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Feminist Fact Friday – First in Firefighting

There are few professions that have a more masculine public perception than professional firefighting. It is true that firefighters in the United States are still predominately male, however the history of female firefighters goes back further than you think.

Aspiring female firefighters in their gear at Camp Blaze, a non-profit  organization dedicated to training and helping women advance in fire service.  Photo credit: CampBlaze.com

Aspiring female firefighters in their gear at Camp Blaze, a non-profit organization dedicated to training and helping women advance in fire service.
Photo credit: CampBlaze.com

According to the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, the first known American female firefighter worked for Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City in 1818. She was an enslaved African American woman named Molly Williams. She was not paid for her service and was known to the other firefighters as “Volunteer #11.”

The first woman known to be paid for fighting fires was Sandra Forcier, who was hired as a Public Safety Officer – a combination firefighter and police officer – by the City of Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973. She rose to the rank of Battalion Chief and retired from the department in 2004.

The first American woman to be hired exclusively as a firefighter was Judith Livers, who was hired by the Arlington County, VA Fire Department in 1974. She also rose to the rank of Battalion Chief before she retired in 1999.

There are currently 6,200 full-time career female firefighters in the United States and an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 female volunteer firefighters. However, women still account for less than 5% of all American fighters.  To help grow those numbers, organizations like iWomen and Camp Blaze have developed active training camps for young women who are interested in fire service. Such camps provide both physical training and science education to help women meet the rigorous requirements of fire department testing.

For more information, please visit websites of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services and the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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Feminist Fact Friday – Famous Firsts By American Women

by Admin Pattie

In observation of the first day of Women’s History Month, today’s Feminist Fact Friday is highlighting a selection of American women whose firsts made history in their respective fields. Their firsts helped redefine what was possible for women to achieve. Many of these woman had been told that the fields they worked in were the sole domains of men and that they would be better served doing something else. To their credit, and to our benefit, they didn’t listen.

We’ve provided links to resources where you can find out more about each woman and her achievements. Some of these women may have been featured in previous editions of Feminist Fact Friday, however, if there’s a woman we haven’t featured and you’d like to see a longer post about her in the future, please tell us in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (R-MT)

First Woman elected to U.S. Congress
Jeannette Pickering Rankin (R-MT)
Served in the U.S. House of Representatives: March 4, 1917 – March 3, 1919 and January 3, 1941 – January 3, 1943

First Woman to run for President of the United States
Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Nominated as a candidate for President by the Equal Rights Party in 1872.

First Woman elected to the U.S. Senate
Hattie Wyatt Caraway (D-AR)
Served in the U.S. Senate: December 9, 1931 – January 3, 1945

First Woman to serve as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi (D-CA)
Served as Speaker of the House: January 4, 2007 – January 3, 2011

First Woman to serve in the Cabinet of a U.S. President
Frances Perkins
Served as Secretary of Labor to President Franklin Roosevelt: March 4, 1933 – June 30, 1945

First Woman to serve as Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court
Sandra Day O’Connor
Served as Justice: September 21, 1981 – January 31, 2006

First Woman to win a Presidential Primary
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Won the New Hampshire Democratic Primary in 2008.


Dr. Sally Ride
Photo credit: NASA

First Woman to receive a Medical Degree in the U.S.

Elizabeth Blackwell
Received her degree from Geneva Medical College on January 23, 1849.

First American Woman to receive a Nobel Prize in a scientific field
Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori
Received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947

First American Woman in space
Sally Ride
Entered low Earth orbit as a crew member on the Space Shuttle Challenger on June 18, 1983.

First Woman to be named U.S. Surgeon General
Antonia Novello
Served as Surgeon General: March 9, 1990 – June 30, 1993

First Woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Edith Wharton
Won the Pulitzer in 1921 for The Age of Innocence.

First American Woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature
Pearl S. Buck
Won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for her body of work.

First Woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Julia Ward Howe
Elected to the Academy in 1908.

First Woman to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate
Mona Van Duyn
Served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1992 to 1993.



Janet Guthrie
Photo credit: Janetguthrie.com

First American woman to win an Olympic gold medal
Margaret Abbott
Won the gold medal in golf at the 1900 Olympics in Paris.

First Woman to ride in the Kentucky Derby
Diane Crump
Rode in the 1970 Kentucky Derby.

First Woman to race in the Indianapolis 500.
Janet Guthrie
First qualified for and competed in the 1977 Indianapolis 500.

First Woman to win the Women’s Olympic Marathon
Joan Benoit
Won the first women’s marathon event at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.


Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker aka Sarah Breedlove

First woman granted a patent in the U.S.
Mary Keis
Granted a patent in 1809 for a technique of weaving straw with silk and thread.

First American woman to become a self-made millionaire
Madame C.J. Walker (aka Sarah Breedlove)
Founded a company that manufactured hair care products in 1908.

First woman to serve as a director of a major U.S. corporation
Leticia Pate Whitehead
Served on the Board of Directors of the Coca-Cola Company for 20 years, beginning in 1934.

First woman to serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company
Katherine Graham
Served as CEO of the Washington Post Company from 1973 to 1991.

For more information about milestones in women’s history, check out this amazing list of resources and teaching tools assembled by the New York Times Learning Network.

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Feminist Fact Friday: Ella Baker


Ella Baker, unsung heroine of the American Civil Rights movement.
Photo used under Creative Commons Media license.

“Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.” – Ella Baker

Ella J. Baker is one of the unsung heroines of the American Civil Rights Movement. Lesser than known than male counterparts like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baker worked for and/or helped found many of the many civil rights organizations we know of today during the her five-decades long career.

Baker grew up up in Virginia and North Carolina, listening to stories of slave revolts from her grandparents. After graduating from Shaw University as class valedictorian, she became active in social activism, first working for the Young Negroes Cooperative League before obtaining a position at the NAACP as a field secretary. In this role, she organized boycotts, raised money, registered voters, and traveled through the South, building a network of black churches and smaller activist organizations.

In 1957, she was part of the team of activists who helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and build on the momentum created by the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Though Baker was integral to the operations of the SCLC, she was never given the title of permanent director, largely because the organization preferred to have male ministers in that role.  Baker did serve as interim director from 1958 to 1960.

In 1960, Baker witnessed the courage of four North Carolina A&T students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and felt compelled to focus her activism on working with young people. She left the SCLC and, with the students, helped found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Under her guidance, SNCC focused on promoting civil rights through nonviolent direct action and voter registration.  Her guidance to the young people of SNCC had such a profound impact that she was nicknamed “Fundi” – a Swahili word that, loosely translated, means “mentor to new generations.”

In later years, Baker lent her voice and experience to broader progressive causes including  the Puerto Rican independence movement, the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa, and women’s poverty in developing countries. She died in 1986.

Learn more about Ella Baker:
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker film
Oral History Interview with Ella Baker from “Oral Histories of the American South”

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Planting the Seeds of Incipient Democracy: Five Women who changed American politics before 1900

By Deliciously Geek
Women’s Historian
Special Guest Blogger

We are all no doubt familiar with the names of women who fought for equal rights and equal suffrage: Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton are just a few who come to mind. But what about those who came before them? While the late 19th century was a hotbed of political activity for and by women as they embraced the role of “municipal housewife”, the foundation was laid even as women were stepping off the Mayflower in search of religious and political freedom.

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey

First among these early political pioneers was Anne Hutchinson. Wife and mother of twelve, Anne arrived in Boston in 1634 with the impression that she and her family would be free to express themselves without censure by the government for their Puritan beliefs. She found, quickly, that she was wrong; rather than finding equality within her religion, she found that she was required first to answer to her husband and church and then to God. In response, Anne began to hold semiweekly meetings to share her beliefs- which were in some conflict with the Puritan church’s doctrine – and eventually amassed a small following of those who agreed with her “religious politics.” Her influence was so great that during the 1637 elections, her party very narrowly lost to the Winthrop party; the ultimate result was excommunication from the Puritan church and exile from the Massachusetts Bay colony. Anne’s only crime was being a woman in philosophical conflict with the local governing body.

Not long after the events in Boston, Margaret Brent arrived in Maryland to claim a land grant from Lord Baltimore. She immediately established herself as a prominent entrepreneur and attorney-in-fact, acting on behalf of her brother and occasionally for Lord Baltimore, and as a proprietress in her own right she was accorded a position in the Maryland Palatinate Assembly. Eventually Margaret was named the executrix of Governor Leonard Calvert’s estate, which included his seat in the Assembly as well. In 1648, Brent opted to finally exercise her right to both seats, which included both a “voice and vote” each. She was denied the votes because of her sex; the Assembly conceded her right to at least the voice and seat.

Notables such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were activists in the name of their sex during the Revolutionary period, after which there was a tacit moratorium on women’s rights. Suffrage, such as it existed in America’s infancy, was in fact granted to women in certain territories until those rights were revoked in 1807 following scandals associated with local elections. However, women were not politically silent during those years. Between 1807 and 1838, women with an interest in their federal and local governments began to organize partisan rallies and parades, petitioned state legislatures, canvassing on the part of candidates, and editing and writing for partisan publications.

Engraving of Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

Which is what Elizabeth Oakes Smith found herself doing in 1850. Elizabeth’s husband, Seba Smith, was editor of the Eastern Argus and later the Portland Daily Courier, to both of which Elizabeth had been known to contribute. However, it was her New York Tribune series “Woman and Her Needs” (1850-1851) which brought attention once again to the issue of national suffrage for women. While several states and territories had restored some suffrage rights to women by 1850 – set into motion by granting school suffrage rights to widows with children in Kentucky – there was still a lot of ground to cover, as evidenced by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth’s series was a call to arms for women to rise up and consider their plight: “The world needs the action of Woman throughout its destinies.”

And women were heeding that call. Anna Dickinson, that “Quaker lass”, was so firm in her beliefs about abolition and women’s suffrage that she addressed Congress directly in 1864 – something which had never been done before by a woman. Her arguments were so persuasive and eloquent that she became a direct influence on the results of the 1863 Congressional elections.

As critical as women were during the ante- and post-bellum periods in terms of political activism, it wasn’t until after the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments- which, respectively, abolished slavery, defined citizenship, and defended the right to vote for “citizens of the United States” regardless of race, colour, or “previous condition of servitude” – that women discovered that they had truly were second-class citizens. Because the 14th Amendment defined citizenship as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States”, the hue and cry went up to exercise the rights which were clearly protected by the 15th Amendment – rights which were summarily dismissed by the male-populated governments because it was never intended for women to vote, regardless of their citizenship, race, colour, and gender.

Photograph of Myra Bradwell taken circa 1870 by C.D. Mosher

No one was better equipped to challenge these unspoken prohibitions than Myra Colby Bradwell. The first woman to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, Myra began her legal education as her husband’s apprentice and then later as founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News. She penned the Illinois Married Women’s Property Act (1861) and Earnings Act (1869), which gave married women individual rights to their personal property and funds earned through work. In 1869, Myra applied to the Illinois State Bar for her license to practice law in her own name; she was summarily denied on the grounds that as a married woman, she was legally prohibited from entering into legal contracts on her own. She brought her case before the Illinois State Supreme Court, where she was denied admittance to the legal profession because of her sex; and again in 1873, claiming that her 14th Amendment rights were being ignored, she went before the United States Supreme Court to appeal her case; she was summarily denied her license again. Rather than work against a legal system which was obviously not supporting her rights, Myra focused on her newspaper and becoming an activist for women’s rights, honing her abilities as a student and writer of law. In 1890, the Illinois State Supreme Court acted on its own accord (and in accordance with a law the court itself passed in 1872 which prohibited discrimination from employment based on gender) and reversed its initial decision of 1870, granting Myra the right to practice law in Illinois.

As we all know, women were granted the vote in 1920 – thirty years after Myra Bradwell was given her license to practice law, and nearly 300 years after Anne Hutchinson first challenged the patriarchal stronghold of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. The journey from first heterodoxical thought to 93 women currently serving in Congress, 9 incumbent female governors, and countless female local and state officials has been tumultuous, fiery, and occasionally violent; but at the end of the day, it has been rewarding and enriching not only for women, but for American society as a whole.

All images are public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.