Break the Ceiling! A History of Women’s Firsts

No matter the talent, no matter the industry, the odds have always been stacked against women.

That’s why today we’re celebrating – in chronological order – 8 women who first broke the barriers to become pioneers, conquerors, and heroes for us all.

1905 – Baroness Bertha von Suttner

First woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize

Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner came from a militaristic background, but championed peace throughout her lifetime. It is believed that Suttner was a strong inspiration for Alfred Nobel’s decision to include a peace prize among the prizes listed in his will; a prize she would receive in 1905.

As tension mounted in Europe, Suttner counselled against international armament, before succumbing to cancer on June 21st, 1914, mere weeks before the beginning of World War I.

1919 – Madam C. J. Walker

First woman to become a self-made millionaire

02 - Madam C.J. Walker

A keen entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, Sarah Breedlove – better known as Madam C. J. Walker – was worth $600,000 (approximately $8 million in today’s economy) by her death in 1919.

The money primarily came from Walker’s line of makeup and hair products targeted at black women, who at the time commonly suffered from hair loss and skin disorders due to a range of environmental factors.

1921 – Edith Wharton

First woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Age of Innocence)

03 - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was her twelfth novel. Combining brilliant wit and insight with first-hand knowledge of life in the ‘upper-class’, it defined Wharton as one of the defining authors of her time, even though she did not start publishing her work until the age of 40.

She almost didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize that year; the judges initially selected Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. The decision was overthrown by the advisory board, however, and the rest is history.

1960 – Sirimavo Bandaranaike

First woman to become head of state in the modern world

04 - Sirimavo Bandarainake

Sirimavo Bandaranaike served three terms as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka in 1960-1965, 1970-1977, and 1994-2000, the year of her death.

Ever the politician, Bandaranaike inspired her children to follow in her footsteps, but was known to set them against each other in order to keep control of her political party. Eventually, she was beaten by her daughter, Chandrika, who was elected to the newly-implemented role of President.

1972 – Katharine Graham

First woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Washington Post)

05 - Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham’s father bought the Washington Post in 1933, but it was she who ran it through its most famous period following the exposure of the Watergate scandal that saw Richard Nixon resign from the presidency.

Graham almost missed the opportunity to run the company: her father handed the newspaper over to her abusive, alcoholic husband. It was only after his death that she was granted a significant position.

1987 – Aretha Franklin

First woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

06 - Aretha Franklin

The Queen of Soul charted 112 songs on Billboard over her career, establishing her as the most charted woman in history. Add that statistic to a list of achievements that also includes 18 Grammy awards and being listed as the best singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, and it’s no wonder that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decided to show her some R-E-S-P-E-C-T by inducting her in 1987.

At age 73, Franklin is still occasionally touring in the US.

2005 – Ruchi Sanghvi

First woman to be employed as an engineer for Facebook

07 - Ruchi Sanghvi

Born and raised in India, Ruchi Sanghvi studied business in the US, after which she planned to work for her father’s company.

Eventually, she and her boyfriend decided to move to Silicon Valley, where they both ended up working for Facebook, where Sanghvi was one of the early programmers developing the News Feed.

In 2011, she started her own company, Cove. It was bought out by Dropbox in 2012, and Sanghvi went on to become their VP of Operations.

2010 – Kathryn Bigelow

First woman to win a Director’s Guild Award/BAFTA/Critic’s Choice Award/Academy Award for Best Directing

08 - Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow’s main competition for Best Director at the 2010 Academy Awards was none other than cinematic icon – and ex-husband – James Cameron. So as brilliant as The Hurt Locker was, few expected her to leave with the award.

Not only did Bigelow win Best Director, The Hurt Locker beat out Cameron’s $237 million 3D epic Avatar for best film. To call the victory momentous is an understatement.

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