Female Firsts: 8 of the Most Trailblazing Women in History

Let’s honour the female movers and shakers in the world; the inspirational women who made their mark and led society closer to realising that the view of a male dominated world is an outdated one. From the pioneers of science and medicine to the social and political influencers, here’s my pick of some of the first women to accomplish various feats of greatness:


690: First (and only) Woman to rule China

Wu Zetian

This woman is a bit like history’s version of Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts meets Kill Bill’s Uma Thurman. During her life she made the impressive step up from concubine to the first Empress of China and ruled during the Zhou dynasty for almost half a century. Despite Confucian beliefs stating that having a female leader was as unnatural as ‘a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak’, she ended up leading China through one of its most successful periods of all time. You crow, girl.

Wu Zetian campaigned to elevate the position of women in society. She had scholars write biographies of famous women and gave her female relatives high political posts. She moved her court away from the seat of traditional male power and tried to highlight that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother does over her children. That being said, it’s possible that Wu strangled her own baby… Rumours have it she framed a rival consort for killing her daughter in order to remove her opposition and improve her rank with the Emperor at the time. Whether or not Wu did it, she is certainly accountable for eliminating various crown princes and people who blocked her path to power. #badass 


China: Wu Zetian ( 624-705), Empress Regnant of the Zhou Dynasty (690-705) / Pictures from History


1849: First Woman Doctor

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth can perhaps give thanks to the fact that her father was a loving and liberal man; he believed that each child, including his daughters, should be given the opportunity for unlimited development of their talents and skills. Elizabeth’s dream was to be accepted into a Philadelphia medical school, however she was met with strong resistance; some rejected her because she was a woman (and therefore intellectually inferior) while others feared that she could in fact do the task and become competition to the men. Some even suggested that she dress up in the guise of a man to be accepted.

Luckily Elizabeth was also gifted with sass and she was having none of this: ‘as to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally’. One college eventually accepted her after the dean and faculty couldn’t decide on her case and put it up to the 150 male students of the class to vote. The stipulation was that if one student voted against her she would be rejected, but they all unanimously voted in favour. Thus Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States and the first woman on the UK Medical Register. Her sister Emily was also the third woman to obtain a medical degree in the US.


Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910). American physician. Photograph, c.1877. / Photo © Granger


1872: First Woman to run for President of the USA

Victoria Woodhull

Although perhaps little known today, American suffragist Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to ever run for President of the United States, even though technically she was a year younger than the constitutionally mandated age of 35 at the time. She did not receive any electoral votes but testaments say that she did receive some popular votes: however it appears that votes casted for her were not even counted.

Victoria’s first fortune was made on the road as a magnetic healer, before she joined the spiritualist movement in the 1870s. She later made a fortune again with her sister on the New York Stock Exchange; together they were the first women to open a Wall Street brokerage firm. They were also among the first women to found a newspaper: Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which began publication in 1870.

Woodhull had pioneering attitudes towards free love and was a strong advocate for women to be able to choose who they love, have the right of sexual determination and have the freedom to leave an unbearable marriage without stigmatisation. She delivered an inspirational speech, known as the Steinway Speech, in which she declared:

“When woman rises from sexual slavery to sexual freedom […] and man is obliged to respect this freedom, then will woman be raised from the iniquity and morbidness in which she now wallows for existence, and the intensity and glory of her creative functions be increased a hundred-fold. […] Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”


Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927). American reformer. Oil over a photograph. / Photo © Granger


1903: First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize 

Marie Curie

Marie Curie was a Polish and naturalised French physicist and chemist who conducted leading research on radioactivity. Not only is she the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she is also the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences and the first and only woman to win twice. She was additionally the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. The scientist passed on her intellectual prowess to her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 together with her husband. Marie’s husband also shared the Physics Prize with her and their second daughter’s husband who was the director of UNICEF when it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. What a legacy!

Sadly Marie Curie’s amazing work also resulted in her death. She died in 1934 due to aplastic anemia brought on by exposure to radiation – she used to carry radium in her pockets during research and was also exposed to it during her service in WWI due to the mobile X-ray units she had set up.


Marie Curie Sklodowska (1867 – 1934) is a world renowned physicist and chemist. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel prize and the first person to receive two Nobel prizes, in physics and chemistry / Forum


1917: First Woman to hold Congress

Jeannette Rankin

On the 4th of March this year it will be a century since Jeannette Rankin became the first female to hold national office in the US, as a member of the Republican party. She believed that the corruption and dysfunction of the US government was a result of the lack of feminine participation and stated during a disarmament conference that ‘the peace problem is a women’s problem.’  A lifelong pacifist, she was the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was consequently hissed at and ridiculed; her own brother even called her to say that her hometown Montana was 100% against her. However the Emporia Gazette acknowledged her courage:

‘Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.’

Throughout a career spanning more than six decades, she championed gender equality and was instrumental in initiating the legislation that became the 19th Constitutional Amendment, granting unrestricted voting rights to women. Although she received several marriage proposals, she turned them down and never married – many biographers believe that she was too consumed by her work to pursue romantic relationships.


Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973). American suffragist, pacifist, and legislator. Miss Rankin photographed in June 1932 before leaving on a speaking tour in support of the peace planks of the Democratic and Republican Party platforms. / Photo © Granger


1921: First Woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was awarded the distinguished Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Age of Innocence. She was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928 and 1930. It was her brilliant, natural wit that made her stories about America’s privileged classes both humorous and incisive. Her long and illustrious writing career spanned over forty years and she was extraordinarily productive in that time, publishing fifteen novels, eighty-five short stories, seven novellas, as well as working on garden and interior design. Her very first publication was a translation of a German poem at the age of 15, however it was published under her father’s friend’s name because in that era the names of upper class women only appeared in print to announce birth, marriage or death. Her own name was not used to credit her writing for over a decade.

Fun facts: Edith was known by the incredible name of ‘Pussy Jones’ to her friends and family; it is said that the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ refers to her father’s family. She was also a lifelong dog-lover – below she is seen with her beloved Chihuahuas Mimi and Miza who are serving up some wicked side-eyes.


Edith Wharton (1862-1937) American writer. / Photo © Granger


1928: First Woman to Cross the Atlantic in an Aeroplane

Amelia Earhart

The American pilot and author set many aviation records, including being the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic almost 90 years ago. She had an unconventional upbringing as her mother did not believe in molding her children into ‘nice little girls’ and she and her sister backed this with their adventurous spirit. Amelia’s first documented flight came in the form of a home-made ramp that she ‘flew off’ from the roof of the tool shed; she emerged with a bruised lip, a torn dress and a sense of exhilaration.

After her accomplished Atlantic flight, Amelia became something of a celebrity and was nicknamed ‘Lady Lindy’ (after aviator Charles Lindbergh) and ‘Queen of the Air’. She accepted a position as associate editor for Cosmopolitan magazine to help campaign for greater acceptance of aviation, particularly for women entering the field.

The pilot is still the subject of great mystery and fascination due to her unexplained disappearance during a circumnavigational flight across the globe in 1937. Many researchers supported a simple crash and sink theory, others thought she was captured by the Japanese and some even believed that she survived and assumed another identity.


Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) American woman pilot who disappeared July 1937 in the Pacific Ocean while on a highly publicized world flight attempt, here c. 1935


1963: First Woman in Space

Valentina Tereshkova

At 26 years old the former textile worker and amateur sky diver became the first woman to travel to space and was the fifth cosmonaut to go into the Earth’s orbit. She was selected from over four hundred applicants and five finalists to pilot Vostok 6. Although plans were in place for further woman-led flights into space, Valentina’s female cosmonaut group was dissolved in 1969 and it would be another 19 years before the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, was able to make the epic journey.

Tereshkova is still very much an idol for women and scientists today, and the celebrations will no doubt be in full force for her 80th birthday this year on the 6th of March. She recently carried the Olympic flag in the 2014 Winter Olympics and has even offered to go to Mars on a one-way mission if the opportunity arises. The sky is certainly not the limit for this female star.


Valentina Tereshkova (1937-). Soviet cosmonaut and first woman to visit outer space. Photograph, 1960s. / Photo © Granger


Find out More

8 March: International Women’s Day

Guerrilla Girls: How Sexist is the Art World?, including the first woman to be accepted into the Accademia di Arte del Disegno

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