: Fly with U.S. crew in enemy territory during WWII
> Year: 1943

Photographer Bourke-White was the first woman ever accredited to fly a mission over enemy territory. She was nicknamed “The Indestructible” because of her response to why she was never scared: “The sound and movement were so rhythmic. It was like music — and so reassuring.”

Source: SWKrullImaging / Getty Images

Arlene Pieper
> First woman to: Finish a marathon
> Year: 1959

Pieper couldn’t run the Boston Marathon because women were not allowed, so she chose Colorado’s Pikes Peak Marathon instead. She finished a 13.3-mile trail run going up more than 7,000 feet, and also the marathon, running up and down the mountain in about nine hours.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Joanne Woodward
> First woman to: Earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
> Year: 1960

The first star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame had a woman’s name, that of Joanne Woodward. She won an Oscar for her role in “The Three Faces of Eve” in 1957, playing a woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder.

Source: sdasmarchives / Flickr

Valentina Tereshkova
> First woman to: Fly in space
> Year: 1963

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was an expert in parachuting, which is what spurred her interest in space. During her flight in space, which lasted just over 70 hours, she went around the Earth 48 times.

Source: ftwitty / Gtty Images

Betty Miller
> First woman to: Fly solo across the Pacific Ocean
> Year: 1963

Miller left from Oakland, California, flying a Piper Apache. She stopped in Hawaii, Canton Island, Fiji, and New Caledonia. Her final destination was Brisbane, Australia, where she landed 20 days later. She got out of her plane wearing a cotton dress and high heels.

Source: Pi.1415926535 / Wikimedia Commons

Jerrie Mock
> First woman to: Fly solo around the world
> Year: 1964

She is known as the “Flying Housewife.” She is said to have been in an unofficial race with Amelia Earhart but only Mock’s flight was officially sanctioned by the National Aeronautic Association.

Source: the359 / Flickr

Janet Guthrie
> First woman to: Drive in the Indy 500
> Year: 1977

Guthrie made history in 1977 when she became the first woman to earn a starting spot in the Indianapolis 500. She achieved the same feat at the Daytona 500 in the same year. She was Top Rookie. When a year later she finished ninth, racing for a team she managed herself, it was the best result by a woman until 2005.

Source: Keystone / Getty Images

Sandra Day O’Connor
> First woman to: Become Supreme Court justice
> Year: 1981

The Texas native was the first woman to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She was on the bench from 1981, when President Ronald Reagan nominated her, until 2006, when she retired. She was known as a moderate conservative and for extensively researching her opinions.

Source: Jonathunder / Wikimedia Commons

Ann Bancroft
> First woman to: Walk to the North Pole
> Year: 1986

Bancroft made history by becoming the first woman to successfully finish expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1986, after 56 days, she and her team arrived at the North Pole by dogsled without stopping for supplies. In 1993, she led a women’s team that reached the South Pole on skis, making her the first woman to have been to both poles.

Source: 97453745@N02 / Flickr

Aretha Franklin
> First woman to: Be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
> Year: 1987

The queen of soul was also the first queen of rock and roll. Her induction led the way for other women to be included in the prestigious group, which was already being criticized for never having a woman. Franklin has a total of 18 Grammys, making her one of the most awarded artists in music history.

Source: kristawindsor / Flickr

Manon Rheaume
> First woman to: Play in an NHL game
> Year: 1992

Rheaume was the first woman to play a game in the National Hockey League. She was the goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game in 1992 and stopped seven out of nine shots.

Source: nasacommons / Flickr

Eileen Collins
> First woman to: Pilot a space shuttle
> Year: 1995

Collins was the first female shuttle commander. Before that she was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission, during which she was second in command. She logged hundreds of hours in space before retiring in 2006.

Source: gageskidmore / Flickr

Nancy Lieberman
> First woman to: Coach in the NBA
> Year: 2009

Lieberman, or “Lady Magic,” as she is also known, has made history several times: first, when she became the head coach of the Texas Legends of the D-League, which was the first time a woman had coached a men’s professional basketball team, and then when she became the assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Kathryn Bigelow
> First woman to: Win an Oscar for Best Director
> Year: 2010

Although Bigelow was not the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, she was the first one to win (and she beat her ex-husband, “Titanic” and “Avatar” director James Cameron) in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker.” Only one woman has been nominated since then — Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird.”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Yuh Nelson
> First woman to: Solo-direct a major Hollywood animated feature
> Year: 2011

Have you see Kung Fu Panda 2? It is the second highest-grossing film directed by a woman, and that woman was Nelson. It was also the first major animated movie produced by a Hollywood studio directed by a woman. Nelson was also the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar in the animated feature category by herself.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jennifer Welter
> First woman to: Coach in the NFL
> Year: 2015

Welter was an intern for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015. She worked for six weeks in the summer as an assistant coach under linebacker coach Bob Sanders, who said he was not afraid to be different by working with a woman. “It’s time,” he added. The first woman to be hired full time as coach was Kathryn Smith.

Source: gageskidmore / Flickr

Patty Jenkins
> First woman to: Direct a superhero movie
> Year: 2017

Jenkins directed the highly successful “Wonder Woman.” It’s the first superhero movie directed by a women, the highest grossing such feature directed by a woman, and the movie directed by a woman with the best opening weekend, making over $100 million.

Source: Sarah Breedlove Walker (Madame C.J. Walker) / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Breedlove
> First woman to: Become a self-made millionaire in the U.S.
> Year: 1910’s

She was born in Louisiana just a few years after the end of the Civil War and her parents were former slaves. She made her fortune selling hair products for black women.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Aloha Wanderwell
> First woman to: Drive around the world
> Year: 1921 – 1928

It took Wanderwell seven years to travel around the world in a car. She started her adventure when she was only 16. It began as a challenge. She signed up to travel with a man to see who could visit the most countries in the world.