In a year marked by division, women everywhere pushed the world forward—and many made history, shattering long-standing glass ceilings to become “firsts” in their fields. From Zuzana Caputova, the first woman to become president of Slovakia, to Indonesian speed climber Aries Susanti Rahayu, the first woman to climb 15 meters in under 7 seconds, to Ruth E. Carter, the first black costume designer to take home an Oscar, this year saw women breaking new ground around the world. Here, 28 women who became “firsts” in 2019.
Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids
First Native American women to serve in Congress, Jan. 3
For more than 200 years of American history, a Native American woman has not been elected to serve in either house of Congress. But in 2018 that changed when Haaland was elected in New Mexico and Davids was elected in Kansas. (Both were sworn in as members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 3 this year.) These two representatives are prioritizing issues such as health care and the environment that are important to voters in their communities and beyond.
First woman to become chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, Jan. 3, 2019
In October 2018, Gita Gopinath was appointed to serve as the IMF’s chief economist—making her the first woman to take on the role, which she stepped into in January. Born in Kolkata, India, Gopinath is a professor of international studies and economics at Harvard University, with her research focusing on macroeconomics and international finance. “I was thrilled and honored,” she told the Harvard Gazette, recalling her reaction when finding out the news of her IMF appointment. “I will miss a lot about Harvard, certainly my colleagues and also the students… I will also miss being able to show up to work in my jeans!”
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
First Muslim women to serve in Congress, Jan. 3
Omar and Tlaib were elected along with a slew of young, diverse Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and sworn in on Jan. 3 this year. The two Democrats, who hail from Minnesota and Michigan respectively, had each previously broken barriers in their home states. Since taking office in Congress, the first Muslim women to do so, they have been outspoken critics of the Trump administration and have advocated for progressive policies such as canceling student debt and increasing consumer protections.
First woman to be reelected as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Jan. 3
When Pelosi was first elected Speaker of the House in 2007, she became the highest-ranking woman elected official in U.S. history. Twelve years later, she repeated that feat, making her the first woman to reach this double milestone and one of only a handful of House Speakers to serve multiple non-consecutive terms. Over more than three decades in Congress, Pelosi has helped lead her caucus push for everything from Wall Street reform to gay rights to universal health coverage, and is now presiding over the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
First woman of Asian descent to win two Golden Globes, Jan. 6
Sandra Oh won her first Golden Globe for a supporting role on Shonda Rhimes’ TV juggernaut Grey’s Anatomy, where she spent nearly a decade inhabiting perfectionist “double doctor” Cristina Yang. Only after leaving that role did she take center stage as the titular frustrated British intelligence agent in the BBC America spy thriller Killing Eve, for which she earned her first lead actress Globe in 2019—and became the first woman of Asian descent to win two Golden Globes. Born in Canada to South Korean parents (who walked the red carpet with her on the night she made history), Oh has used her platform to advocate for immigrants, women and people of color in Hollywood and beyond.
First indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Jan. 22
Yalitza Aparicio had no acting experience when Alfonso Cuarón cast her in his deeply personal 2018 film, Roma. (She was planning to become a schoolteacher.) But she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination this year with her very first role and became the first indigenous woman to ever be nominated in that category. She has helped ignite a movement for indigenous representation and visibility in her home country, gracing the cover of popular magazines like Vogue Mexico and serving as a United Nations UNESCO goodwill ambassador for indigenous peoples.
First solo female artist to win Best Rap Album Grammy Award, Feb. 10
New York hip-hop star Cardi B became a household name in 2017 when her breakout hit song “Bodak Yellow” topped the Billboard chart for three consecutive weeks. But it was in February 2019 that she cemented her success with a history-making nod from the industry, becoming the first solo female artist to win Best Rap Album at the Grammys for her debut album, Invasion of Privacy. Since the Grammys began handing out awards in this category in 1995, the only other woman to win was Lauryn Hill, as part of the group Fugees in 1997.
Ruth E. Carter
First black person to win an Oscar for costume design, Feb. 24
For three decades, Ruth E. Carter has been bringing heroes of black history to life on the screen with her costumes, from Joseph Cinqué in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad to Spike Lee’s Malcolm X to the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Carter’s foray into the fictional heroism of Wakanda in Black Panther—albeit one rooted in the real-world consequences of colonialism and racism—defined the afrofuturistic look of that movie. She became the first black woman to win an Oscar for costume design.
First skier to win 17 World Cup races in one alpine ski season, March 18
American Mikaela Shiffrin became the first skier to win 17 World Cup races in one alpine ski season, when she won the gold in the Slalom at the 2019 World Championships in Andorra on March 18. Not only that, but her spectacular run also made her the first skier to win the World Cup title in four separate events in one season—and on Nov. 23, she became the first skier with 41 World Cup Slalom wins, breaking a more than 30-year-old record set by Ingemar Stenmark.
First woman to win the Abel Prize for mathematics, March 19
American mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck became the first woman to win the prestigious Abel Prize, one of the top awards in the field of mathematics, on March 19. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters recognized Uhlenbeck, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “for the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics.”
Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat
First woman to become Chief Justice of Malaysia, May 2
Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat became Malaysia’s first female Chief Justice on May 2. Before her appointment, only men had held the top judge position since the country was founded in 1963. Tengku Maimun had served as a Federal Court judge since 2018.
First woman of color to lead a label at the world’s largest luxury fashion conglomerate, May 29; and first black woman to have an album on the Billboard 200 for 200 consecutive weeks, Dec. 2
It’s been almost four years since Rihanna released her last album, the critically-acclaimed Anti. But the Barbadian pop star turned fashion icon and business mogul is still setting records with her music: at the beginning of December, Anti hit 200 consecutive weeks on the Billboard 200—a first for an album from a black female artist. And with the debut of her Fenty luxury clothing line this year, Rihanna also became the first woman of color to lead a label at LVMH, the world’s largest luxury fashion conglomerate.
First wheelchair user to win a Tony Award, June 9
Ali Stroker has made history twice: in 2015, as the first person in a wheelchair to star in a Broadway show in Spring Awakening, and again in 2019 as the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award, for her performance in Oklahoma! There are still hurdles ahead—Stoker found out that she had won while backstage at the awards ceremony, because there was no ramp from which she could reach the stage from her assigned seat. And the actor has challenged producers to stop casting able-bodied actors to play people with disabilities.
First woman to become president of Slovakia, June 15
Despite having almost no formal political experience, Zuzana Caputova won 58% of the vote in Slovakia’s presidential election in March. The lawyer and civil society activist ran on a slogan of “stand up to evil,” promising to fight corruption in the country. Her win made her the first woman to become president of her country, and she was sworn into office on June 15. For her previous work on environmental issues, including a successful lawsuit against a toxic landfill development that was planned in her hometown, Caputova was nicknamed the “Erin Brokovich of Slovakia.”
First out trans woman to get an overall deal with a major studio, June 19
After coming out as a transgender woman in a Marie Claire article in 2011, Janet Mock published a best-selling memoir that helped bring about the mid-2010s “trans tipping point” that made household names out of figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. Since then, the onetime magazine editor has worked as a writer, producer, director, actor and host across a slew of shows including the groundbreaking FX drama Pose. Her historic overall deal with Netflix, announced June 19, enables the artist and activist to helm a variety of small-screen projects and to continue collaborating with her Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy.
First woman to lead an Army infantry division, June 29
Laura Yeager originally joined the military to help pay for college. Her father, retired California National Guard Maj. Gen. Robert Brandt, was a helicopter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam, but, she said in 2017, “I think my father was more surprised than anyone that I joined.” It was the start of a history-making career that has spanned more than three decades. Yeager flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and served as the first female commander of Joint Task Force North in Fort Bliss, Texas, and on June 29, she became the first woman to lead an Army infantry division when she took command of the 40th Infantry Division in the California National Guard. “To me this is just my next assignment, but I understand it’s a milestone,” she told Stars and Stripes. “I’m hoping the novelty of the situation will fall away and we can focus on doing the work.”
First Asian-born person inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, July 20
Li Na, the Chinese tennis great, became the first Asian-born person inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame on July 20. It was not the first time the pioneering sportswoman made history. In 2011, she became the first person from Asia to win a Grand Slam Singles title when she claimed victory at the French Open.
First artist to display works in the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 9
New York-based Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu became the first artist to display works in the façade of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in September, installing four sculptures into niches that have been empty since 1902. Mutu is known for her striking mixed-media Afrofuturistic compositions, which center the female experience and include elements of Western and African art and mythology. Her inaugural works for the Met’s façade—a set of four female bronze caryatids, larger than life and stylized in the tradition of high-ranking African women—challenge the institution’s own history of Eurocentrism and patriarchy.
First woman to run a marathon in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes, Oct. 13
On Oct. 13, Kenyan runner Brigid Kosgei became the first woman to run a marathon in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. Kosgei beat her own personal best by 4 minutes, clocking an astonishing 2:14:04 at the Chicago Marathon, and beating the previous world record by 1 minute and 24 seconds—a record that had stood for 16 years. But Kosgei isn’t planning on taking a break any time soon. “I think 2:10 is possible for a lady,” she said at the end of her phenomenal race. “I am focused on reducing my time again.”
First gymnast to win 25 World Championship medals, Oct. 13
American Simone Biles became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history, winning her 24th and 25th gold medals at the Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany on Oct. 13. Gold Medal Olympian Mary Lou Retton has called her the “greatest gymnast ever,” for her gravity-defying dismounts and floor routines. At least two of her signature moves are so difficult, they have been named after her: the Biles, a double backflip dismount with two twists, and the Biles II, a double backflip with three twists on a floor routine.
First black woman to win a Booker Prize, Oct. 14
In October 2019, Bernardine Evaristo became the first black woman to win one of the most prestigious awards in literature—a Booker Prize—for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. The Anglo-Nigerian author has written eight books, and her latest focuses on black British female identity over several generations. Evaristo shares this year’s prize with Margaret Atwood, who also won for The Testaments.
Christina Koch and Jessica Meir
First astronauts to complete an all-female spacewalk, Oct. 18
NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-female spacewalk on Oct. 18. An all-female spacewalk was originally scheduled to take place with Koch and astronaut Anne McClain in March, but that lineup was changed at the last minute due to a shortage of medium-sized suits. Koch and Meir are the 14th and 15th women, respectively, to conduct spacewalks.
Aries Susanti Rahayu
First woman to speed climb 15 meters in less than 7 seconds, Oct. 19
Indonesian climber Aries Susanti Rahayu is nicknamed “Spider-Woman” for a reason: she became the female world-record holder for speed climbing, and the first woman to break the 7-second barrier in speed climbing on Oct. 19, when she scaled a 15-meter wall in just 6.99 seconds.
First woman to be appointed prime minister of Belgium, Oct. 27
In October, Sophie Wilmès took office as Belgium’s first female prime minister, leading a caretaker government in the politically divided country. Hailing from a political family in Brussels, she first entered politics in 2000 as a local councilor, before becoming a member of parliament in 2014, budget minister a year later and was appointed prime minister this year. Belgium has been in political deadlock since elections in May, when negotiations to form a new coalition stalled.
Ursula von der Leyen
First woman to become president of the European Commission, Dec. 1
In December, Germany’s former defense minister Ursula von der Leyen took office as the new president of the European Commission—making her the most powerful person in the day-to-day affairs of the European Union. A political ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen formerly headed up the country’s family ministry; during her tenure, Germany introduced several policies to make the country more family friendly, including reforms to paid parental leave. In December, she laid out her plans for a European Green Deal, with ambitious targets to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050.
Correction, Dec. 24
The original version of this story misstated the record-breaking time in which Brigid Kosgei ran the Chicago Marathon in October. It was 2 hours and 14 minutes, not 2 minutes and 14 seconds.
Correction, Dec. 27
The original version of this story misstated the state where Rep. Sharice Davids’ district is located. It is Kansas, not Illinois.
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