A few years ago I published random facts arranged chronologically about the progress of women through the years. In anticipation of International Women’s Day on Monday, today’s post offers fun facts about women’s firsts.
The year 2020 gave cause for celebration as Kamala Harris became the first female Vice President in the USA. The daughter of a Jamaican American father and Indian American mother, Ms. Harris is also the first Black woman and the first Asian American to occupy the position. “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she declared.
In 1805 Sacagawea, of the Shoshone tribe, became the first and only woman to accompany Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest. She acted as an interpreter, negotiator of supplies and guide.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), “The Lady With the Lamp”, was a British nurse, social reformer and statistician, best known as the founder of modern nursing.
In Paris in 1900, Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic tennis champion, as well as the first individual female Olympic champion.
In 1903 Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel (for the discovery of radioactivity). In 1911 she alone won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (for the isolation of radium). The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she is also the only woman to win the award in two different fields.
In 1918 Sara Teasdale won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: Love Songs. In 1921 Edith Wharton won it for Fiction: The Age of Innocence. (Martin Scorsese adapts this novel brilliantly in his 1993 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer.)
Amelia Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane in 1932, completing the trip in a record time of 14 hours 56 minutes. She was also the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California in 1935.
At the first Grammy Awards in 1958, Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song”, picked up her first two (of 14) Grammys — and made history as the first African American woman to win the award — for best individual jazz performance and best female vocal performance for two song book projects: Ella singing Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin, respectively. (Of eight song books, my favourite is her first: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book.)
In 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was the first elected female prime minister (head of government) of a sovereign country. She served three terms as PM between 1960 and 2000, for a total of 17 years.
Katharine Graham presided over The Washington Post from 1963-91 and in 1972 became the first female Fortune 500 CEO.
In 1984 Barbra Streisand became the first woman to win a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, for Yentl. (On February 28, 2021 Chloé Zhao became the second — and first Asian — woman to win for Nomadland.) It took until 2010 for a woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow took home the Oscar for The Hurt Locker. She was also the first woman to receive awards for direction from the Directors Guild of America, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice.
Jeanne Mathilde Sauvé served as Governor General of Canada from 1984-90, the first woman and the 23rd G-G since Canadian Confederation in 1867.
Oprah Winfrey became the first woman to own and produce her own TV talk show in 1986 and is now deemed one of the most influential women in America.
In 1987 Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Established in 1983 by a group of leading figures in the music industry, the nonprofit Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation began inducting honorees in 1986. The Foundation opened the doors of its physical museum in 1995 in Cleveland, where disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term “rock and roll” in the ’50s.)
Julie Taymor won a Tony Award in 1998 for Best Director of a Musical, “The Lion King”, a superb production we delighted in seeing 20 years ago at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.
Please share your favourite firsts for women in the comments below. •
P.S. Janyne Hodder was the first woman to be appointed head of a Quebec university when she became Principal of Bishop’s University in 1995.
P.P.S. In 1974 I was the first Albertan (maybe) to be crowned Demolition Derby Queen in Kamloops BC.