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Women who broke barriers from the year you were born

  • Women who broke barriers from the year you were born

    The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1920 to give women the right to vote. Since then, women have been elected to Congress in increasing numbers, and the speaker of the House is a woman, Nancy Pelosi. Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 became the first woman to win the nomination to run for president from a major political party. She didn't win the White House, but her campaign helped encourage more women than ever to run for political office. Six women are currently running for president, including four senators, one member of Congress, and one self-help author.

    Politics isn't the only field where women have broken through barriers, of course. In 1944, Ann Baumgartner Carl became the first female test pilot. In 1953, aviator Jacqueline Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier. And in 1999, Lt. Col. Eileen Collins became the first woman astronaut to pilot and command a NASA space shuttle mission. Women also have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and directed big-budget, award-winning Hollywood films.

    The term "glass ceiling" dates back to 1839 when French feminist author George Sand used a phrase translating to "impenetrable crystal vault" while discussing how it felt to be a woman desiring more than her expected social role. Since then, the term has been used to describe the invisible societal barrier that prevents women from achieving the same leadership positions, political offices, and pay rates as men.

    Using data from news reports, historical governmental sites, and “Rad American Women A-Z,” by Kate Schatz, Stacker compiled a list of 100 trailblazing women who shattered glass ceilings, proving that fighting for a better society is not only worthwhile but possible. On this list are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, entrepreneurs, accomplished attorneys, dedicated service members, and many more inspiring women.

    Click through to see how many trailblazers you recognize from the past 100 years.

    You might also like: Women who broke barriers throughout military history

  • 1919: First black woman became a self-made millionaire

    Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was reportedly was the first black woman to become a millionaire on her own. She started selling hair-straightening products for black women in 1906; by the time she died in 1919, her business was worth at least $1 million.

    Also in 1919, actress Mary Pickford became the first woman to co-own a production studio. She co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks.

  • 1920: First American woman hired as an automotive engineer

    In 1920, Marie Luhring was the first woman in the United States to become an automotive engineer. She went on to become the first female truck designer. She worked with Mack Truck Co. and established herself as one of the best designers in the business.

  • 1921: First black woman earned international pilot's license

    American aviator Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot's license in 1921, the first black woman to do so. Since U.S. flight schools wouldn't teach women of color—she was also part Native American—Coleman learned French and went to Europe to get her license. Known as “Queen Bessie,” she came back to the United States and performed daring stunts like spins, dives, and loop-the-loops.

    Also in 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature for “The Age of Innocence.” There was a controversy around the prize not because Wharton was a woman, but because the Pulitzer jury had chosen another book: “Main Street,” by Sinclair Lewis. The Pulitzer board overturned the jury's decision.

  • 1922: First woman elected senator

    In 1922, Georgia's Democratic Gov. Thomas Hardwick—who had previously voted against women's suffrage—planned to run for the Senate and wanted to appeal to women voters. He decided to appoint Rebecca Latimer Felton, 87, to a vacant seat. She held the position for only 24 hours before handing it over to the newly elected Walter George. Felton is still the only female senator Georgia has ever had.

    Since 1922, 56 women have served in the U.S. Senate. In 2019, the House of Representatives seated its highest number of women in history, with females making up 23.4% of the 435-member chamber.

  • 1923: First woman won a U.S. Supreme Court case

    Florence King held a lot of firsts: In 1897, she became the first female patent attorney; in 1918, she became the first female vice president of the Women's Bar Association of Chicago; in 1922, she became the first woman to argue a patent case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A year later, she became the first woman to win a case before the high court, Crown vs. Nye. She died of breast cancer in 1924.

  • 1924: First woman elected governor

    On Nov. 4, 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman elected governor in Wyoming and in the United States. She got the most votes one month after her husband died of appendicitis, which left the position vacant. Ross was officially inaugurated in January the next year.

  • 1925: First woman elected governor of Texas

    Nellie Tayloe Ross beat out Miriam “Ma” Ferguson as the country's first governor by a couple of weeks. Ferguson was sworn in as the first female governor of Texas 15 days after Ross took office. Ferguson, a former Texas first lady, ran for the position after her husband was impeached, convicted, and removed from office as governor. Among other things, Ross expressed vocal opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.

  • 1926: First woman swam the English Channel

    Covered in grease and wearing a two-piece swimsuit, Gertrude Ederle set out to became the first woman to swim the 21-mile-long English Channel on Aug. 6, 1926. At the time, people didn't think it was physically possible for a woman to swim that far. Ederle proved them wrong and completed the feat—her second attempt—in 14 hours and 31 minutes, beating the previously held record by two hours. Two years earlier, Ederle nabbed a gold and two bronze medals in Paris at the Olympic Games.

  • 1927: First woman became licensed transport pilot

    In 1927, Phoebe Omlie, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, became the first woman to get a transport pilot license and an airplane mechanic license. The next year she was the first woman to fly across the Rocky Mountains in a light aircraft.

  • 1928: First woman flew across the Atlantic

    An aeronautic superstar, Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean on June 17, 1928. Along with two other pilots, Earhart traveled from Canada to England. President Calvin Coolidge nicknamed Earhart “Lady Lindy” after fellow American pilot Charles Lindbergh.

    Another 1928 first: Genevieve R. Cline was the first woman appointed as a judge to the U.S. Customs Court.

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