10 Historical Firsts in Women’s Rights

Can we give some credit where credit is definitely due? There’s good reason for everyone to celebrate these historical firsts for women.

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Women throughout history have never had it easy. Perhaps Canadian feminist and multiple-term mayor of Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, Charlotte Whitton (1896-1975), summed up the situation best:

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Even the first ever official women’s rights gathering on American soil was born out of two women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, not being allowed the same courtesies as men. In this case, it was at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England. The year was 1840, and leading up to the event delegates had voted to exclude women completely. Stanton and Mott met for the first time in a small designated section of the convention floor where women were unceremoniously corraled and essentially ignored.

Image Source: United States Library of Congress

Jump ahead eight years from that history-changing introduction to the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where the two advocates were seeing their call for equal rights for women being answered by approximately 200-300 people on July 19th and 20th, 1848.  The Seneca Falls Convention would be the first of its kind in America, where a “Declaration of Sentiments” as drafted by Stanton was read to the crowd. The first day of the rally was open to women only, with the second day allowing the general public to attend. In all, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration.

Organized in only five days with just word of mouth and an announcement placed in the Seneca County Courier to spread the details, Seneca Falls marked the first small steps for women uniting in the pursuit of fair and equal treatment in America.

Image Source: United States Library of Congress

Civilization could not exist without women. Forget about childbearing – women are the cornerstone of society, compassionate and brave while also disciplinarians and rule breakers, strong when they want to scream and screaming when needed. There is nothing women can’t do (including pee standing up, but that’s neither here nor there).

Yet for time immemorial, they’ve always had to fight harder to get half as far. Nevertheless, they persisted and for that we are all richer.

Here’s a look at some of the most incredible women who made history and blazed a trail we with XX chromosomes, or who identify as female, continue to walk today.

First policewoman: Marie Owens

Left a widow at a young age after her husband died of typhoid, Marie Owens needed a job. She had five kids to feed. But the year was 1888: to call her options limited is generous. Given her maternal state, she was first hired in 1889 with the Chicago health department as one of five female factory inspectors tasked with enforcing child labor laws and making sure kids were in school where they belonged.

Of course, no one wanted to play nice and eventually the women were banned from the industrial shops without a warrant. In 1891, Owens was moved to the regular police department and made a detective sergeant, complete with the ability to arrest and with a shiny police star. Now she could go into places and help protect children, all while thinking of her own.

For those with no other option, Owens worked to establish classrooms inside shops for those who worked to help them have access to education. When she retired in 1923, just four years before her death, Owens was a well-respected and effective cop, but, as so often happens, her history was soon wiped away.

Source: Chicago Tribune

First woman to receive a pilot’s license: Raymonde de Laroche

The ground was never enough for Raymonde de Laroche. Born about 20 years before the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight, the young Frenchwoman wanted to be up in the air with the birds. In the late 1800s, of course, women could do few things men could do, like vote or hold many jobs outside the home, so her intentions to become a pilot were fodder for ridicule.

Undeterred, de Laroche was determined to make her dream a reality and bestowed upon herself the title of Baroness, thinking it would make her sound more impressive and of better standing in society. After working in theatres and taking lessons on the sly with captive hot air balloons, she met aviation pioneer Charles Voisin when she was 23. He promised her she’d learn to fly and set about teaching her, letting her take controls of a 50-horsepower single-seater plane in October 1909.

She obeyed every order he gave from the runway, except one: he told her not to take off but she couldn’t resist. The power she’d dreamt of was in her hands, so she made a few laps of the airfield, turned into the wind and took off. Granted, it was only 15 feet or so in the air and she landed safely about 300 yards after leaving the earth, but it was enough.

She was the first woman to operate a plane solo. Within a week, she flew four miles by herself. Within a year, she passed the flight test of the Aero Club of France, the first of five women to be licensed in France. She later took part in air shows and other demonstrations as part of Voisin’s team.

Source: Airbus

First woman to receive a Doctor of Law degree: Juliana Morell

Turn back the history book pages to the 1600s to find the first female lawyer, a Spanish Dominican nun named Juliana Morell. Most of her life was spent with the Dominicans after her mother died, living with them for her education until there was no more they could teach her. She was a fast and eager student, continuing lessons in Latin, Greek and Hebrew at the ripe age of seven. Her father, however, was accused of murder around this time, so he and his daughter picked up and left Spain for Lyon, France.

By the age of 12, living in hiding but continuing her education, Morell was studying not just math and music but ethics, astronomy, physics and law, defending her theses on ethics and morality in public. Law was her passion, earning a degree of doctor summa cum laude in 1608 and specializing in civil and canon law. Still, she entered into the convent in June 1610, three years later taking responsibility for a convent she’d run until her death in 1653. She published several books during her lifetime, mostly on topics of a spiritual nature.

Sources: Monstrous Regiment of Women

First female rabbi: Regina Jonas

For actual centuries, being a rabbi was a man’s job. Being any kind of spiritual leader of a house of worship was for men only, really – a position that remains true in the Catholic Church – but some religions have embraced the holy feminine not just as a figurehead but as a real leader. Regina Jonas was born in Berlin in 1902 and grew in a poor, mostly Jewish neighborhood. From a young age, she felt called to something bigger, more powerful and spiritual.

She had a natural love of Jewish history in addition to Bible and Hebrew studies in school; classmates remember her talking about becoming a rabbi. Surprisingly, there were several rabbis who supported her in her quest, including Max Weyl, known for being open toward religious and spiritual education for girls.

In 1923, Jonas passed a preliminary exam, going on to attend a teacher’s seminar that gave her the ability to teach Jewish religion to girls at a school in Berlin. Next up was the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a school that had always allowed for female students since it opened in 1872, but she was the only one who sought to become a rabbi. Initially denied her goal, as the workload for Jewish teachers grew, so did the demand for new leaders.

In 1935, Rabbi Max Dienemann agreed to bestow upon Jonas the title she so well earned. Sadly, as a Jew in Germany during WWII, she and her mother were deported to Auschwitz in October 1944 and were likely killed the same day.

Source: Jewish Women’s Archive

First woman to run for president: Victoria Woodhull