Firsts in American Women's History

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

At least 12,000 years ago
According to a theory accepted by most anthropologists, the first women arrive in North America via the Bering land bridge from Asia.
At least 2,000 years ago
Women play important roles in the hundreds of different American Indian cultures that thrived before European arrival in the 1500s. Women's roles were as varied as their societies. Some women gathered food or planted crops; some made tools and built houses; some participated in trade. In some societies, community life and economics were organized around female kinship. In many, older women were important leaders; they might choose the chief, arrange marriages, or run the treasury.
Virginia Dare is the first person born in America to English parents (Roanoke Island, Virginia).
Margaret Brent appears before the Maryland assembly demanding that women be granted the right to vote. She is the first woman in Maryland to own property, and one of the first known suffragists in American history.
Anne Bradstreet's book of poems, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, is published in England, making her the first published American woman writer.
Henrietta Johnston begins to work as a portrait artist in Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, making her the first known professional woman artist in America.
Mary Katherine Goddard and her widowed mother become publishers of the Providence Gazette newspaper and the annual West's Almanack, making her the first woman publisher in America. In 1789 Goddard opened a Baltimore bookstore, probably the first woman in America to do so.
Anne Catherine Hoof Green takes over her late husband's printing and newspaper business, becoming the first American woman to run a print shop. The following year she is named the official printer for the colony of Maryland.
Mother Bernardina Matthews establishes a Carmelite convent near Port Tobacco, Maryland, the first community of Roman Catholic nuns in the Thirteen Colonies. (The Ursuline convent established in New Orleans in 1727 was still in French territory.)
Actress and schoolteacher Susanna Haswell Rowson's melodramatic novel Charlotte: A Tale of Truth is published. Later known as Charlotte Temple, it becomes a bestseller with more than 150 printings.
Suzanne Vaillande appears in The Bird Catcher, in New York, the first ballet presented in the U.S. She was also probably the first woman to work as a choreographer and set designer in the United States.
Anne Parrish establishes, in Philadelphia, the House of Industry, the first charitable organization for women in America.
Mary Kies becomes the first woman to receive a patent, for a method of weaving straw with silk.
Elizabeth Ann Seton establishes the first American community of the Sisters of Charity, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In 1975 she became the first native-born American to be made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
The first public high school for girls opens in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Lydia Maria Child serves as editor of the Juvenile Miscellany, the first children's magazine in the United States.
Mills in industrial towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, are staffed almost entirely by young women. These “mill girls” have a kind of independence their mothers could not have imagined. They earn their own money and live together in boardinghouses. They also take part in strikes and other actions by organized labor.
American educator Catherine Beecher publishes the first book about physical fitness for women, A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies.
Oberlin College, in Ohio, becomes the first college to admit female students. In addition to studying, the women have to do laundry and cook meals for the male students.
The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in Massachusetts, is created to provide higher education to women. Most of its early graduates became teachers.
The first commercial Valentine cards, trimmed with imported lace, are made by Esther Howland in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts becomes the first such institution in the United States to accept women as students.
The first women's rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York.
Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the United States, graduates first in her class at New York's Geneva College.
In her magazine, the Lily, American feminist Amelia Bloomer promotes the comfort of "bloomers," a simple flaring skirt over Turkish-style trousers.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's first novel about slavery, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is featured as a serial in an abolitionist newspaper. Published as a book the following year, it becomes an international bestseller and has a profound impact on public opinion about slavery.
The first sorority is founded by 16 women at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. First named the Adelphians, they later became Alpha Delta Pi.
Antoinette Blackwell becomes the first American woman to be ordained a minister in a recognized denomination (Congregational).
Harriet Wilson becomes the first African-American novelist with the publication of Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.
A number of colleges for women are opened: Vassar (1865), in New York state; Wellesley (1875), Smith (1875), and Radcliffe (1893), in Massachusetts; Bryn Mawr (1885), in Pennsylvania; and Barnard (1889), in New York City. With Mount Holyoke, which became a college in 1893, they are known as the Seven Sisters.
The Civil War. An estimated 3,200 women served as volunteer nurses for the northern and southern armies.
Lucy Hobbs becomes the first woman to graduate from dental school, the Ohio College of Dental Surgery.
For the first time, the "Ladies Life" class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts allows women to draw from a nude model, as male artists have done for centuries.
On December 10, 1869, Wyoming becomes the first state to grant women the right to vote.
Arabella Mansfield is granted admission to practice law in Iowa, making her the first woman lawyer.
In Wyoming, for the first time in U.S. history, women are allowed to serve on a grand jury.
Ada H. Kepley, of Illinois, graduates from the Union College of Law in Chicago. She is the first woman lawyer to graduate from a law school.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull becomes the first woman presidential candidate in the United States when she is nominated by the National Radical Reformers.
Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to be admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earns her B.S. degree. She becomes the first female professional chemist in the nation.
The Philadelphia chapter of the YWCA hosts its first summer camp, a "vacation project" for girls who are tired out by working long hours.
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is founded to improve the morality of the nation, in particular by protesting alcoholic beverages.
Belva Ann Lockwood becomes the first woman admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mary Baker Eddy establishes the Church of Christ, Scientist, becoming the first woman to found a major religion, Christian Science.
Spelman College, the first college for black women in the United States, is founded in Atlanta, Georgia.
Nurse Clara Barton founds the American Red Cross. She worked for ten years to establish this foundation, which provides peacetime disaster relief as well as wartime assistance.
Sarah E. Goode becomes the first African-American woman to receive a patent, for a bed that folded up into a cabinet. Goode, who owned a furniture store in Chicago, intended the bed to be used in apartments.
Susanna Medora Salter becomes the first woman elected mayor of an American town, in Argonia, Kansas.
Bicycling becomes a health trend for women. It's not just the wheels that enable women to move more quickly and freely-bicycling helps spark the popularity of shorter skirts and looser, more comfortable clothing.
Louise Blanchard Bethune is the first woman to become a full member of the American Institute of Architects.
American journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who used the pen name Nellie Bly, completes a trip around the world in a record 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.
On March 22, the first women's college basketball game is played at Smith College.
Alice Guy Blaché, the first American woman film director, shoots the first of her more than 300 films, a short feature called La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy).
All-women orchestras, such as the Boston Fadette Lady Orchestra, become popular acts in American cities.
Mrs. H.H.A. Beach's “Gaelic Symphony” is the first symphony by a woman performed in the United States, and possibly the world.
The Women Lawyers' Association, a national group to promote the interest of women in the law, is formed.
On October 24, 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a schoolteacher from Michigan, becomes the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Schoolteacher Josephine "Jessie" Field Shambaugh, "the Mother of 4-H," starts the Girls Home Club in Page County, Iowa, to help girls learn practical skills. Ten years later, with her other venture, the Boys Corn Club, it evolved into 4-H.
The first U.S. postage stamp picturing an American woman is issued. Martha Washington appears on a lilac-colored eight-cent stamp.
Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," becomes the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
May 10th, the first Mother's Day celebrations in the United States take place in Philadelphia and in Grafton, West Virginia.
International Women's Day, a day to honor the world's working women is proclaimed.
Theda Bara, “The Vamp,” and Mary Pickford, “America's Sweetheart,” are some of the first stars of the silent screen. Pickford also founded her own studio and was a longtime producer.
The first Camp Fire Girls meetings, organized by Luther and Charlotte Gulick, are held in Vermont.
March 12, the first Girl Scouts troop in America is founded in Savannah, Georgia, by Juliette Gordon Low.
The influential editor Harriet Monroe founds Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which introduces American readers to such poets as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.
Mary Davenport-Engberg is the first woman to conduct a symphony orchestra, in Bellingham, Washington.
The American Medical Women's Association is formed to provide a voice and a network for women in medicine. At that time, women were barred from membership in the American Medical Association.
Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, is the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
U.S. involvement in World War I. About 10,000 U.S. women serve as nurses for the military.
In New York, African-American women such as Zora Neale Hurston, Helene Johnson, and Nella Larsen become literary figures in the period of flourishing arts that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.
The League of Women Voters is founded in Chicago.
On August 26, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, granting women the right to vote in national elections.
Working in a Greenwich Village basement, with the noise of a speakeasy overhead, Lila Acheson Wallace and her husband are the founders of the Reader's Digest. She serves as editor, manager, and art buyer for the magazine.
American novelist Edith Wharton becomes the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She wins the award for her novel The Age of Innocence.
Rebecca Felton of Georgia becomes the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. She is appointed by the governor of Georgia after the death of her husband. As the first woman senator, she serves for only two days.
Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming becomes the first female state governor
Florence Sabin, researcher of the origin of blood cells, becomes the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She is also the first woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School.
American Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
The silence of the screen is broken, as actors begin to speak. Actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich are among the first stars in the new “talkies.”
Christine Quintasket, also known as Mourning Dove, publishes what is probably the first novel by an American Indian woman: Cogewea, the Half Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range. It incorporates her observations of turn-of-the-century life on the Great Plains, including the last roundup of wild bison.
The World Association of Girls Scouts and Girl Guides is formed to bring together girls from more than 100 countries.
The first Academy Awards ceremony takes place in Hollywood, California. Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for her role in Seventh Heaven.
Maxine Dunlap becomes first American woman to earn a glider pilot license.
January 12, 1932 Hattie Caraway of Arkansas becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate after winning a special election to fill the remaining term of her late husband. In November 1932, she wins the election for a full term.
May 20, American aviator Amelia Earhart begins the first solo flight by a woman across the Atlantic Ocean. She takes a can of tomato juice and a thermos of soup for her 14-hour, 56-minute flight from Newfoundland to Ireland.
Frances Perkins is appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, making her the first woman member of a presidential cabinet.
Photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Alice Neel are some of the many artists who receive federal support for their art through New Deal programs.
On October 23, 1934, American adventurer Jeanette Piccard sets an altitude record for female balloonists when she ascends 57,579 feet.
Lettie Pate Whitehead becomes the first American woman to serve as a director of a major corporation, The Coca-Cola Company.
Becky Sharp is the first Technicolor film, with Miriam Hopkins in the title role.
January 11, American aviator Amelia Earhart begins her landmark flight across the Pacific Ocean. She is the first aviator to make that journey solo.
U.S. involvement in World War II. About 100,000 women serve as WACs (members of the Women's Army Corps) and about 86,000 as WAVEs (Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service). On the home front, more than 6 million women fill industrial jobs to help the war effort
The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) is established in the United States.
Thousands of women fill the new jobs created by World War II. “Rosie the Riveter” becomes a symbol of the glamorous and patriotic female factory worker. But when wartime ends, the Rosies are sent home-or back to the low-paying agricultural or domestic work they had done before the war.
Edith Houghton becomes the first woman hired as a first major-league baseball scout.
The Italian-born Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini is canonized as the first American saint.
The Ladies Professional Golf Association is founded in New York City.
The vivid and realistic short stories of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty bring female voices to the fertile tradition of Southern literature.
The Society of Women Engineers is founded in New Jersey. It strives to educate women about opportunities in engineering and to help women engineers reach their fullest potential.
Oveta Culp Hobby becomes the first woman to serve as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. She is also the first director of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and the first woman to receive the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal.
Jacqueline Cochran breaks the sound barrier by flying an F-86 over Roger's Dry Lake, California, at the speed of 652.337 miles per hour. Eleven years later, she flies at a speed of 1,429.2 miles per hour, more than twice the speed of sound.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a longtime activist with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), refuses to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, so that a white man could have it. Parks is arrested and the Montgomery black community launch a bus boycott that lasts for more than a year and becomes a turning point in the civil-rights movement. Rosa Parks Day is celebrated on December 1st.
Two years after its founders first met, La Leche League is officially founded to educate women about breastfeeding and its health benefits. During the 1950s and 1960s, breastfeeding went out of fashion in the United States.
Jerrie Cobb is the first woman in the U.S. to undergo astronaut testing. NASA, however, cancels the women's program in 1963. It is not until 1983 that an American woman—Dr. Sally K. Ride—is sent into space.
Liza Redfield is the first woman to conduct an orchestra on Broadway. She leads a 24-piece orchestra in The Music Man.
The Equal Pay Act makes it illegal for companies to pay different rates to women and men who do the same work.
The Presidential Commission on the status of women, appointed by President Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, releases a report that details inequalities faced by women. Kennedy follows with a presidential order demanding that the civil service make hiring decisions “solely on the basis of ability” and “without regard to sex.”
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race or sex. Never before had it been illegal for a company to refuse to hire or promote a woman just because of her sex. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is created to enforce the new law.
Margaret Chase Smith, of Maine, becomes the first woman nominated for president of the United States by a major political party, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco.
Patsy Takemoto Mink, of Hawaii, is the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress. She served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 24 years.
Althea Gibson is the first African-American tennis player to win a singles title at Wimbledon.
Muriel "Mickey" Siebert becomes the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and the first woman to head one of its member firms.
Shirley Chisholm of New York becomes the first African-American woman to serve in Congress. Her motto is, "Unbought and unbossed." She served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years.
Diane Crump becomes the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
Ms. Magazine is first published as a sample insert in New York magazine; 300,000 copies are sold out in 8 days. The first regular issue is published in July 1972.
The Association for Women in Mathematics is formed in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is organized in Chicago. They work to promote and support women's involvement in these fields.
Women dominate the 1971 Grammy Awards, taking all four top categories. Carole King won Record, Album and Song of the Year, while Carly Simon takes the Best New Artist award.
Sally Jean Priesand is ordained as the first woman rabbi in the United States.
Juanita Kreps becomes the first woman director of the New York Stock Exchange. She later becomes the first woman appointed Secretary of Commerce.
The Boston Women's Health Book Collective publishes the first edition of their groundbreaking book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Singer Patsy Cline becomes the first woman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Two groundbreaking organizations are formed to improve conditions in secretarial work, a mostly female field: 9 to 5, in Boston, and Women Employed, in Chicago. As in traditional labor unions, members worked for better wages and job security. But they also used the media to reveal the disrespect faced by many female office workers. For instance, when women were fired for refusing to make coffee or run personal errands for their bosses, the groups organized pickets to publicize the insulting treatment.
Women from such labor unions as the United Auto Workers come together to found the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW). CLUW helped give voice to women and the problems they faced within their various unions. It also helped women to achieve recognition as a significant force within the labor movement as a whole.
Elizabeth Ann Seton is canonized, making her the first American-born saint.
Women are permitted to enroll in the U.S. military academies for the first time.
Sarah Caldwell becomes the first woman to conduct at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.
Azie Taylor Morton, the first African-American woman to serve as treasurer of the United States, takes office.
The youth organization Big Brothers of America introduces its girls' program, Big Sisters of America.
Sandra Day O'Connor is appointed by President Reagan to the Supreme Court, making her its first woman justice.
Ellen Taafe Zwilich becomes the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, for Three Movements for Orchestra.
June 18, Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut to travel in space, begins a six-day mission aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
Geraldine Ferraro, a Democratic congresswoman from Queens, New York, becomes the first woman nominated by a major political party as candidate for vice president.
Penny Harrington becomes the first female police chief of a major U.S. city (Portland, Oregon).
Wilma Mankiller becomes the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Ann Bancroft of Minnesota becomes the first woman to walk to the North Pole.
National Museum for Women in the Arts opens in Washington, DC.
Singer Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
First celebration of women's history month, a month-long national celebration in the United States
On November 6, 1987, Tania Aebi returns to New York after sailing solo around the world for 27 months. She is the first American woman and the youngest person ever to do so.
In Boston, the Reverend Barbara C. Harris becomes the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, becomes the first Hispanic woman elected to congress. She serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dr. Antonia Novello is sworn in as U.S. Surgeon General, becoming the first woman (and first Hispanic) to hold that job.
On January 2, Sharon Pratt Dixon is sworn in as mayor of Washington, DC, becoming the first black woman to serve as mayor of a major city.
Carol Moseley-Braun, of Illinois, becomes the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Mona Van Duyn is the first woman to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States. (The national Poet Laureate is appointed by the Library of Congress each year and works to increase the public's appreciation of poetry.)
Toni Morrison becomes the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Janet Reno is confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Attorney General, becoming the first woman to hold that job.
Sheila Widnall becomes the first secretary of a branch of the U.S. military when she is appointed to head the Air Force.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove is named the Poet Laureate of the United States. She is the youngest person and the first African American in the position.
Madeleine Albright is sworn in as U.S. secretary of state. She is the first woman in this position as well as the highest-ranking woman in the United States government.
The Lilith Fair, an all-female music tour, becomes one of the most successful musical events of the year.
Lt. Colonel Eileen Collins is the first woman astronaut to command a space shuttle mission. Collins had also been the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, in 1995.
Nancy Ruth Mace is the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, the formerly all-male military school in South Carolina.
Condoleezza Rice is the first woman to serve as national security adviser.
Halle Berry becomes the first African American to win a Best Actress Academy Award, for her role in Monster's Ball.
Condoleezza Rice becomes the first African-American female Secretary of State.
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