Famous Female Firsts (That Aren’t So Famous)

November 3, 2020

Here are the stories of some women who broke down barriers and literally changed the world.

  • Hannah Slater received a patent in 1793 for a new type of cotton thread that made textile manufacture simpler and faster. That enabled her husband to develop a textile business, but Slater goes down in history as the first American woman to receive a U.S. patent.


  • Elizabeth Blackwell was among the first women to attend medical school in the Americas, but she made her impact felt. She graduated first in her class at Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849, and upon doing so became the first licensed medical doctor in the U.S.


  • When her husband died of typhoid in 1888, Marie Owens had to find a job to support her five kids, and the Chicago Department of Health hired her to enforce child labor regulations. She was so good at busting violators that the city moved her over to the Chicago Police Department. Detective Sergeant Owens was the first American female police officer, a job she held for more than 30 years.

  • In 1928, there was a vacancy in the U.S. Customs Court, and President Calvin Coolidge filled the federal position with


  • Genevieve Rose Cline, who previously served as a merchandise appraiser at the port of Coe eland for the United States Treasury. Cline was the first female federal judge, and she heard cases for more than two decades.


  • Distance runner Arlene Pieper wanted to challenge herself by running the Boston Marathon in 1959…which didn’t allow female competitors. Instead, she ran the Pikes Peak Marathon and finished in just about nine hours. It wasn’t until 2009 — 50 years later — that Pieper learned she was the first woman to ever complete a marathon.


  • While the 1960s “space race” between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. would ultimately be won when American astronauts landed on the moon, the Soviet Union scored some milestone moments. In 1963, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew the Vostok 6 spacecraft and became the first woman to orbit the planet. To date, Tereshkova’s trip is the only solo female orbit in history.


  • After a ten year stint as the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Bradley University, Lisa Boyer turned pro, taking an assistant job with the Cleveland Rockers of the WNBA in 1998. In 2001, she concurrently joined the coaching staff of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first woman to help lead a team in the all-male NBA.

For more little-known stories of remarkable, pioneering, and trailblazing women, explore Sarah Herman’s Who Knew? Women in History, now available from Portable Press.

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