A Decade in Review: Ground-Breaking Women
For International Women’s Day, in celebration of 2021’s theme of “Choose to Challenge,” we are honoring not only the ground-breaking women of the past, but also the women of the present who are making a difference. Over the last 10 years, there have been thousands of women all over the world making history and breaking barriers to create amazing new opportunities for the young women who follow. We chose 15 women and/or groups of women doing extraordinary, history-making things who we know will be a part of our history books 50 years in the future.
Vice President Kamala Harris
This year, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, first Black, and first South-Asian vice president in U.S. history. Born and raised in Oakland, California, Harris is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants to the United States. She attended Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., before becoming district attorney of San Francisco, California attorney general, and U.S. senator. Her role is another layer in the glass ceiling shattered for women rising in politics.
U.S Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at just 29 years old, while also defeating a white male incumbent who had served 10 terms. Her non-political background, grounded personality, and steadfastness in the face of people trying to belittle her has quickly risen her to the top of lists featuring influential women and has become a role model to young women in politics.
Firsts for Women in Government
While AOC became the youngest woman elected to Congress, the last few years have seen a great variety of women elected into politics that serve as incredible role models for underrepresented groups. Deb Haaland, U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, was one of two of the first indigenous members elected to Congress in 2019, alongside Sharice Davids U.S. Representative from Kansas’s 3rd congressional district, as well as the first indigenous person nominated for a cabinet position with President Biden tapping her for Interior Secretary this year. Sharice Davids is also the first lesbian Native American to be elected to the House. Rashida Tlaib, U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 13th congressional district, and Ihan Omar, U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s 5th congressional district, became the first Muslim women elected to Congress in 2019, with Omar also becoming the first Somali-American to serve. Ayanna Pressley, U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district, will become the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, in 2019. Rachel Levine is the first transgender person nominated for a cabinet position, as announced in January 2021.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, became the world’s youngest head of state in 2017 at age 37, then, in 2018, less than a year into her tenure as PM, Ardern became the first sitting New Zealand PM to give birth and the second female state leader to do so in the world. She has also been universally praised for her quick response to tragedy, having banned military-style semi-automatics less than a month after the Christchurch shootings, where an alt-right white supremacist killed 51 people and injured 49 in two mosques. Her quick and effective COVID lockdowns have kept New Zealand safe and one of the least affected countries by the pandemic to date. Her leadership skills, strength, and diplomacy have helped transform unfair worldwide assumptions of what it means to have women and mothers in positions of power.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
In 2016, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination and made history as the first woman presidential nominee from a major party. Despite not winning the election, Clinton getting the nomination and winning the popular vote was a huge accomplishment and win for opening pathways up to women rising in power in the government. It showed that there is hope and a reality in which a little girl could grow up to become president and finish the job of what women like Clinton started.
Environmental Activist Greta Thunburg
16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunburg landed in New York after sailing for two weeks from Sweden to appear at a climate change protest at the United Nations and shake up every adult in the room with her powerful stance on youth being stolen by the non-actions of adults in power. She has now become the face of the global climate movement as well as known for her quick and clever responses to opponents online. Through Thunburg’s activism, young women are seeing that their voices matter and can make a difference as long as they speak up and stand their ground for what they believe in, even if the then-president insults you on Twitter.
Voting Rights Activist Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams is a political leader, voting rights activist and former House representative for Georgia. In 2018, Abrams was the first black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States. After witnessing the gross mismanagement of the 2018 election by the Secretary of State’s office, Abrams launched Fair Fight to ensure every American has a voice in our election system through programs such as Fair Fight 2020, an initiative to fund and train voter protection teams in 20 battleground states. Through her organization, activism, and passion for fighting against racially motivated voter suppression to make every voter count, Abrams is largely credited with turning Georgia into a blue state, leading to Biden winning the presidency in 2020. Her influence is unmatched and has helped give power back to the people, showing that if they fight back against unfair policy and practices, they could change the world.
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai
At 12 years old, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban members attempting to kill her because of her outspoken support for young women’s right to education. She recovered and the near-death experience only fueled her passion to advocate on behalf of women denied an education worldwide. In 2014, Yousafzai was honored for her years of work supporting girls’ rights with the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the youngest winner to receive this award.
Founders of BLM Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi
In response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2013, activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi came together to create the Black Lives Matter Movement and raise awareness for police brutality in the Black community. Garza began by writing a series of Facebook posts titled “A Love Letter to Black People” which included her writing that, “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter… stop giving up on black life.” She ended with, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” From there, Cullors created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and Tometi helped spread the movement through social media. Over the years as more and more horrifying accounts of unfair killings of BIPOC and justice not being served, the hashtag started gaining popularity, coming to a head and becoming the rallying cry of summer 2020. What started out as a small gesture of pain and love through social media posts have turned into one of the most important movements of the past decade.
Founder of #MeToo Movement Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke is an activist, community organizer best known as the founder of the #MeToo movement. The foundation of “me too” came from Burke’s work in the ‘90s as a youth camp director, where girls were given a safe space to share their experiences with sexual abuse. She has worked since then to empower young women, especially women of color, through programs and non-profits like JustBe, Inc., created to empower and encourage young Black girls through unique programming and workshops. In 2017, she coined the hashtag “#MeToo” in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations and since then, Burke’s hashtag has been used more than 19 million times on Twitter alone. Thanks to the viral movement taking off, she has been widely recognized for her work and was named Person of the Year by TIME Magazine in 2017.
Arts and Science
National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman
Amada Gorman became an icon as soon as she stepped up to the podium to read her original poem during President Biden’s inauguration in January, 2021. Gorman graduated from Harvard University in 2020 and while she was there, became the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States in 2017. She is the author of several poetry collections, including The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country, which she read during the inauguration and amended to include lines about the storming of the Capitol that had happened just a week prior. She is the youngest person to serve this role and also the first poet commissioned to write and recite an original poem for the Super Bowl, titled Chorus of the Captains, honoring three Americans for their work amid the pandemic.
Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir
In October 2019, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir exited the International Space Station and replaced a controller regulating the batteries that store the station’s solar power, making them the first women to complete an all-female spacewalk in the history of space travel. This act has great implications of challenging assumptions of women having less physical strength, intelligence, or bravery than men and proving that they are just as capable, showing the world that women should be considered as contenders for more historically male-dominated opportunities and occupations. Today, only 34% of NASA’s workforce is women, but that number can only go up now thanks to astronauts like Koch and Meir inspiring girls to literally reach for the stars,
Tennis Champion Serena Williams
Recently, there was a trending topic on Twitter about who the GOATs (Greatest of All Time) of sports are. Lionel Messi, Kobe Bryant, and Tom Brady were on the top of lists, but people were quick to point out an often-forgotten true GOAT: Serena Williams. Williams has won more Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined (39) than any other woman or man during the Open era. Included in her wins, Serena and her sister Venus together won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, the second most for a pair in the open era, and three doubles gold medals at the Olympics. Her appearance and actions on the court are often a point of sexist and racist controversy by the media, but despite these comments, she has always persevered. Her talent is an inspiration and influence to women coming up in the sport, including most notably Naomi Osaka who defeated her 2018 US Open final and acknowledged her as a legendary player who she looked up to her whole life.
US Women’s Soccer Team
In 2017, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, led by Megan Rapinoe, won the Women’s World Cup. Women’s sports have always struggled to gain recognition and be given the same attention and credit as their male counterparts. During the World Cup, however, the women of the U.S. Women’s Team were center stage and gained the attention and respect of soccer fans, male and female, worldwide. They won their fourth World Cup, in stark contrast to the Men’s Team’s record of zero wins, and showed the world why women’s teams were just as valid as men’s teams. This gave the team the leverage to take on the U.S. Soccer and FIFA organizations to fight for equal pay; they showed that female soccer players were paid $4,950 per game while men’s team players would earn $13,166 per game, despite one team winning the World Cup multiple times and the other barely qualifying year after year. The lawsuit is ongoing, but serves as another example of how women are no longer afraid to fight for what’s right and against the archaic notion that women should be paid less than men for the same (or better) work.
Assistant Coach Katie Sowers
This year, Katie Sowers, assistant coach of the San Francisco 49ers, became the first woman and first openly gay coach in Super Bowl history. Sowers, a former quarterback herself, was on the sidelines coaching her players as they took on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. While her team didn’t win, Sowers was satisfied with the role she played in getting them to and playing in the biggest game of the year, saying: “Being the first, it is historic, but the most important thing is just to make sure I’m not the last.” By being there, Sowers has helped to push the idea of women having a role in power in the most male-dominated sport and opened the door to more women on the field telling the men what to do.
Young women and girls everywhere truly have some role models to look up to. Happy International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!