Did you know that Wyoming was the first state that granted American women the right to vote, in 1869? The progressive state also elected the nation's first female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1924. But for centuries after, women have still fought to break through the glass ceiling of their respective fields.
Can you believe that women were banned from running in the Boston Marathon? Until 1967, when Kathrine Switzer hid her identity, signed up and became the first woman to run the race. Her historic achievement wasn't all smooth sailing as the marathon organizer tried to stop her, by physically chasing her down to yank her out of the race.
Well, at least he tried to, but her boyfriend knocked the official off the course. Switzer’s action and continuous lobbying is credited as an integral part in making the women’s marathon an official event in the Olympic Games.
These days, women break barriers and challenge stereotypes everyday, but as we do so, let's not forget those that came before us. A mere 50 years ago, our achievements today would have seemed impossible. The following isn't a complete list, by any degree, but here are 12 extraordinary women who worked hard to pave the way for women in science, politics, sports, art etc.
12 Ada Lovelace
Born Augusta Ada King, the Countess of Lovelace, is well known as the first female computer programmer. She started her career as a mathematician and writer who is reported to have helped Charles Babbage develop the Analytical Engine, an early general-purpose computer. Lovelace created the first algorithm (computer program) designed for a machine to execute.
Lovelace was a mathematical prodigy who took a “poetical” approach to analyzing science problems. Some say her genius comes from having a mathematician for a mother (Anne Isabella Byron) and a poet for a father (Lord Byron). Her importance in the field of programming has led to a day in mid-October, being set aside as an official holiday in her honor. The holiday is used to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and math.
11 Jacqueline Cochran
Cochran is considered a pioneer in the field of American aviation, even though she didn't enter a plane until her late 20's. She fell in love with flying after a friend offered her a ride in an aircraft. She soon started taking lessons and before long, she got her pilot's license. Cochran soon became the only woman to compete in the top races of the period; the MacRobertson Air Race and the Bendix race.
Within a decade, she was considered the best female pilot in the United States, winning races and setting transcontinental speed and altitude records. She was also the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. During the war, she was the driving force behind the creation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).
Postwar, she flew the then-new jet aircraft, and soon became the first woman pilot to "go supersonic"; in 1953, she became the first woman to break the sound barrier. When she died, no other pilot held more speed, distance, or altitude records than Cochran.
10 Benazir Bhutto
Three years after the assassination of her father, the then-prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto became the chairperson of the PPP. This made her the first woman in Pakistan to head a major political party. Six years later, the charismatic politician was elected to be the head of Pakistan's government, the 11th Prime Minister, in 1988. This marked another first in the traditionally male-dominated society.
She served two non-consecutive terms, from 1988–90 and then in 1993–96. Noted for her hardline policies, till date, she has been the first woman to lead a Muslim state and Pakistan's only female prime minister.
9 Barbara Harris
Speaking of male-dominated societies, the Church also experienced a few firsts in the past few decades. Despite repeated calls for the Catholic Church to allow women join the priesthood, the church still refuses. However other Christian Churches have changed their rules to allow women take on senior roles in the church.
Barbara Harris was a civil- and womens- rights activist, Harris also actively campaigned for the full involvement of women in the Anglican clergy. After a decade of being the head of public relations for the Sun Oil Company, Harris decided to study for the priesthood herself. After receiving training in Philadelphia and England, she was ordained as a deacon in 1979 and an Episcopal priest in 1980.
Harris served in different capacities in Philadelphia until February 1989, when she was ordained as the bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. Her ordination was a double-whammy as she was the first woman ordained as a bishop and also an African-American.
8 Wilma Rudolph
Determined to fight through the odds that life had thrown at her, Rudolph overcame being the 20th of 22 children, a childhood stricken with bouts of polio and having to wear an orthopedic shoe to even get around. But by the time she 12, she was on her way to becoming a star basketball player and sprinter in high school.
She took her love for sprinting to the '56 Olympics, where the 16-year old won her first Olympic medal (a bronze in the 4x100m relay) in Melbourne. Fast forward to 1960, the 20-year old broke an uncredited 100m record and set a new Olympic record for the 200m dash. She wasn't done as she went on to win three gold medals in the 100 m, 200 m and as an anchor in the 4 × 100 m relay!
By the time the Games were over, she was hailed as the 'fastest woman in the world'.
7 Elizabeth Blackwell
The one-time school teacher and social reformer often found herself between jobs in 19th century Cincinnati. But when she found out that a close friend was dying, she opined that female physicians could make painful treatments more comfortable. Blackwell felt women would be better doctors because of their natural motherly instincts.
Determined to pursue a medical education, she took up a job teaching music, with the goal of saving up the money for her medical school expenses. She spent the next two years, applying and getting rejected in the male-dominated world of medical schools. She was finally accepted in Geneva Medical College, graduating in 1849, thus becoming the first woman to receive a medical degree.
In 1857, she helped establish a hospital for the poor that also provided positions for female physicians. Blackwell returned to England, set up a private practice and served as a lecturer at the London School of Medicine for Women. By the time she retired, she was the first female doctor on the UK Medical Register, as well as a pioneer in educating women in medicine.
6 Manon Rhéaume
Women's hockey still isn't as popular as the men's game, but without the tenacity of Quebec goalie, Manon Rhéaume, it probably wouldn't even enjoy the popularity that it has today. In 1992, Rhéaume made history by playing for the all-male Tampa Bay Lightning team. She also played in preseason games in 1992 and 1993. This made her the first woman to play in any of the four major North American men’s sports leagues.
Rhéaume followed up her appearance by leading the Canadian women’s national team to victory in the 1992 and 1994 World Hockey Championships. Rhéaume's team also won silver at the 1998 Olympics in Japan.
Even as a kid, the goalie was known for being the first girl to play at the International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament. Some may see her brief stint in the NHL as a publicity stint, but it did its job of providing a boost to women's hockey and inspiring a generation of girls to pick up the sport.
5 Marie Curie
When a genius like Albert Einstein writes you a letter, saying “I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance,” you know you're kind of a big deal.
Where does one start with Marie Curie? She made strides in science that baffled other scientists for decades; no wonder one poll dubbed her the "most inspirational woman in science". She was the first woman to win a Noble Prize in Physics in 1903. Eight years later, she won it again in Chemistry, making her the first of four people to win the award twice. But still, Curie is still in a different class, as she's the only person to win twice in different sciences!
4 Valentina Tereshkova
In 1963, the 26 year old textile-factory assembly worker became the first woman to fly to space. At the time, she wasn't even in the Soviet Air Force; leading to her being issued a honorary induction, allowing her join the Cosmonaut Corps. This also meant she was the first civilian to fly in space.
Her 'secret weapon'? A head for heights (she was an avid skydiver) and sheer determination. But after months of intense training, Tereshkova was selected to travel into space on the Vostok 6. In June, she became the first woman (and civilian) in space; where she orbited 48 times and spent almost three days in space.
Back on Earth, Tereshkova went on to earn a doctorate in engineering, became an well known representative of the Soviet Union abroad and was awarded the title 'Hero of the Soviet Union'. Even in her late 70's, Tereshkova is still up for adventure, claiming she'd go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arose.
3 Althea Gibson
Speaking of legendary female athletes, Althea Gibson springs to mind. Overcoming racism in the 50's, Gibson became the first black player—male or female—to play at Wimbledon in 1950. This feat led to some calling her the “Jackie Robinson” of tennis.
Not content with crossing the color line, she came back in 1957, to win Wimbledon. She won the U.S Championships in 1957 and at Wimbledon again in 1958. On her return to America, she became the first black woman to be honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City.
In 1958, she became the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. The accomplished athlete soon set her sights on golf, and in 1964 became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Gibson's drive to surmount all odds against her, is credited for helping to expand opportunities for women and minorities through sports.
2 Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Tales of England's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, abound in the annals of political history. But even before Thatcher became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1979, another woman had claimed the title of the world’s first female prime minister.
Bandaranaike took over the reigns of power in Sri Lanka when her husband, the sitting Prime Minister was assassinated in 1959. Following her late husbands ideology on socialism, neutrality in international affairs, and the encouragement of the Buddhist religion, Bandaranaike quickly became a symbol to the nation.
But a deepening economic crisis, led to the Prime Minister to pursue more radical policies. These policies divided the country leading to decades of civil unrest and strife. Despite this, Banadaranaike served three terms as PM in the 60's, 70's and 90's.
1 Kristen Marie Griest and Shaye Lynne Haver
Few places are more male-dominated than the military. For centuries, women have fought to prove that they were just as good as their male counterparts. Over time, some military branches have allowed women sign up, but others hold out claiming women can't serve in the military's most grueling and difficult jobs.
But in August, two West Point graduates made history as the first female graduates of the U.S. Army Ranger School. This is no mean feat as the grueling course has one of the highest failure rates in the US Army. Their accomplishment marks a major breakthrough for women in the armed services as it showed the Pentagon that women were just as capable. It also led to the pentagon declaring that all combat jobs in the military will be open to qualified women starting from 2016.
P.S – In October, another woman, Lisa Jaster graduated from Ranger School too.