Photographs by Luisa Dörr for TIME
By Nancy Gibbs
September 7, 2017

She broke the glass ceiling. What a jagged image we use for women who achieve greatly, defining accomplishment in terms of the barrier rather than the triumph. Talk to women about the forces that drive them and they hit notes of joy and fascination—a passion for music or molecules or finance or food that took them places their sisters and mothers had not gone before. “Sometimes even now when I’m told I was a ‘first,’ it comes as a surprise,” says Patricia Bath, a pioneering physician and inventor. “I wasn’t seeking to be first. I was just doing my thing.”

We wondered if there is a common motive or muscle shared by women who are pioneers. The women profiled here range in age from 16 to 87 and have flourished in public service and private enterprise, explorations to the bottom of the sea and to the outer orbit of Earth. They have been on journeys to places only they could imagine and frequently encountered people who said they would never get there. These stories of success are knitted with stories of setbacks, and these women often credit the people who tried to stop them as a motivating force.

“I recall visiting the home of friends, and a man who was present asked me what I wanted to do one day,” says molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn. “I said, ‘I’m going to be a scientist.’ And he said, ‘What’s a nice girl like you doing going into science?’ I was shocked and so mad that I didn’t know what to say in response. So I kept my mouth shut, but I was all the more determined. In a way, I’m quite grateful to that man.”

The first woman to reach a pinnacle may not want anyone to notice her gender; there she is up where the air is thin, where men still outnumber women, but she made it on her own wings. Gender is irrelevant; it’s the altitude that is awesome. But why are there so few women up there with her? Why did it take this long? And if the answer is even partly that there were few role models, that there were no ladies’ rooms in the halls of power, that every step was steeper and harder, then women need to stand up, stand out and be seen at every level, for every talent and discipline. “If the person who gets to tell the story is always one kind of person,” observes filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who describes Hollywood as a white man’s world, “we internalize it, we drink it in as fact.” Hence the need for an alternative reality. “You can’t imagine doing something you can’t even see,” argues Hillary Rodham Clinton. “How do you plan to be an underseas explorer or a general in the military or a great scientist if you don’t see role models?”

At the same time, many of these women extol the men in their lives—an older brother as a first competitor, a father who set no limits. “If your dad believes in you, that’s important to young girls,” says philanthropist Melinda Gates. “If your dad thinks you can be good at math and science, good at business, good at anything, it lifts your confidence and your self-esteem.” Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch recalls how her father, a Baptist minister, defied convention and invited women to preach at his pulpit. “The aspirations and dreams he had for my brothers were the same ones he had for me,” she says.

Famously successful figures often develop a thick skin in the face of criticism—as when a flock of supercilious French chefs came to Alice Waters’ renowned restaurant and declared, “That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” Or as TV star Issa Rae puts it, “There’s so much subtlety in the sexism and racism in this industry that you either have to call it out and risk being shunned, or move past it and find your own entryway. I’m definitely in the latter category.”

But a thick skin can disrupt sensitivity; what’s remarkable about many of these women is their ability to remain empathic and accessible in the face of resistance and ridicule. Many of them discussed moments of failure, of rebuke, and how the criticism was often a fuel. “Raising hackles means you’re not being ignored,” says former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. “You’re pushing the conversation forward.”

Our goal with this extraordinary project— which encompasses a magazine, the multimedia project at TIME.com/firsts and a book coming out September 19—is for every woman and girl to find someone who moves her, to find someone whose presence in the highest reaches of success says to her that it is safe to climb, come on up, the view is spectacular. They were candid about their challenges, aware of their responsibilities, eager to tell the stories that will surprise and inspire. We hope everyone, at every life stage, will encounter an insight here that will open a door to new ambitions. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright always says, “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help each other.” But the reverse is also true and more uplifting: there is a special place in heaven for women who shine the light and share it with others.

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