More than a year ago, Kira Pollack, TIME’s immensely creative director of photography and visual enterprise, proposed a project exploring the experiences of women who were pioneers in their field: the first woman to command a space shuttle, or chair the Federal Reserve, or coach an NFL team, or design a memorial for the National Mall. Her idea began as a series of portraits but quickly evolved into a multimedia project that now includes dozens of videos, interviews, a book and this special issue.
While our focus was on the journeys that were traveled by extraordinary women, there is plenty here to inspire people of all ages, in all areas of endeavor. Some striking themes emerged–the importance of joy, the fierce motivational force of failure, the satisfaction of successes both achieved and shared. Our goal with this project is embodied by those we profiled: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. For young women, seeing so many other women of dramatically different backgrounds achieving in fields ranging from gymnastics to genomics is a strong signal that success and service come in many forms, and everyone gets to pick their own icons.
To read Firsts in full, click here.
This appears in the September 18, 2017 issue of TIME.