Photographs by Luisa Dörr for TIME
By Nancy Gibbs
September 7, 2017
IDEAS
Gibbs is the editorial director of Time Inc.'s News Group and served as TIME's editor in chief. She is the co-author, along with TIME’s Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.

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.

View the full experience here


The Diplomat: Madeleine Albright

Portrait of Madeleine Albright, photographed in her sitting room, opposite her office in Washington, DC, September 12, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become U.S. Secretary of State

Watch the full interview


The Boss: Mary Barra

Portrait of Mary Barra, photographed on the roof of the General Motors offices in Detroit, MI, August 17, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become CEO of a major car company

Watch the full interview


The Inventor: Patricia Bath

Portrait of Patricia Bath, photographed at UCLA in Los Angeles, CA, October 27, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First person to invent and demonstrate laserphaco cataract surgery

Watch the full interview


The Scientist: Elizabeth Blackburn

Portrait of Elizabeth Blackburn, photographed at the SALK Institute in La Jolla, CA, October 19, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become president of the Salk Institute

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The Executive: Ursula Burns

Portrait of Ursula Burns, photographed in the Xerox office in Stamford CT, November 11, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black woman to run a Fortune 500 company

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The Performer: Candis Cayne

Portrait of Candis Cayne, photographed at her home in Glendale, CA, on March 11, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First transgender woman with a major role on prime-time TV

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The Nominee: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, photographed in Chappaqua, New York on Sept. 5, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to win a major party’s nomination for President of the United States

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The Pilot: Eileen Collins

Portrait of Eileen Collins, photographed in San Antonio, TX, November 3, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to command a space shuttle

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The Adviser: Kellyanne Conway

Portrait of Kellyanne Conway, photographed at Trump Tower New York, New York, January 13, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to run a winning presidential campaign

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The Pitcher: Mo'ne Davis

Portrait of Mo'ne Davis, photographed in the compound of her home in Willingboro, NJ, September 1, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First girl to pitch a shutout and win a game in a Little League World Series

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The Comedian: Ellen DeGeneres

Portrait of Ellen DeGeneres, photographed at Warner Bros Studios, CA, on February 9, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First person to star as an openly gay character on prime-time TV

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The Gymnast: Gabby Douglas

Portrait of Gabby Douglas, photographed at her home in Tarzana, CA, on March 1, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First American gymnast to win solo and team all-around gold medals at one Olympics

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The Poet: Rita Dove

Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black U.S. poet laureate

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The Director: Ava DuVernay

Portrait of Ava DuVernay, photographed at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, CA, October 22, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black woman to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar

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The General: Ann Dunwoody

Portrait of General Ann Dunwoody, photographed in the compound of her home in Tampa, FL, August 26, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to rise to four-star general in the U.S. military

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The Oceanographer: Sylvia Earle

Portrait of Sylvia Earle, photographed at the Alamade Beach State Park in Alameda, CA, October 31, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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The Singer: Aretha Franklin

Portrait of Aretha Franklin, photographed in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, MI, October 21, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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The Philanthropist: Melinda Gates

Portrait of Melinda Gates, photographed near her offices in Kirkland, WA, Feb. 14, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to give away more than $40 billion

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The Tastemaker: Selena Gomez

Portrait of Selena Gomez, photographed in Los Angeles, CA, on March 10, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First person to reach 100 million followers on Instagram

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The Leader: Nikki Haley

Luisa Dörr for TIME

First Indian-American woman to be elected governor

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The Librarian: Carla Hayden

Portrait of Carla Hayden, photographed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, August 31, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman and first African American to be Librarian of Congress

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The Senator: Mazie Hirono

Portrait of Senator Mazie Hirono, photographed on the steps of The Capitol, Washington, D.C., October 6, 2016.
Photograph by Luisa Dörr for TIME

First Asian-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate

Watch the full interview


The Bishop: Katharine Jefferts Schori

Portrait of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, photographed at the Church of Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA, September 8, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to be elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church

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The Astronaut: Mae Jemison

Portrait of Mae Jemison, photographed at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston, TX, November 2, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman of color in space

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The Sculptor: Maya Lin

Portrait of Maya Lin, photographed in her studio, New York, NY, November 10, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to design a memorial on the national mall

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The Lawyer: Loretta Lynch

Portrait of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, photographed in her office, Washington, D.C., October 14, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black woman to become U.S. Attorney General

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The Anchor: Rachel Maddow

Portrait of Rachel Maddow, photographed at the Rockefeller Plaza, NYC, on February 24, 2017.
Photograph by Luisa Dörr for TIME

First openly gay anchor to host a prime-time news program

Read the full interview


The Actor: Rita Moreno

Portrait of Rita Moreno, photographed at her home in Berkeley, Calif., on Feb. 11, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First Latina to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony

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The Animator: Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Portrait of Jennifer Yuh Nelson, photographed at the DreamWorks studio in Los Angeles, CA, October 25, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to solo-direct a major Hollywood animated feature

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The Legislator: Ilhan Omar

Portrait of Ilhan Omar, photographed at her offices in Minneapolis, Feb. 17, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First Somali-American Muslim woman to become a legislator

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The Driver: Danica Patrick

Portrait of Danica Patrick, photographed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, Oct 12, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to lead in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500

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The Speaker: Nancy Pelosi

Portrait of Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, photographed at The Capitol in Washington, DC, Sept. 22, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

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The Entrepreneur: Michelle Phan

Portrait of Michelle Phan, photographed at Ipsy Open Studios in Santa Monica, CA on February 7, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to build a $500 million company from a web series

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The Auteur: Issa Rae

Portrait of Issa Rae, photographed in Culver City, Los Angeles, October 29, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First black woman to create and star in a premium cable series

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The Showrunner: Shonda Rhimes

Portrait of Shonda Rhimes, photographed at the W Hotel in Los Angeles, CA, October 26, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to create three hit shows with more than 100 episodes each

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The Commander: Lori Robinson

Portrait of General Lori Robinson, photographed at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO, September 7, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to lead a top-tier U.S. Combat Command

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The Mogul: Sheryl Sandberg

Portrait of Sheryl Sandberg, photographed at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, CA, on February 10, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become a social-media billionaire

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The Artist: Cindy Sherman

Portrait of Cindy Sherman, photographed in her studio loft in the Greenwich Village, NYC, on February 15, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to break $1 million in a photography sale

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The Coach: Kathryn Smith

Portrait of Kathryn Smith, photographed at the New Era Field in Buffalo, NY, August 29, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to become a full-time coach in the NFL

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The Explorer: Kathryn Sullivan

Portrait of Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Washington, D.C., October 5, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First American woman to walk in space

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The Journalist: Barbara Walters

Portrait of Barbara Walters, photographed at her home in New York City’s Upper East Side, September 14, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to co-anchor a network evening news program

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The Chef: Alice Waters

Portrait of Alice Waters, photographed at the Edible Schoolyard in P.S. 216 in New York City, November 7, 2016.

First woman to win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef

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The Engineer: Geisha Williams

Portrait of Geisha Williams, photographed on a bridge near the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in San Francisco on February 13, 2017.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company

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The Pro: Serena Williams

Portrait of Serena Williams, photographed at the John V. Lindsay East River Park Tennis Courts, September 13, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First tennis player to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles in the open era

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The Chair: Janet Yellen

Portrait of Chairwoman Janet Yellen, photographed on the Federal Reserve's cafetria terrace, Washington, D.C., October 4, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman to chair the Federal Reserve

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The Titan: Oprah Winfrey

Portrait of Oprah Winfrey, photographed at the OWN Office in West Hollywood, Los Angeles, October 17, 2016.
Luisa Dörr for TIME

First woman in history to own and produce her own talk show

Watch the full interview

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