Famous Firsts by American Women, 1901–Present

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Here is a timeline about famous firsts by American women. This information includes such notable figures as the first published author in 1650 (Anne Bradstreet), to Elizabeth Blackwell receiving her medical degree in 1849, to astronaut Dr. Peggy Whitson, who became the commander of the International Space Station in 2007. We also include the 2008 elections during which Senator Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire presidential primary, the first woman to do so, and Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin became the first female vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.

1587–1900 | 1901–present

On October 24, 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a schoolteacher from Michigan, becomes the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.


Mary Davenport-Engberg is the first woman to conduct a symphony orchestra, in Bellingham, Washington.


Jeannette Rankin, of Montana, is the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.


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, is appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill a temporary vacancy. The first woman senator, she serves for only two days.


Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman to serve as governor of a state, in Wyoming. In the fall of 1924 she was elected to succeed her deceased husband, William Bradford Ross. (Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson is inaugurated governor of Texas days later.)


American Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel.


Maxine Dunlap becomes first American woman to earn a glider pilot license.

1932 Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, traveling from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, to Ireland in approximately 15 hours.

Hattie Wyatt Caraway, of Arkansas, becomes the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate.


Frances Perkins is appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, making her the first woman member of a presidential cabinet.


Lettie Pate Whitehead becomes the first American woman to serve as a director of a major corporation, The Coca-Cola Company.

On October 23, 1934, American adventurer Jeanette Piccard sets an altitude record for female balloonists when she ascends 57,579 feet.


Mother Maria Frances Cabrini (1850-1917) is canonized by Pope Pius XII. She is the first U.S. citizen (she was born in Italy) to become a saint.

Edith Houghton becomes the first woman hired as a first major-league baseball scout.


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 gets sent into space.


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.


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.


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.

Althea Gibson is the first African-American tennis player to win a singles title at Wimbledon.


Shirley Chisholm, of New York, becomes the first African-American woman in Congress. Her motto is, "Unbought and unbossed." She served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years.

Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) becomes the first black woman U.S. Representative.


Diane Crump becomes the first female jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby.


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. In 1977 she became the first woman appointed Secretary of Commerce.


Elizabeth Ann Seton is canonized, making her the first American-born saint.


Sarah Caldwell becomes the first woman to conduct at New York's Metropolitan Opera House.

1981 Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor is appointed by President Reagan to the Supreme Court, making her its first woman justice.

1983 Sally Ride

Dr. Sally K. Ride becomes the first American woman to be sent into space.


Geraldine Ferraro is the first woman to run for vice-president on a major party ticket.


Wilma Mankiller becomes the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.


Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, becomes the first Hispanic woman elected to congress. She serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In Boston, the Reverend Barbara C. Harris becomes the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.


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.

Mae Jemison becomes the first black female astronaut.


Shiela Widnall becomes the first secretary of a branch of the U.S. military when she is appointed to head the Air Force.

Janet Reno becomes the first woman U.S. attorney general.

Toni Morrison becomes the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

1997 Madeleine Albright

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.


During Operation Desert Fox in Iraq, Lt. Kendra Williams, USN, becomes the first U.S. female combat pilot to bomb an enemy target.


Lt. Col. Eileen Collins is the first woman astronaut to command a space shuttle mission.

Nancy Ruth Mace is the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, the formerly all-male military school in South Carolina.


Hillary Clinton is elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first First Lady ever elected to national office.


Condoleeza Rice becomes the first African-American female Secretary of State.


Effa Manley, co-owner of the Negro Leagues team Newark Eagles, becomes the first woman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.


Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) becomes the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Harvard University names Drew Gilpin Faust its first woman president in the school’s 371-year history.

Dr. Peggy Whitson, an American astronaut, becomes the first woman to command the International Space Station.


Hillary Clinton wins the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to win a presidential primary contest.

Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, becomes the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican ticket.


On February 9, the first African American female flight crew took their historic flight, having come together accidentally when the scheduled first officer called in sick. Captain Rachelle Jones, first officer Stephanie Grant, and flight attendants Diana Galloway and Robin Rogers flew together on an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight from Atlanta to Nashville.

Kathryn Bigelow

Source: John Shearer/Invision/AP

In February, Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman ever to win an Academy Award as best director. She claimed the Oscar for her 2009 Iraq War movie The Hurt Locker.


In January, the Senate confirms Janet Yellen as the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve Board. She is the first woman to hold the position.


In April, the NFL announces the hiring of the league's first female full-time official, Sarah Thomas. She makes her debut in a preseason game between the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs on August 15, 2015.

In July, the Arizona Cardinals hires Jennifer Welter as an assistant coaching intern for the team's training camp and preseason. She'll coach inside linebackers. She's the first woman coach in the NFL.


On July 26, 2016, on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Rodham Clinton makes history when she secures the presidential nomination, becoming the first U.S. woman to lead the ticket of a major party.

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