The Lily is always dedicated to telling the stories of women, regardless of the day, month or year. But for Women’s History Month 2018, we decided to focus on women who have been the first of their kind.
We enlisted four female illustrators to depict 31 women, from modern day icons like Rihanna — the first woman to win “Shoe of the Year” — to figures who paved the way long before we were born: Liliʻuokalani, the first queen of the Kingdom of Hawaii, ruled more than a century ago.
You may see some familiar faces. Others, we hope you find to be new and surprising.
First African American to win an Oscar for best actress
Halle Berry won best actress at the 2002 Academy Awards for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” She played Leticia Musgrove, a Southern widow of an executed convict. Berry was the first black woman to win an Oscar in the category.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” Berry said through tears in her emotional acceptance speech. “It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” No black actress has taken home the Oscar in that category since.
First female film director
In 1896, Alice Guy Blaché wrote, produced and directed her first film, “La Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”), incorporating techniques she learned as a still photographer. The French creative went on to direct and produce 600 silent films and 150 short films with sound before moving on to feature-length movies. She moved to the United States, and in 1910, she became the first woman to run a studio when she started the Solax Film Company. Two years later, she built a $100,000 production facility in Fort Lee, N.J.
First female ordained minister of a recognized denomination in the U.S.
In her quest to become the first female ordained minister, Antoinette Brown Blackwell faced opposition. After completing the literary curriculum at Oberlin College in 1847, Blackwell was accepted into the school’s theology program. Women were not ordained at the time, and despite Blackwell’s insistence, Oberlin refused to give her a license to preach. Her family balked, too: “Your mother and I are shocked by your boldness and lack of wisdom,” her father wrote.
Finally, in 1853, Blackwell was ordained as a minister of the Congregational Church in South Butler, N.Y. She left after less than a year to join the Unitarian Church. Blackwell wrote and published at least nine books, and she became actively involved in the women’s rights movement alongside her friend and sister-in-law, suffragist Lucy Stone. She founded the New Jersey Women’s Suffrage Association in 1867, and went on to hold public speaking engagements around the country.
First female leader of a Muslim nation in modern history
Bhutto grew up in politics. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister. Benazir Bhutto used her family’s history during her 1988 bid, campaigning as the “daughter of Pakistan.” She held office from December 1988 to August 1990 and October 1993 to November 1996.
First woman to design, build and fly an aircraft
Aviator Lilian Bland was not your average Irishwoman. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, she smoked, wore breeches and enjoyed activities like hunting and fishing. Airplanes piqued her interest, too. She spent the first half of 1910 building and designing her own aircraft, the Mayfly. The materials she used ranged from bamboo and elm to bicycle handlebars. To construct the engine gas tank, she used a whiskey bottle and her deaf aunt’s ear trumpet as a funnel for the fuel. In August of that year, she finally took flight. Bland flew the Mayfly for a quarter mile and reached an altitude of 30 feet.
Editor and publisher of the first U.S. newspaper for women
The first U.S. newspaper for women began in 1849. Amelia Bloomer founded The Lily in Seneca Falls, N.Y. She owned, edited and published the newspaper, “a novel thing for me to do in those days,” Bloomer said. Although it started as a journal for the temperance movement, it eventually took on other issues. Suffragist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an active contributor, and she persuaded Bloomer to become more involved in the fight for women’s rights. Bloomer sold The Lily in 1894, and it folded after two years. More than a century later, on June 12, 2017, The Lily had a revival.
First black woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S.
In 1933, Janet Bragg enrolled in flight school, where she was the only woman in her class. The school was unable to provide actual flight instruction because they owned no planes, so Bragg bought her own for about $500. Bragg and other black flight enthusiasts formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association. Unable to find airfields to train in, they bought land in Robbins, Ill. – an all-black town – to build their own airstrip.
Bragg passed the flight test for her commercial license twice, but she was denied the first time. In 1943, she received her commercial license at the Pal-Waukee Airport near Chicago. During World War II, she applied to the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots, but was rejected. A trained nurse, she tried to join the military nurse corps. They, too, refused to admit her.
“There were so many things they said women couldn’t do and blacks couldn’t do,” Bragg told the Chicago Tribune. “Every defeat to me was a challenge.”
Recommended by Lanae Spruce of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
First openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy award
Actress and activist Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy award in 2014. She was recognized for her role as Sophia Burset, a transgender woman in “Orange is the New Black.” The category was outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
“I was told many times that I wouldn’t be able to have a mainstream career as an actor because I’m trans, because I’m black, and here I am,” Cox said in an interview with Time magazine.
First female chef in the U.S. to win two Michelin stars
Dominique Crenn is the first woman in the United States to have won two Michelin stars for her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. The French chef doesn’t offer guests traditional menus. Instead, at the start of their meal, diners receive a poem that, in a beautifully cryptic way, describes the food they’re about to consume. In 2016, the World's 50 Best Restaurants named Crenn best female chef. That year, she was featured in season two of “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.
First female Nobel Prize winner
Marie Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1903. She shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel, who had discovered spontaneous radioactivity, which the Curies studied to win. She won a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911 for her work with with polonium – named after Marie Curie’s native Poland – and radium.
Marie Curie is credited with coining the term “radioactivity,” and she developed mobile radiography units that provided X-ray services to hospitals during World War I. She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia from exposure to radiation.
The following year, her daughter followed in her footsteps. Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935.
First Indian woman to ski to the South Pole
Mountaineer Reena Kaushal Dharmshaktu edged out 116 women in India to represent her country on a 40-day ski trek to the South Pole through the Kaspersky Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition. She was part of an eight-member team made up of women from around the world. They skied 8 to 10 hours a day for 900 km (around 560 miles), and Dharmshaktu finished at the 38-day mark.
“Mentally, you have to be really strong,” she said. “And that strength comes in when you’re in a group setting.”
Dharmshaktu grew up in the mountains of Darjeeling, and she trained at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. She has scaled seven Himalayan peaks.
First African American to win a Grand Slam title
In the 1940s and 1950s, most major tennis tournaments were closed to African Americans. That changed in 1950, when tennis player Althea Gibson broke color barriers by becoming the first African American to play in the U.S. Nationals, now the U.S. Open. The firsts didn’t stop there: The following year, she competed in Wimbledon, and in 1956, she won the French Championships, taking home her first Grand Slam title. In 1957, she defeated Darlene Hard to win Wimbledon. Until Gibson, no other African Americans had accomplished these feats. Gibson eventually took on another white sport: golf.
First female Fortune 500 CEO
Katharine “Kay” Graham was elected president of The Washington Post in 1963 after her husband, Phil Graham, committed suicide. She took the company – purchased by her father, Eugene Meyer, in 1933 – public in 1971, and the following year, she became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
First female professor in China
Writer and historian Chen Hengzhe’s family was full of wordsmiths and artists, but she was the first to receive a formal education. After attending medical school in China, she earned a scholarship that sent her to the United States, and she enrolled in Vassar College in 1915. She became known to her American friends as Sophia Hung-che Zen. Although she was there to study history, she carefully observed her American counterparts’ actions and freedoms. Chen turned her classmates’ daily lives into a 1917 short story titled “One Day.”
When Hengzhe returned to China in 1920, she taught at Peking University as the country’s first female professor. In her numerous poems, essays and non-fiction works, she explored what it meant to be a modern Chinese woman. In the mid 1930s, she published a book called “Autobiography of a Chinese Young Girl.” During the Cultural Revolution, Chen didn’t communicate much with friends abroad, and she is believed to have suffered. She burned her work, including the manuscript of another unpublished autobiography, and died in her Shanghai apartment in 1976.
Recorded the first album by a female artist to debut at No. 1
Whitney Houston’s “Whitney” was the first album by a female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Houston’s second studio album debuted in 1987 with hits that are still heard today, including “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which earned her a Grammy for best pop vocal performance. After releasing three studio albums, she starred in the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.” With 17 million copies sold, Houston’s accompanying soundtrack is the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
First female leader of the farm worker’s union
In 1965, Dolores Huerta became the first female leader of the farm worker’s union. The labor activist co-founded what became the United Farm Workers of America union with César Chávez. Together, they advocated for better working conditions for farmworkers, but it was Huerta who coined the movement’s famous slogan: “Sí se puede.” (Years later, Barack Obama used the English version — “Yes, we can” — in his 2008 campaign.)
Huerta helped lead the grape boycott, which lasted from 1965 to 1970 and resulted in the first farmworker union contracts. Huerta was the UFW’s lobbyist and contract negotiator.
First woman to run 53 marathons in 53 days
First ruling queen and last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii
Liliʻuokalani was the Kingdom of Hawaii’s first queen and last monarch. She came into power in 1891 after her brother, King Kalākaua, died. But her reign was interrupted by Sanford Ballard Dole. Dole led a coup to overthrow the Hawaiian government, and he pressured the United States to annex the islands. When Liliʻuokalani’s supporters tried to put her back in power, she was charged with treason, put on house arrest and later imprisoned for eight months. In 1898, Hawaii became a U.S. territory and President William McKinley made Dole governor of the territory.
Recommended by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
First woman to lead a major tribe in the U.S.
Wilma Mankiller was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, making her the first woman to lead a major tribe in the United States. Her life had been full of hardships, from growing up without electricity and indoor plumbing to dealing with severe health issues. Later, she saw these experiences helped her persevere: “In all human beings, there is a much greater capacity for dealing with tough situations than you realize,” she once said.
Under her leadership, tribe enrollment tripled and employment went up. She oversaw the construction of new housing and health centers in Oklahoma, where most tribal members live. Mankiller improved the Cherokee’s education and health-care systems, and infant mortality declined during her tenure.
Once, a man teasing Mankiller about her name asking about the origin. Her response was tongue-in-cheek: “I said it was a nickname and I’d earned it.” (The name actually comes from a tribal military rank.)
Creators of the first lesbian rights organization in the U.S.
Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first U.S. lesbian political and social organization, in 1955. Martin became DOB president, and Lyon edited the monthly magazine, the Ladder. The couple started small in San Francisco, but other chapters began popping up in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Rhode Island. At meetings, women who identified as lesbian or bisexual were able to safely and freely discuss their sexuality and issues that affected them. The national chapter eventually folded around 1970 over leadership disagreements, but the DOB’s impact lived on.
First Latina to achieve EGOT status
In 1962, she won an Oscar for best supporting actress as Anita in “West Side Story.” From there, the awards began to pile up: A Grammy for “The Electric Company” album (1972), a Tony for portraying Goonie Gomez in the “The Ritz” (1975) and two Emmys for appearances on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files” (1977 and 1978). Moreno, 86, continues to act. You can find her on Netflix as Lydia Riera in “One Day at a Time.”
Recommended by the Smithsonian Latino Center.
First woman to be awarded the Fields Medal
Maryam Mirzakhani is the only woman ever to win the Fields Medal, which is considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran. Although she originally wanted be a writer, she displayed an aptitude for mathematics, winning two gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad while in high school. Mirzakhani earned her doctorate from Harvard in 2004, and worked as a professor at Princeton and Stanford. Last year, at 40, she died of breast cancer.
The first black woman with a syndicated comic strip
Jackie Ormes – born Zelda Mavin Jackson – became the first African American woman to create a syndicated comic strip in 1937. She was a pioneer for decades, starting with the debut of Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem,” which appeared in her hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. Ormes continued to write storylines for her beloved characters – Torchy, Candy, Patty-Jo and Ginger – when she moved to Chicago in 1942, and her comics were published in newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Defender. She transformed Patty-Jo, an outspoken little girl, into a coveted doll. At a time when black dolls were rare, Patty-Jo lined shelves from 1947 to 1949.
Over time, Ormes’s comic strips took on a more political tone, addressing injustices she saw in society. She was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Awards Hall of Fame this year.
The first American woman in space and first known LGBT astronaut
On June 18, 1983, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space. Ride ventured into space once more before leaving NASA in 1987. She went on to teach at University of California San Diego and start her own company, Sally Ride Science, which promotes STEM education. She co-founded the organization – now a nonprofit – with several others, including children’s writer and tennis player Tam O’Shaughnessy.
When Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, Sally Ride Science released an obituary that referred to O’Shaughnessy as her partner of 27 years. It was the first time the famous astronaut publicly revealed that she was gay.
First woman to win “Shoe of the Year”
Rihanna became the first woman to win “Shoe of the Year” at the 30th annual Footwear News Achievement Awards in 2016. Rihanna wore her winning kicks — the Fenty x Puma creeper — to accept the award. The designer and singer has proven to be a savvy entrepreneur and trendsetter. Last year, she launched her own makeup line, Fenty Beauty.
First legally blind woman to compete in the Olympics
Marla Runyan was determined to compete in the Olympics. The legally-blind track and field athlete first qualified in 1996, but she didn’t make the team. In 2000, her training and persistence paid off. Runyan became the first legally-blind athlete to compete in the Olympics. The runner placed 8th in the 1500-meter event at the Summer Games in Sydney. She returned to the Olympics in 2004, competing in the 5,000-meter race.
Runyan didn’t medal in Sydney or Athens, but she needn’t worry: She had already won five gold medals at the 1992 and 1996 Paralympics.
“I kind of believed that if I worked hard enough, I could overcome anything,” Runyan told Runner’s World. “There was always this concept that if I just had the right tools and time, I was going to figure anything out and I would be able to overcome it.”
First woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest
Before becoming the first woman to conquer Mount Everest in 1975, Junko Tabei founded an all-female climbing club in Japan. The slogan? “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves.”
That’s exactly what Tabei did. Her Everest expedition included only women – minus the six sherpas who accompanied them. She raised money to fund their climb, facing naysayers along the way. One Japanese corporate executive told her “to stay home and take care of my baby,” Tabei told The Washington Post in 1991. She ended up raising $300,000 by giving piano lessons in her home.
Tabei survived an avalanche to reach Everest’s summit, checking one peak off her list of seven. She is the first woman to have completed the “Seven Summits.” Each summit represents the tallest mountain on each continent.
“Life is not forever,” she said. “I don’t think people should leave behind a fortune, or things. When I die, I want to look back and know that my life was interesting. I want to leave behind a personal history.”
Tabei died of stomach cancer in 2016. She was 77.
First woman in space
Valentina Tereshkova made the leap from parachuting to flying into space on June 16, 1963. Tereshkova was 26 when she became the first woman to journey into space. On the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6, the cosmonaut orbited the Earth 48 times. It was her first and last time in space.
“I am still dreaming about it,” she told the The Washington Post in 2006. Tereshkova became a prominent political figure in the U.S.S.R. As a member of parliament, she served on the Soviet Committee of Women and advocated for victims of domestic violence.
First female prime minister of Britain
Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of Britain, led her country for 11 years. She took office in May 1979, vowing to change Britain “from a give-it-to-me” country to “a do-it-yourself nation.” Her policies — now known as Thatcherism — were controversial, and many said she didn’t care about the poor.
In November 1990, Thatcher lost the support of her Conservative Party and resigned as prime minister. Thatcher was prime minister throughout the Cold War, and she urged her country to modernize its nuclear arsenal. “The Soviet Union has to recognize that we can inflict unacceptable damage on them were they to attack or threaten us,” she said in a famous speech that prompted the Soviet press to nickname Thatcher the “Iron Lady.”
First female self-made millionaire in America
Before becoming a political activist and America’s first female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker — born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 — was concerned about hair loss. During the early 1900s, lack of indoor plumbing and electricity made bathing difficult. Americans weren’t able to wash their hair as much, and some women began to go bald. After selling hair and beauty products for Annie Turnbo Malone in St. Louis, Walker went on to start her own company in 1906. One of her first products? Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. She incorporated the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910 and went on to redesign the hot comb by giving it wider teeth. Other well-known products included the Tetter Salve, meant to treat dandruff, and Glossine, a pressing oil.
First published African American poet
Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” made its debut in England in 1773. Wheatley, an enslaved woman, was the first African American poet to publish a book, and she traveled to London from Boston to promote her work.
In the 18th century, supporters of slavery portrayed people of African descent as unintelligent and immoral. But at the time, the abolitionist movement was gaining traction in England. Wheatley’s book fed into this debate, serving as proof on paper that an African could master a writing style worthy of publication. Her poetry also contained religious references, and she sometimes wrote about death: “Perfect in bliss she from her heav’nly home / Looks down, and smiling beckons you to come; / Why then, fond parents, why these fruitless groans? / Restrain your tears, and cease your plaintive moans.”
Wheatley gained freedom sometime after her publicity tour in England. She married John Peters, but he was incarcerated when she died in 1784. Although she attempted to publish a second book, American audiences didn’t support her, and an estimated 145 poems are now lost.