12 Female Firsts from American History for Women’s History Month

American History, Women and the Law, Women's Studies
Tara Kibler

Women’s History Month has been observed since the 1980s as a way to highlight the contributions of women to society over the years. Let’s do just that with HeinOnline’s Women and the Law database by taking a look at some of the most notable “female firsts” in U.S. history.


WOMEN AND THE LAW

HeinOnline is pleased to offer Women and the Law (Peggy), a database that brings together thousands of books, biographies, and periodicals that allow users to research the progression of women’s rights over the past 200 years. Discover primary legal and political sources as well as secondary scholarly analysis of issues such as abortion, women in the workforce, the education of women, women’s suffrage, and more.

Affectionately nicknamed for the mother of Hein’s CEO (Margaret “Peggy” Marmion), this database also includes more than 70 titles from Emory University Law School’s Feminism and Legal Theory Project, which provides a platform to view the effect of law and culture on the female gender.



1. Margaret Brent: First Woman to Demand the Right to Vote (1647)

In the 1640s, civil war in England had reached the empire’s colonies in the New World. In need of assistance, Governor Leonard Calvert of Maryland recruited mercenaries for hire. He fell ill and died before paying them, but not before naming Margaret Brent, his sister-in-law, as the executrix of his will. In the chaos after Calvert’s death, Brent was further appointed attorney-in-fact for Lord Baltimore, proprietor of the province of Maryland, because he could not be reached quickly enough in England.

As Lord Baltimore’s representative, Brent attended the Maryland General Assembly and used her newfound authority to request not only a voice, but two votes in its proceedings—one as Lord Baltimore’s attorney, and one as an independent landowner. Though her petition was denied, it was the first time a woman had requested the right to vote in the American colonies.


2. Margaret Corbin: One of the First Female American Soldiers (1776)

Over the years, colonists grew increasingly discontented with British rule, culminating in the American Revolutionary War. On November 16, 1776, hundreds of American soldiers were defending Fort Washington (situated on the highest point of the island of Manhattan). Margaret Corbin had accompanied her husband to the battle as a “camp follower,” aiding the cause by nursing the wounded. When her husband was killed while in charge of a cannon, Margaret immediately took his place as the gunner, making her one of the first women to fight in an American war.

The damage to her arm, chest, and jaw affected Margaret for the rest of her life, leaving her effectively disabled. She was therefore also the first woman to receive a military pension from Congress.


4. Elizabeth Blackwell: First Woman to Earn a Medical Degree (1849)

Elizabeth Blackwell initially hated the idea of studying medicine, but when a dying friend expressed that her suffering might have been lessened with a female doctor, Blackwell was moved. She later resolved to become one, but was met with resistance at nearly every turn. After applying to more than a dozen schools with no luck (rejected often on the premise that women were intellectually inferior), she was finally accepted to Geneva Medical College—though only because the 150 male students in the school’s current class voted unanimously in favor of her attendance. In 1849, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.


3. Harriet Tubman: First Woman to Lead an Armed Assault in the Civil War (1863)

Many know Harriet Tubman as an anti-slavery activist who led slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad. What some may not remember is that she also served as a scout, spy, adviser, and troop leader during the Civil War. For months, she volunteered during the war to cook, wash, and nurse until her knack for intel and covert operations became clear.

By the end of the war, she had performed reconnaissance with a group of scouts in South Carolina, provided key strategic information to Colonel James Montgomery, and led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River (rescuing a total of more than 750 slaves).


5. Arabella Mansfield: First Female Lawyer (1869)

As the American Civil War began, men flooded from universities to the front, leaving institutions of higher learning more likely to accept female students and teachers. In 1862, Arabella Mansfield began studying at Iowa Wesleyan College, and in three years graduated as valedictorian. Her brother, who graduated in the same class, soon started a law practice and Arabella worked there as his apprentice, spending much of the time reading law. In 1869, she decided to take the bar exam, challenging Iowa’s bar restriction to “males over 21.” She was ultimately able to take the exam, and passed it with high scores, effectively becoming the United States’ first female lawyer.


6. Victoria Woodhull: First Woman to Run for President, and More (1869)

Eloquent, charismatic, and a notorious risk-taker, Victoria Woodhull actually boasts a litany of firsts as an American woman. In 1869, she attended a women’s suffrage convention, grew passionate about the cause, and became the first woman to address a congressional committee, arguing for suffrage in front of the House Judiciary. A year later, backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Woodhull and her sister became the first women stockbrokers and first female founders of a Wall Street brokerage firm. In the same year, she also became the first woman to start a weekly newspaper, which evolved quickly into a radical forum for social reform.

Then, two months after opening her firm on Wall Street, Woodhull announced her intention to run for president of the United States, at a time when she couldn’t have even cast a vote for herself. Her platform included women’s suffrage, welfare for the poor, and free love, among other progressive issues. Unfortunately, women’s rights aside, her candidacy was illegitimate because she was younger than the constitutionally-defined age of 35. She did not end up receiving any votes (electoral or popular), and actually spent Election Day in jail on charges of spreading libel and obscenity in her newspaper.


7. Margaret Sanger: First to Open a Birth Control Clinic (1916)

At a time when women’s healthcare and, specifically, reproduction were taboo topics, Margaret Sanger became a sex educator, birth control advocate, and activist toward reproductive rights. Having herself grown up in poverty in a family of thirteen, Sanger came to believe that family size, women’s health, and women’s poverty were undeniably linked—and controlling family size was the answer. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic, only to be arrested days later. She continued her work after her release, but was arrested at least eight times throughout her entire career for her views about contraception. Sanger’s work led her to help found the organizations that would ultimately evolve into Planned Parenthood.


8. Jeannette Rankin: First Woman Elected to Congress (1916)

In the late 1800s, few would have believed that a young girl born on a ranch in Montana would make history in Washington, D.C. Jeannette Rankin left the farm life at 27, found a passion in social work, and became involved in the women’s suffrage movement that was sweeping the nation, even in Montana. In 1916, four years before the Nineteenth Amendment allowed all women to vote, Rankin then campaigned for a seat in the House of Representatives. Soon after the beginning of her term, President Woodrow Wilson requested that Congress declare war on Germany and enter into World War I. A lifelong pacifist, Rankin cast an opposing vote. She would do the same in 1941, casting the only opposing vote against America’s declaration of war on Japan and entry into World War II.


9. Nellie Tayloe Ross: First Elected Female Governor (1925)

In 1924, Governor William Ross of Wyoming died after a year and a half into his first term. His widow, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was chosen by the Democratic Party to run for governor in the upcoming special election. Though she refused to campaign, Nellie won the race. She became the first female governor in American history on January 5, 1925, and would make herself known as an advocate for women, children, and the poor. Following her time in office, she later became the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee and was appointed the first female director of the U.S. Mint by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.


10. Hattie Caraway: First Woman Elected to the Senate (1933)

In 1931, Hattie Caraway was similarly appointed to take over her husbands’ place when he died while in the office of Arkansas senator. However, once Caraway’s temporary term was up, she announced that “[t]he time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.” She ran for a full term in the next election, and won. Caraway became known for her reserve on the floor, which gave her a reputation of honesty and sincerity, as well as the nickname “Silent Hattie.”


11. Susan B. Anthony: First Woman Depicted on a Coin (1979)

Well-known for her work toward women’s suffrage in the late 1800s, Susan B. Anthony was not well-received by the country during much of her lifetime as her views were seen as a threat to the institution of marriage. Over time, as the suffrage movement grew, public perception about her changed; by her 80th birthday in 1900, Anthony was invited by President William McKinley to celebrate at the White House. Decades later, in 1979, her work was further commemorated when she became the first American woman to appear on U.S. coinage.


12. Sandra Day O’Connor: First Female Supreme Court Justice (1981)

Growing up, Sandra Day O’Connor was unafraid of breaking tradition. She graduated from high school two years early, and entered Stanford University at the age of 16. She did the same in law school, completing her degree at Stanford Law in two years instead of three. Then, in the ’70s, she served as the first female majority leader in a state senate. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated her as the first female justice to serve on the Supreme Court. Expected to vote on conservative lines at the time of her appointment, O’Connor proved to be an unpredictable voter, at times providing the swing vote in more divisive cases.


In addition to these historical “firsts,” the following achievements have also been made by women in recent years:

  • 1983: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space
  • 1984: Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for Vice President
  • 1993: Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States
  • 1997:
    • Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State
    • Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the first American woman elected as the head of government, the head of state, and the commander-in-chief of a nation (Guyana)
  • 1999: Carly Fiorina, first woman to lead a Fortune Top-20 company as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP).
  • 2007: Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • 2008: Sarah Palin, the first female vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
  • 2016:
    • Carla Hayden, the first female Librarian of Congress
    • Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign
    • Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win the popular vote in a U.S. presidential election
  • 2020: Jo Jorgensen, the first female presidential nominee for the Libertarian party
  • 2021: Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President of the United States

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