A Brief History
On October 9, 2012, just eight years ago, 15 year old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani Muslim girl, was shot in the face by Taliban Islamic extremist terrorists for the “crime” of being a girl that wanted to go to school to learn to read and write. This intrepid young lady went on to become a major player in the battle for women’s rights in the Islamic world, and has served as an inspiration for people across the globe. At the age of 16, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize! We have previously cited this brave woman in previous articles and have also featured an article and video titled Five Fabulous Firsts for Females! giving us the inspiration for another list of Female Firsts. As always, feel free to nominate those fantastic female firsts you believe should belong on this list.
Malala Yousafzai, Youngest ever Nobel Prize Winner, 2014.
As previously detailed, this brave girl was an advocate for teaching girls to read, a seemingly innocuous goal but one that was contrary to a twisted interpretation of the Islamic faith by extremists in her native Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Because of her advocacy of women’s literacy, terrorists shot her in the face. She survived, and went on to continue her brave mission to further the human and civil rights of women and girls, earning her a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Peace, an award she won in 2014 at the age of 17, becoming the youngest person to ever be awarded a Nobel Prize. (The previous youngest Nobel recipient was 25 years old.) Time Magazine has included her on their list of Most Influential People.
Jackie Cochran, 1st Supersonic Woman, 1953.
Born in 1906 as Bessie Lee Pittman, Jackie Cochran, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, was one of the groundbreaking pioneers of aviation. On May 18, 1953, 46-year-old Jackie Cochran, a world famous female racing pilot, while flying a Canadian Air Force F-86 Sabre over Rogers Dry Lake, California at a record speed of 652.3 mph, took the plane in a dive, causing the tell-tale “sonic boom,” thereby becoming the first woman to pilot an airplane at a supersonic speed. Not only was she the first woman to fly supersonic, in 1961, while piloting a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, she became the first woman to fly at Mach II. At the time of her death in 1980, she held more aviation records than any other pilot in history, male or female. She was much more than a racing and record-setting pilot, she had also been instrumental during World War II in organizing women pilots to fly bombers to Britain and, in the process, was the first woman to fly a bomber to Britain.
Other Aviation Firsts for Females.
First woman to fly in a balloon, Élisabeth Thible of France, 1784. First woman to solo in a balloon, Jeanne Labrosse of France, who has the added distinction of being the first female parachutist (1799)! Aida de Acosta of the United States was probably the first woman to pilot a motorized aerial craft when she flew a dirigible in 1903. The first woman to design airplanes, American Emma Lilian Todd, starting in 1906. In 1910, Raymonde de Laroche of France became the first female licensed pilot, while also in 1910, Bessica Raiche became the first American woman to make her solo flight. Back across the Atlantic, Harriet Quimby, who received her American pilot’s license in 1911, became the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman licensed pilot in 1921. By 1929, women pilots were racing from Santa Monica, California to Cleveland, Ohio! The much celebrated American aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo in 1932. World War II saw thousands of women pilots fly in both an auxiliary role, especially ferrying aircraft, as well as in combat, especially Russian/Soviet women, notably Lydia Litvyak, the highest ranking female ace who shot down a dozen enemy planes during World War II and shared an additional 3 kills. Female pilots today are also found in the US military, flying all the various types of aircraft. The first female in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova, who flew a Soviet spacecraft in 1963, 15 years before Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1978. Tereshkova is still alive at age 83, while Ride died of cancer in 2012. (So many other fearless females have achieved great accomplishments and “firsts” in aviation, that to list them all is prohibitive. Feel free to nominate your own choices for women aviators of note and the feats they performed.)
Marie (Skłodowska) Curie, 1st Woman to earn Nobel Prize, only Person to earn Nobel Prize in 2 Categories, 1903.
This remarkable Polish born scientist moved to France so she could practice her scientific research, and married a fellow researcher, Pierre Curie with whom she shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics, becoming the first woman to earn a Nobel Prize. In 1911, Marie became the first person and still the only woman to have earned a second Nobel Prize, this time in the Chemistry category. No other scientist has ever earned a Nobel in 2 different categories.
Lyudmila Mikhailovna Pavlichenko, top Woman sniper of World War II, 1941-1942.
This Ukrainian sharpshooter refused duty as a nurse when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and instead insisted on becoming one of the 2000 women assigned for training as snipers. In the sniper role, Pavlichenko became the deadliest known female sniper of all time, racking up an incredible 309 confirmed kills before being wounded by mortar fire and being reassigned to propaganda and training duties. Using her Mosin-Nagant 7.62 X 54mmR rifle, her first 2 kills came when she was armed only with a single grenade. Her comrade was killed in action, and Lyudmila picked up his rifle and began her reign of terror on Axis soldiers, earning her the nickname “Lady Death.” Pavlichenko is her married name, as the maiden Lyudmila Belova had married a fellow Soviet sniper in 1941 while serving in the Red Army. She died of a stroke in 1974, only 58 years old, something untold thousands of German soldiers could not accomplish. For perspective, consider that the top American sniper in US military history is Chris Kyle with a total of “only” 160 confirmed kills, about half of Pavlichenko’s total! (Kyle may have killed nearly 100 additional enemy combatants, and was shot on 2 occasions, while also surviving 6 IED explosions.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Clayton, Ellen. The Complete Female Warriors: a History of Outstanding Military Women Through the Ages. LEONAUR, 2018.
Gibson, Karen. Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys. Chicago Review Press, 2020.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Pete Souza (1954–) of United States President Barack Obama (right), First Lady Michelle Obama (second from left), and their daughter Malia (left) meeting with Malala Yousafzai (second from right), a young Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, in the Oval Office on 11 October 2013, is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.