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Firsts for American Women

Women who broke barriers in politics, business and social movements

The firsts for women in the United States on this list start in the early 19th century. The most recent ones happened in just 2021.

Key Takeaways

  • In the 19th century, women began to break into previously all-male professions, such as medicine and law, and made some early forays into politics.
  • Advances in the 20th century included House and Senate seats (some to women of color), a Cabinet appointment, and leading roles in the desegregation and labor movements.
  • In the first decades of the 21st century, women have assumed notable leadership roles in the federal government and financial sectors.

1809 Patents

Mary Kies becomes the first woman to receive a patent, for a method of weaving straw with silk. 

1849 Medicine

The first female doctor in the U.S., Elizabeth Blackwell, graduates from Geneva Medical College in New York. Blackwell went on to found the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, along with an affiliated medical college for women. The infirmary helped expand medical training to women and medical care to the poor.

1864 Medicine

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first African American woman to be a physician in the United States, graduates from the New England Female Medical College. Crumpler relocated to Richmond, Va., after the Civil War, where she worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau on the health needs of recently freed slaves. Crumpler later wrote the first medical text by an African American author.

1869 Law

Arabella Mansfield is the first woman admitted to the practice of law in the U.S., in Iowa. Also, Ada H. Kepley becomes the first woman in the United States to graduate from law school.

1872 Presidential Candidate

The first female presidential candidate in the U.S., Victoria Claflin Woodhull, is nominated by the National Radical Reformers party.

1887 Mayor

Susanna Medora Salter becomes the first woman elected mayor of an American town, in Argonia, Kan.

1889 Medicine

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte becomes the first Native American physician in the United States, graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania as valedictorian. Picotte later opened a hospital in the Omaha Reservation town of Walthill, Neb.

1916 Congress

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

1932 Senate, Aviation

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

Amelia Earhart flies solo across the Atlantic.

1933 Cabinet

The first female Cabinet member, Frances Perkins, is appointed secretary of labor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins helped enact a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and a limit on employment of children. Perkins also played a role in drafting the Social Security Act.

1955 Bus Desegregation

In March, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refuses to move to the back of a bus in Birmingham, Ala. Colvin became one of the plaintiffs in the first federal court case to challenge bus segregation. Later that same year, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus to a White man in Montgomery, Ala. Her protest sparked the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended segregation on buses. 

1962 Labor Organizing

Dolores Huerta cofounds the National Farm Workers Association with César Chávez, playing a key role in organizing the 1965 strike of 5,000 grape workers. Huerta championed women’s issues and worked to elect more Latinos and women to political office during the 1990s and 2000s.

1964 Congress

Patsy Mink becomes the first woman of color in Congress, representing Hawaii. Mink was one of the principal authors of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the landmark legislation that prohibits gender discrimination in education.

1967 Stock Exchange

Muriel Siebert is the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Siebert was later selected to become New York’s first female superintendent of banking in 1977.

1968 Congress

Shirley Chisholm is the first Black woman elected to Congress. Representing New York for 14 years, Chisholm advocated for early education and child welfare policies. 

1972 Fortune 500 Company

Katharine Graham becomes the first woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the Washington Post Company. Graham had been president of the company, which was owned by her family, since the death of her husband in 1963 and ran it until 1991. She was in charge when The Washington Post published articles based on information from the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and when Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate conspiracy in 1972.

1980 Senate

Paula Hawkins of Florida, a Republican, becomes the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate without following her husband or father into the job. Hawkins was the leading sponsor of the Missing Children’s Act of 1982 and fought for laws to make it easier for women to enter the job market. 

1981 Supreme Court

Sandra Day O’Connor is appointed as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The court overturned state laws designating a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife. It also ruled that excluding women from the draft is constitutional.

1984 Vice Presidential Candidate

U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., becomes the first woman to be nominated to be vice president on a major-party ticket.

1989 Congress

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida becomes the first Latina and Cuban American to serve in Congress. A moderate Republican, Ros-Lehtinen was the first female to chair a standing committee, the Committee on Foreign Affairs. In her 30-year political career, she was a member of the LGBT Equality Caucus, the Climate Solutions Caucus, and the Congressional Pro-Life Women’s Caucus. 

1997 Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, becomes the first female secretary of state.

2007 Congress

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., becomes the first female speaker of the House.

2009 First Lady, Supreme Court

Michelle Obama becomes the first Black first lady of the United States. Then-President Barack Obama appoints Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina Supreme Court judge. Sotomayor has built a reputation as an advocate for criminal justice reform and women’s rights. 

2014 Federal Reserve 

Economist Janet Yellen became the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve System. (See 2021 for her current first.)

2016 Presidential Candidate

Hillary Rodham Clinton secures the Democratic presidential nomination, becoming the first U.S. woman to lead the ticket of a major party. She loses to Republican Donald Trump in the election.

2018 Stock Exchange

Banker Stacey Cunningham becomes the first female president of the New York Stock Exchange. 

2021 Vice President

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is the first woman, the first Black American, and the first person of South Asian descent to be vice president of the United States. Before the U.S. Senate, she served as attorney general of California.

2021 Cabinet of Firsts

The Biden administration has appointed a historically diverse group of Americans to the Cabinet and other key posts, including:

  • Janet Yellen, Treasury Secretary
  • Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence
  • Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Defense Secretary
  • Neera Tanden, Director of the Office of Management and Budget
  • Deb Haaland, Interior Secretary and the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Cabinet

All but Tanden (who withdrew her nomination) were approved by the Senate and took office. Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, became the first first lady to keep her day job.

Who Was the First American Woman to Become a Doctor?

Dr, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the U.S. to become a doctor in 1949. After graduating from the Geneva Medial College in New York, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in addition to an adjacent medical college for women.

In 1864, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler became the first Black American woman physician and first Black American author of a medical text.

Who Was the First American Woman in Politics?

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first woman presidential candidate in 1872. Woodhull, who championed women's suffrage, was nominated by the National Radical Reformers party. Prior to the nomination, Woodhull co-founded a women's rights magazine along with founding a stockbrokerage firm with her sister. The firm was backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt.

In 1887, Susanna Medora Salter became the first woman mayor in the U.S., in Argonia, Kan.

Later, the first woman in congress becomes Jeannette Rankin, who was elected into the U.S. House of Representatives for Montana in 1913. The first woman in the senate was Hattie Wyatt in 1932.

Who Was the First American Woman CEO of a Fortune 500 Company?

In 1972, Katherine Graham became the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. As CEO of The Washington Post, Graham oversaw coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Graham ran the Post until 1991.

Article Sources

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  1. U.S. News. “Stepping Through History: A Timeline of Women’s Rights.” 

  2. Physician Sense. “5 Trailblazing Female Doctors.”

  3. U.S. News. “Stepping Through History: A Timeline of Women's Rights.

  4. Smithsonian. “Decade by Decade: Major Events in Women’s History.”

  5. Brittanica. “Frances Perkins.”

  6. Teen Vogue. “Black Women in History.”

  7. National Women's History Museum. "Dolores Huerta."

  8. U.S. Department of Education. "Title IX and Sex Discrimination."

  9. Teen Vogue. “4 Asian-American Women Who Changed History.”

  10. Women’s History. “Muriel Siebert.”

  11. The Washington Post. "Katharine Graham."

  12. The New York Times. “Paula Hawkins, 82, Florida Ex-Senator, Dies.”

  13. Biography. “Sonia Sotomayor and 9 Other Latina Pioneers.

  14. Britannica. “Madeleine Albright.”

  15. Biography. “Sonia Sotomayor and 9 Other Latina Pioneers.”

  16. Treasury. “Janet Yellen.”

  17. Britannica. “Hillary Clinton.”

  18. The Wall Street Journal. ”New York Stock Exchange to Have First Female Leader in 226-Year History.”

  19. Britannica. “Kamala Harris.”

  20. People. “The Historic Firsts in President Joe Biden’s Administration.” Accessed March 1, 2021.

  21. Britannica. "Victoria Woodhull."