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Amazing Achievements by Women Every Year for the Last 50 Years

These are the leading ladies and female firsts that defined the last half-century.

Women 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—and the past 50 years have been just as influential when it comes to achievements made by women. Since 1969, women have launched into space, released some of the most popular music of all time, and made lasting impacts on political and judicial systems around the globe. 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 five decades.

1969: Ivy League schools start accepting female students

Pictured here is a view of Bingham Hall on the old campus of Yale University on an autumn day. Yale is a prestigious Ivy League university dating back to the 1700's.

Before 1969, women weren't allowed to attend Ivy League universities. Both Yale and Princeton were the first Ivy League institutions to accept women in the fall of 1969. Dartmouth didn't accept women until 1972, while the last all-male Ivy League, Columbia, didn't accept women until 1983.

1970: Betty Friedan leads the Women's Strike for Equality march

female's on a strike for equality

As one of the leading figures in the second wave of American feminism, Betty Friedan made a lot of strides for women in the '60s and '70s. And on the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage, she organized and led the Women's Strike for Equality to "raise awareness about gender discrimination." It was reported that tens of thousands of American women took the day to abandon "their husbands, their desks, their typewriters, and their waitress stations" to march in major cities.

1971: Gloria Steinem and Patricia Carbine create Ms.

ms magazine cover founded by feminist leaders
Liberty Media for Women, LLC

Ms. is an American feminist magazine that first appeared in 1971 as an insert in New York magazine. As the brainchild of Gloria Steinem and Patricia Carbine (among other prominent feminists), the publication of this paper came at a time where most female-marketed magazines only gave advice about traditional, sexist female roles in terms of "finding a husband, saving marriages, raising babies, or using the right cosmetics." The paper sold out nationwide in practically a week and has since become its own, stable magazine.

1972: Katharine Graham is named the first female Fortune 500 CEO

katharine graham walking

Katharine Graham made history after she inherited The Washington Post from her father, Eugene Meyer, and assumed presidency following her husband's death in 1963. After leading the paper through some pivotal eras, including publishing the Pentagon Papers and breaking the Watergate scandal, Graham took over as the chief executive officer of the Washington Post Company—which made her the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

1973: Billie Jean King defeats Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes"

billie jean king stamp

Back in the '70s, women's sports were still treated as less than, but tennis player Billie Jean King sought to close the gender gap in this groundbreaking match. Male tennis player Bobby Riggs garnered major media attention for "slamming the quality of women's tennis and demanding to face its top players." King agreed to a winner-take-all match, and more than 30,000 people came to watch King prove herself by beating Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes." In fact, this extraordinary story is still told today—as seen in the 2017 movie Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

1974: Isabel Martínez de Perón becomes the first female president in the world

FBD0RK 1973 - Isabel Peron on way to follow the steps of ''Evita''. Buenos Aires, June 26th, 1973: Again the modest and poor people of Argentina will have thei ''angel'' as it will be again the wife of ex President Peron, Mrs. Isabel Martinez de Peron who promised to continue the work of Eva Peron heading the ''Fundacion'' Eva Peron where all the problems of the poors will find a solution. Here is Isabel leaving for the first time to the ministry of welfare where she will work very soon in her new job. © Keystone Pictures USA/ Live News

As her husband, and then-president of Argentina, Juan Perón, was dying from heart disease, wife Isabel Martinez de Peron was sworn in as the leader of the South American country in 1975. This made her not only the first female head of state in the Western Hemisphere, but also the first female president in the entire world.

1975: Sharon Crews becomes the first female African American weather anchor on television

news anchor camera in a broadcast news room

After going to school in North Carolina, Sharon Crews sought to make history with WGPR-TV, the world's first black-owned-and-operated television station. In 1975, the studio was started in Detroit, Michigan, and Bush was named the first African American female weather anchor on American television.

1976: Barbara Walters becomes the first female nightly network news anchor

barbara walters walking

At a time when three major networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—provided the backbone of most of America's information, Barbara Walters made history. In 1976, Walters was hired by ABC Evening News for a whopping $1 million a year to serve as the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast. And during a press conference that centered around why she was getting paid so highly for a woman at the time, Variety reported that Walters "refused to condemn herself for taking the fee that was offered," paving a way for unapologetic women in the workplace.

1977: Janet Guthrie becomes the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500

indianapolis 500 motorspeedway

Janet Guthrie has been called a "trailblazer for women in motorsports." While she worked as a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation, Guthrie bought a 1953 Jaguar XK120 M coupe, the car that sparked her racing passion. She began racing in the Sports Car Club of America's driver's school and was racing full time by 1972. And in 1977, she became the first woman to qualify and compete in one of racing's biggest events, the Indianapolis 500.

1978: Mary Clarke becomes the first woman promoted to major general in the U.S. Army

Soldier in fatigues

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 website. Prior to making history, Clarke served as the director of the Women's Army Corps for three years until the service was dissolved and women were integrated into standard armed forces.

By the time she retired in 1981, Clarke had served in the U.S. military 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 becomes the first woman honored on a U.S. coin

susan b anthony dollar coin, united states money, women achievements

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 the coins were minted the following year, replacing the dollar coins featuring former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The honor came more than 70 years after Anthony's death.

1980: Women's History Week is officially recognized

women's rights protesting, women achievements

Before there was an entire month dedicated to women's history, women were fighting to get just 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, Jimmy 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, supreme court justice, achievements women

Sandra Day O'Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 and served as Arizona's assistant attorney general 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

the color of purple book cover, alice walker, women achievements
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

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 the prestigious 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 first american woman in space, nasa,

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 it launched into the stratosphere on April 4, 1983, Ride became the first American woman to go to space. (The first woman 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. The men's marathon, 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, but it was Joan Benoit who finished first, winning a gold medal for the U.S. in the historic event.

1985: Penny Harrington becomes the first female police chief of a major U.S. city

police chief hat, women achievements

Penny Harrington's 1985 appointment as chief of the Portland Police Bureau made her the first woman to head a major police department in the U.S.

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 becomes the first woman to complete a trek to the North Pole

north pole with ice and glaciers, women achievements

At the age of 29, Ann Bancroft of Scandia, Minnesota, became the first woman to complete an expedition to the North Pole 1986. Traveling only be sled and foot, 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 South Poles. And in 2001, she became one of the first women to cross Antarctica with her trekking partner Liv Arnesen.

1987: Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame

Aretha Franklin in Concert in the 1970s Cost of a Big Date

Two decades after the release of her 1967 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. Out of 15 inductees, the "queen of soul" was the only woman to receive the honor that year, and the only solo woman performer to be honored until LaVern Baker in 1991.

1988: Shawna Robinson becomes the first woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race

two nascar cars on the race track

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.

1989: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen becomes the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress

florida congresswoman ileana ros lehitinen at a parade, women achievements

Born in Cuba, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her 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 Rep. Claude D. Pepper passed away. She served in that role until she retired in 2018.

1990: Antonia Novello becomes the first female surgeon general

Antonia Novello photo portrait as surgeon general, women's achievements
Abbus Acastra / Alamy Stock Photo

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 Hispanic, 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

dentist chair - funniest jokes

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

Sen Carol Moseley Braun D Ill during a news conference, women's achievements
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly / Alamy Stock Photo

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, winning the seat in 1992 and becoming the first black woman to hold the title of senator.

1993: Janet Reno becomes the first female attorney general

attorney general janet reno, women achievements

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 as a state attorney in Miami. She remained in the role of attorney general until 2001, making her time in the position the longest in the 20th century.

1994: The Church of England ordains its first female priests

folded hands of a female priest, achievements women

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

american bar association building, women achievements

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, the ABA Medal.

1996: The Spice Girls's debut single "Wannabe" smashes records

10MAY97: The SPICE GIRLS at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

Shortly after the Spice Girls released their single "Wannabe" in 1996, it took the world by storm and landed in the top spot on the Billboard charts. 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

madeleine albright female secretary of state, women achievements

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, and in 1993, Albright was appointed as 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

the lion king musical on broadway, 1998

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 and is still playing today.

1999: Nancy Ruth Mace becomes the first woman to graduate from The Citadel

citadel in south carolina, women achievements

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, in 1999, became the first woman to graduate from the institution.

2000: Kathleen A. McGrath becomes the first woman to command a U.S. Navy warship

united states navy warship, achievements women

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. names its first female secretary of the interior and secretary of agriculture

women getting sworn in with bible, achievements women

Two women made history at the turn of the century. Appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush, Gale A. Norton from Kansas became the 48th secretary of interior and Ann Veneman from California became the 27th secretary of agriculture—the first women to hold either position.

2002: Halle Berry becomes the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress

Actress HALLE BERRY at the 74th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood. 24MARR2002. Paul Smith / Featureflash - Image

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

shirin ebadi after winning nobel peace prize, women achievements

In 2003, Shirin Ebadi made headlines for becoming the first Muslim woman—as well as the first Iranian—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

newspaper on the stairs

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 2003, The Tablet Publishing Company named Pepinster editor, a position she officially began at the start of 2004.

2005: Condoleezza Rice becomes the first black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State

condoleezza rice first black female secretary of state, women achievements

Nearly 10 years after Albright made history as the first female Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice became the first black woman to do hold the powerful position.

2006: Michelle Bachelet becomes the first female president of Chile

chile president michelle bachelet, women achievements

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 of UN Women, the gender equality arm of the United Nations. 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

nancy pelosi first female speaker of house of representatives, women achievements

Under the leadership of President Bush in 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the 52nd U.S. House speaker—the first female in history to serve in the position. 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 Republican to run for vice president

sarah palin running for vice president in 2008

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 GOP ticket as the running mate of John McCain. The Democratic Party put their first female vice presidential candidate on the ticket in 1984—Geraldine Ferraro, who lost to Regan-Bush alongside Walter Mondale.

2009: Nancy Lieberman becomes the first female head coach of an NBA-affiliated team

March 17, 2016 - Spokane, WA: A game ball sits on court the day prior to the start of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament games at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. - Image

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

Kathryn Bigelow oscar winner

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 took home the coveted gold statue. Then, in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker.

2011: Three women are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

nobel peace prize, achievements women

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 as the founder of 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

katy perry on the red carpet, women achievements

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

marry barra ceo of general motors, women achievements

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. In 2013, she became the first female chief executive officer of General Motors, as well as the first woman to lead any major automobile manufacturer.

2014: Mo'ne Davis becomes the first girl to pitch a Little League World Series shutout

old baseball glove and ball

Women can make waves at any age—and 13-year-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 during their first game of the 2014 World Series. It was also Davis' second shutout in a row; she had pitched one in the game that qualified the team for the series.

2015: Sarah Thomas becomes the first woman to referee for the NFL

nfl referee standing on the field, female achievements

After nearly 100 years as an organization, the National Football League (NFL) finally hired its first female referee, Sarah Thomas, in 2015. Thomas previously spent years referring college games, as well as NFL practices and training camps.

2016: Hillary Clinton becomes the first female presidential nominee

hillary clinton 2016 nominee for democratic party, women acheivements

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee of any major U.S. political party. 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

International Space Station {Spider Facts}

Women aren't just making history here on Earth—in 2017, Peggy Whiston recently broke the record for the most days spent in space by any NASA astronaut, male or female. Selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1996 after earning her doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University, Whiston's  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, she had spent a total of 655 days in space.

2018: Saudi Arabian women earn the right to drive

saudi arabian women get the right to drive cars, achievements women

The women of Saudi Arabia 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.

2019: Activist Greta Thunberg arrives in New York after emissions-free voyage across the Atlantic

greta thunberg reaching new york city after sailing across the atlantic ocean in 2019

The Swedish teenager inspired thousands of people to protest environmental ignorance and inaction in the fight against climate change, but she really got the world's attention in 2019 when she arrived in New York City after sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emissions vessel. The journey took two weeks and earned Thunberg the title of  TIME's Person of the Year.

Kali Coleman
Kali Coleman is a Senior Editor at Best Life. Her primary focus is covering news, where she often keeps readers informed on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and up-to-date on the latest retail closures. Read more
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