9 Amazing Women Who Were First in Their Field

Long before Beyonce sung about girls running the world and Sheryl Sandberg wrote about leaning in, some seriously phenomenal women were showing the world that women can dominate in their chosen careers. And every women who has followed in their footsteps owes a great debt to all these trailblazers who broke those glass ceilings. With women’s voices at the center of pop culture and politics, what better time to celebrate some of the women who have the distinction of being “first” in their path? Cheers to them!

Valentina Tereshkova

When talking about women going into uncharted territory, Tereshkova did it—literally. In 1963, the Russian cosmonaut became the first woman ever to go into space. She orbited the earth 48 times in less than three days. Talk about being otherworldly!

Kathryn Bigelow

Though Hollywood still has a long way to go, it seems to finally be coming around when it comes to including more points of view in film. And though Bigelow has been around the industry for some time and making hit movies, she broke a major barrier in 2010 when she became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Only the fourth woman to ever be nominated for the award, her win for Hurt Locker was definitely a reel-worthy moment for women in the entertainment industry.

Maryam Mirzakhani

It’s shocking to think that there are still “firsts” for women happening in this decade, but that’s actually the case. In 2014, Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Field medal, nicknamed the “Nobel Prize of mathematics.” The Stanford professor, who was recognized for her work in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, called the distinction a huge honor, acknowledging that she expected more women would be snagging the prize in the future.

Geraldine Ferraro

Though voters on both sides of the aisle have now had the chance to cast their ballots for a number of female politicians, Ferraro was truly a trailblazer, as the first woman to be named a vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket. No matter your political affiliation, it’s refreshing to see women of all backgrounds becoming more actively involved in government after Ferraro paved the way.

Aretha Franklin

It’s no surprise that a woman known as the Queen of Soul added another major distinction to her resume before anyone else. Franklin was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The singer, who is always unabashedly herself, is clearly someone worthy of that level of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Selma Lagerlof

In 1909, Lagerlof, a Swedish author known for her children’s books, became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. When she received the honor it was “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings.” Clearly, her work was a cut above the rest. (Marie Curie, however, holds the distinction of being the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, in Physics, in 1903. In fact, Curie is the only woman to have won two.)

Maud Watson

Though we now associate tennis with strong women like Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, the first woman to show us how things were done on the court was Watson. In 1884, she beat her sister to become the first female champion at Wimbledon. The Williams sisters aren’t the first duo in the sport!

Barbara Walters

There may be more than a grain of truth to the movie Anchorman. News was a big boys club—that is, until Walter walked through the door. With her signature interview style, Walters made a name for herself as the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program in the 1970s. It was no small feat in an industry that often relegated women to fluff pieces, not hard news.

Arabella Mansfield

More than a century before Elle Woods busted through the doors of Harvard in Legally Blonde, a female lawyer was considered a rarity. But that doesn’t it hadn’t happened before. In 1868, Mansfield became the first female lawyer in the country, after being admitted to the Iowa bar. At the time, the examiners said Mansfield’s exam was “the very best rebuke possible to the imputation that ladies cannot qualify for the practice of law.” Women can accomplish anything they set their mind to, case closed.

Kelsey Butler is a reporter and editor living in New Jersey. She has written for health and lifestyle publications including Women's Health and Brides. A proud dog mom of one, you can find her skiing or on the bocce court in her spare time.