Amazing Achievements by Women Every Year for the Last 40 Years
Meet the incredible ladies who paved the way for future generations.
Women may have won the right to vote in 1920, the right to serve alongside men in the military in 1948, and the right to equal pay in 1963—but the past 40 years have been just as influential when it comes to women’s achievements.
Since 1978, women have launched into space, released some of the most popular music of all time, and made lasting impacts on our judicial system. In honor of history’s most extraordinary ladies, we’ve rounded up some of the amazing achievements women have made every year for the past four decades.
1978: Mary Clarke becomes the first woman promoted to major general in the U.S. Army.
Mary Clarke was the first woman to ever attain the rank of major general in the U.S. Army in 1978.
She first enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps at age 20, right before the end of World War II, according to the Army’s history website. Prior to making history, Clarke served as the last director of the Women’s Army Corps for three years until the service was dissolved and women were integrated into the standard army forces.
By the time she retired in 1981, Clarke had served in the U.S. Army for 36 years—the longest service of any woman at the time, according to the New York State Senate’s Women of Distinction Exhibit.
1979: Susan B. Anthony is the first woman honored on an American coin.
Women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony was the first woman ever to appear on a U.S. circulating coin in 1979. President Jimmy Carter signed the Susan B. Anthony Dollar Coin Act into law in 1978 and Anthony’s coins were minted the following year, replacing the dollar coins featuring former President Dwight Eisenhower. The honor came more than 70 years after Anthony’s death.
1980: Women’s History Week is officially recognized.
Before there was an entire month dedicated to women’s history, women were fighting to get a week of recognition. The first unofficial Women’s History Week was celebrated in 1978 by a school district in Sonoma, California.
Following numerous unofficial celebrations and lobbying led by the National Women’s History Project, President Carter issued a presidential proclamation in 1980 to officially recognize the week of March 8 as Women’s History Week. In 1987, the proclamation was amended to designate the entire month of March as Women’s History Month.
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first female Supreme Court Justice.
Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 and served as Assistant Attorney General of Arizona until 1969. Following years of work as a state senator and a judge, O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. There had been 101 justices appointed to the Court before her—all of them men. O’Connor served until her retirement in 2006.
1982: Alice Walker becomes the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
In 1982, Alice Walker released The Color Purple, one of the most influential works in modern literary history. The novel quickly became a best seller and Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, becoming the first black woman to earn that honor. Since its release, the book has sold more than five million copies and was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg, as well as a hit Broadway musical.
1983: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
Sally Ride was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1978, the same year she earned her doctorate in physics from Stanford University. It was also the first year NASA had accepted women into its class. By 1979, Ride had finished her astronaut training and was eligible for assignment, according to NASA.
In 1983, she was delegated to mission STS-7 on the space shuttle Challenger. When the Challenger launched into the stratosphere on April 4, 1983, Ride became the first American woman to go to space. (The first woman ever in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.)
1984: Joan Benoit wins the first women’s Olympic marathon.
Until 1984, the Olympic Games did not feature a women’s marathon event. Men’s marathon races, however, had been featured since 1896. Some 90 years later, the first women’s marathon was held at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. The race included 50 competitors from 28 countries. Joan Benoit of the United States finished the race in first place and took home the gold medal.
1985: Penny Harrington becomes the first female police chief of a major U.S. city.
Penny Harrington’s 1985 appointment as the chief of the Portland Police Bureau made her the first woman to ever head a major police department in the United States.
Harrington started her police career in 1964, nearly 20 years before becoming chief. Unfortunately, she was pushed out of her role after just 18 months. But Harrington went on to create the National Center for Women & Policing, an organization dedicated to bringing more women into the police force and helping them gain promotions within it.
1986: Ann Bancroft is the first woman to complete a trek to the North Pole.
At the age of 29, Ann Bancroft of Scandia, Minnesota, became the first woman to complete an expedition to the North Pole by sled and by foot in 1986. The trip took her 56 days to compete.
Seven years later, Bancroft led an all-female expedition to the South Pole, making her the first woman to make expeditions to both the North and the South Poles. And in 2001, she became one of the first women to cross Antarctica with her trekking partner Liv Arnesen.
1987: Aretha Franklin is the first woman inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame.
Two decades after the release of her first hit album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The Queen of Soul was the only woman to receive the honor that year (out of 15 inductees) and the only solo woman performer to be honored until LaVern Baker in 1991. The organization had started making inductions in 1986, although all 10 of those initial inductees were men.
1988: Shawna Robinson becomes the first woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race.
In 1988, Shawna Robinson of Des Moines, Iowa, won the AC Delco 100 at the New Asheville Speedway, becoming the first woman ever to win a top-level, NASCAR-sanctioned race. Robinson was only 23 years old when she took the lead from 17 drivers in the 100-lap race. At the time of her legendary win, NASCAR had been sponsoring races since 1947, with nearly 2000 races per year.
1989: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen becomes the first Latina elected to Congress.
Born in Cuba, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s family immigrated to the U.S. when she was seven years old. She started her political career in 1982 as a member of the Florida House of Representatives before eventually joining the Florida Senate in 1986.
Just three years later, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to Congress during a special election that took place after sitting Congressman Claude D. Pepper passed away. She served in that role until she retired in 2018.
1990: Antonia Novello becomes the first female U.S. Surgeon General.
After earning her masters in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1982, Antonia Novello went on to draft legislation for the Organ Transplantation Procurement Act of 1984. Then, in 1990, she became the first female, as well as the first Latino, U.S. Surgeon General. She was appointed by President George H.W. Bush; 13 men had served in the role before her.
1991: Geraldine Morrow becomes the first female president of the American Dental Association.
The American Dental Association (ADA) is the world’s oldest and largest dental association. And while the ADA was established in 1859, it didn’t see its first female president until more than 100 years later. Born in Alaska, Geraldine Morrow joined the ADA in 1984, serving as the organization’s first female trustee. In 1991, she was named the ADA’s 128th president, making her the first woman to lead the organization.
1992: Carol Moseley Braun becomes the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Carol Moseley Braun was first elected to public office in 1978, serving as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for 10 years. Braun strived to bring diversity into democracy, and in 1991, she entered the race for Senate against Alan Dixon and Alfred Hofeld. She was appointed to the Senate in 1992—making her the first black woman to hold the title of senator.
1993: Janet Reno becomes the first female U.S. Attorney General.
Since 1789, the U.S. Attorney General had always been male. But, in 1993, Janet Reno changed that. Reno was nominated by President Bill Clinton that year and confirmed by the Senate soon after.
Prior to her appointment, Reno had served as a staff member for the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives and the State Attorney in Miami. She remained in the role of Attorney General until 2001, making her the longest serving Attorney General in the 20th century.
1994: The Church of England ordains its first female priests.
It took centuries for the Church of England—founded by King Henry VIII in the 16th century—to allow women to become priests. When it finally did, it was following a decades-long push from the Movement for the Ordination of Women, which was founded in the 1970s.
In 1994, a class of 32 women became the first women priests in the Church of England, according to the Los Angeles Times. The first female bishop of the Church of England was ordained 20 years later in 2014.
1995: Roberta Cooper Ramo becomes the first female president of the American Bar Association.
After nearly 25 years in the field of law, Roberta Cooper Ramo became the first female president of the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1995. In 2015, she became one of just 76 people ever in the organization’s 86-year history to receive its highest honor, ABA Medal.
1996: The Spice Girls’s debut single “Wannabe” smashes records.
When the Spice Girls released their hit single “Wannabe” in 1996, it took the world by storm and landed in the top spot on the U.K. charts, ultimately staying there for seven weeks. The success was a slap in the face to their label, which advised against releasing the song as a single. “Wannabe” went on to become the biggest-selling single of all time by a female group.
1997: Madeleine Albright becomes the first female Secretary of State.
After immigrating from the former Czechoslovakia with her family in her early teens in 1948, Madeleine Albright decided politics was her calling. She started her career as the National Security Council’s congressional liaison in 1978. In 1993, Albright was appointed the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And just four years later, she became the first female Secretary of State.
1998: Julie Taymor becomes the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Director.
In 1998, Julie Taymor won the Tony Award for Best Director for her work on the hit show The Lion King, which went on to become the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time (it’s still playing today). At the time, the awards ceremony had been taking place for half a century, since 1947.
1999: Nancy Ruth Mace becomes the first woman to graduate from The Citadel.
Until 1995, The Citadel, a historic military college in South Carolina, refused to allow female cadets. However, following a Supreme Court ruling forcing the nation’s only other state-supported military college (the Virginia Military Institute) to allow women or stop accepting public money, The Citadel voted to admit its first female cadets.
Nancy Ruth Mace was admitted to the school in 1996 and graduated in 1999, becoming the first woman to do so (another woman, Shannon Faulkner, was admitted to the school the year before but left after a week, citing isolation and stress).
2000: Kathleen A. McGrath becomes the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship.
After graduating from California State University in 1975, Kathleen Anne McGrath joined the U.S. Navy in 1980. McGrath commanded the rescue and salvage ship Recovery from ’93 to ’94, but she wasn’t appointed as a combatant commander until 1998. When her ship, the U.S.S. Jarrett, was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2000, McGrath became the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship at sea—just six years after Congress reversed rules prohibiting women from serving on combat warships.
2001: The U.S. sees its first female Secretary of the Interior and Secretary of Agriculture.
Two women made history at the turn of the century. The United States’ first female Secretary of the Interior and first female Secretary of Agriculture were both appointed in 2001. Serving under President George W. Bush, Gale A. Norton from Kansas was named the 48th Secretary of Interior and Ann Veneman from California was named the 27th Secretary of Agriculture.
2002: Halle Berry becomes the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress.
By the end of 2001, 73 women had won the coveted Oscar for Best Actress. However, none of them were women of color. That’s until Halle Berry won the award in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball. Nearly two decades later, she is still the only non-white woman to do so.
2003: Shirin Ebadi becomes the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2003, Shirin Ebadi made headlines for becoming the first Muslim woman (as well as the first Iranian person) to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As one of the first female judges in Iran, Ebadi served as the president of the Tehran city court until 1979. After that, she continued her career as a lawyer. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “efforts for democracy and human rights,” especially in focusing on the “struggle for the rights of women and children.”
2004: Catherine Pepinster is the first woman to be editor in chief of The Tablet.
The Tablet is a British newspaper that focuses on Catholic news, and for 175 years, it was solely run by men—until Catherine Pepinster came along. Pepinster started her career in journalism as a local reporter in Manchester and Sheffield in 1981. By 1994, she was working as an assistant news editor for The Independent on Sunday, where she was promoted to executive editor in 2002. Then, in 2004, The Tablet Publishing Company named Pepinster editor in chief.
2005: Condoleezza Rice becomes the first black woman named Secretary of State.
Nearly 10 years after Albright made history as the first female U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice became the second woman to hold the position and the first black woman to do so.
2006: Michelle Bachelet becomes the first female president of Chile.
Following three male presidents since Chile’s transition to democracy in 1990, Michelle Bachelet was elected president in 2006—the first woman to lead in Chile’s history. After leaving the position, Bachelet became the first executive director for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. In 2014, she was reelected as Chile’s president, serving until 2018.
2007: Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female speaker of the House of Representatives.
Under the leadership of President Bush in 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the 52nd Speaker of the House of Representatives—the first female speaker in history. Pelosi was first elected to Congress in 1987, where she served on the Appropriations and Intelligence Committees. Pelosi’s title makes her the highest-ranking elected woman in United States history (it also makes her second in the presidential line of succession).
2008: Sarah Palin becomes the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican Party ticket.
While women were making waves in Congress, the highest seats in the country were still being monopolized by men. However, in 2008, Sarah Palin was put on the Republican Party ticket as the running mate alongside John McCain. The Democratic Party had put their first female vice presidential candidate on the ticket in 1984. (That was Geraldine Ferraro, who lost to Regan-Bush alongside Walter Mondale.)
2009: Nancy Lieberman becomes the first female head coach of an NBA-affiliated team.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) was founded in 1946. More than 60 years later, Nancy Lieberman was named head coach of the Texas Legends, an NBA Development League team, making her the first woman to lead the coaching staff of an NBA-affiliated team. Lieberman had previously been a part of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team for women’s basketball.
2010: Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director.
Before 2010, only three women had ever been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director: Lina Wertmueller for 1975’s Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for 1993’s The Piano, and Sofia Coppola for 2003’s Lost in Translation. But none of them won the award. Then, in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker. And for more female-film making achievements, check out Why 2018 Was a Record Year for Women-Led Movies.
2011: Three women are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2011, three women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson Sireleaf (Liberia), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), and Tawakkul Karman (Yemem). Sireleaf was the first democratically-elected female president in Africa, Gbowee was known for her leadership in the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, and Karman was a Yemeni journalist who created the Women Journalists Without Chains organization.
2012: Katy Perry makes history with the hit singles off her album, Teenage Dream.
Having just released her Teenage Dream album, Katy Perry’s career was at an all-time high in the early 2010s. In 2012, Perry became the second recipient of the Billboard Spotlight Award—the first (and only other) recipient being Michael Jackson in 1988. Billboard honored Perry with the award for being the first female artist to have five consecutive number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from one album.
2013: Mary Barra is named the first female CEO of a major automobile manufacturer.
Mary Barra first started working for General Motors when she was just 18 years old. From there, she went on to earn her degree in electrical engineering from the General Motors Institute before receiving her masters from Stanford University in 1990 on a General Motors scholarship. In 2013, she became the chief executive officer of General Motors. That made her the first female CEO for General Motors, as well as the first woman to lead a major automobile manufacturer.
2014: Mo’ne Davis becomes the first girl to pitch a Little League World Series shutout.
Women can make waves at any age—and 13-years-old Mo’ne Davis proved that by becoming the first girl to pitch a shutout game in the Little League World Series (meaning the opposing team didn’t score a run). Pitching for Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons, Davis led her team to victory in 2014 during their first World Series game of the season. It was also Davis’ second shutout in a row; she had pitched one in the game that qualified the Taney Dragons for the series.
2015: Sarah Thomas becomes the first woman to referee for the NFL.
After nearly 100 years as an organization, the National Football League (NFL) finally hired its first female referee, Sarah Thomas, in 2015. Thomas grew up playing basketball and softball, before becoming a football official in 1995. After officiating college games for years, she received the call to join the NFL two decades into her career.
2016: Hillary Clinton becomes the first female presidential nominee.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee of any major U.S. political party. And, while she ended up losing the race to Republican candidate Donald Trump, she still made history and paved the way for future women candidates.
2017: Peggy Whiston breaks the record for the most days spent in space by a NASA astronaut.
Women on Earth aren’t the only ones changing history. Up in space, Peggy Whiston recently broke the record for the most days spent in space by any NASA astronaut, male or female. Whiston was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1996 after earning her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University.
Her first trip to the International Space Station was in 2002. But in 2016, Whitson arrived again at the International Space Station on Expedition 50/51, becoming the oldest woman (at age 56) to fly into space. By 2017, Whitson had spent a total of 655 days in space, according to NASA.
2018: Saudi Arabian women win the legal right to drive.
In a world where women are breaking space records and leading countries, it’s hard to believe that some women weren’t allowed to drive until recently. Saudi Arabian women had been fighting for the right to operate motor vehicles for years. In 1990, women even drove cars around the capital of Riyadh in protest before being arrested and having their passports confiscated.
Although it took decades, their efforts paid off when the newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reversed the law, and the first driver’s licenses were issued to women in 2018. And for more history on women’s rights, check out the 20 Things Women Weren’t Allowed to Do in the 20th Century.
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