July 7, 1981: 10 Political Firsts for Women (Sandra Day O’Connor to Supreme Court)

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A Brief History

On July 7, 1981, President Ronald Reagan made history by appointing Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  While the active participation of women in politics seems common today, things were not always inclusive for women in politics.  Here we list 10 major “firsts” for women in the realm of politics.   (Note: As an inspiration for girls, we made sure to include the alma mater of each of these highly capable women, except Catherine I.)

Digging Deeper

1. 1st Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, 1981.

Sandra got her BA and Law degrees from Stanford, and went on to a stellar career in law and politics, serving as an Arizona State Senator before becoming a Judge in 1975.  A judge for the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1981 when appointed to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Potter, O’Connor served until retiring in 2006, replaced by Justice Alito.  Sandra is now retired at the age of 87, but has been active in numerous areas since retiring from the Supreme Court.  Since the appointment of O’Connor, 3 other women have served on the Supreme Court, all of whom are currently (2017) serving.

2. 1st Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, 1979.

Not only the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister, “The Iron Lady” was also the longest serving PM of the 20th Century.  Thatcher is an alumna of Somerville College, Oxford, and the Inns of Court School of Law.  Thatcher’s pre-politics careers including working as a research chemist and practicing law as a barrister.

3. 1st Major Party Presidential Nominee, Hillary Clinton, 2016.

Expected to easily defeat Republican Donald Trump, the Democratic Nominee Clinton somehow managed to win the popular vote by almost 3 million voters and still lose the election in the Electoral College.  Although mistakes in her campaign were made, the interference in the American Presidential election by the Russians may well have prevented Clinton from becoming the first female President of the United States  Clinton is a graduate of Wellesley College and Yale University.

4. 1st Major Party Vice Presidential Nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, 1984.

A graduate of Marymount Manhattan College and Fordham University, Ferraro first worked as a teacher and then went to law school.  She worked as a lawyer and prosecutor, and then served in the US House of Representatives (New York 9th District) until Walter Mondale tapped her to be his Vice Presidential running mate in 1984.  Ferraro was dogged by her husband’s legal woes, including a fraud conviction, and her son was arrested for possession of cocaine.  Finally getting back into the political arena, Ferraro lost in the Democratic primary for the US Senate (New York) and was appointed as an ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights.  Another loss in a bid for the US Senate in 1998 ended her political career, but began a career in business.  Geraldine died in 2011 at the age of 75 of complications of myeloma, a fracture and pneumonia.

5. 1st to Lead a Muslim Nation, Benazir Bhutto, 1988.

Despite the popular assumption that Muslim women are so repressed that they cannot get an education nor play a meaningful role in running a government, Bhutto of Pakistan destroyed that stereotype by getting a Harvard education followed by more education at Oxford, including becoming the first Asian woman to lead the Oxford Union.  Bhutto came from a political family, and her father was Prime Minister of Pakistan in the 1970’s, unseated in a coup and hanged in 1979.  Bhutto and her mother led the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (from London 1984 to 1988) and upon the resumption of democracy in Pakistan, Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, the first majority Muslim country to name a woman as its leader.  Bhutto served in that office until 1990, and then was reelected in 1993 and served until 1996.  Both of these terms in office were dogged by allegations of corruption, allegations that followed Bhutto the rest of her life.  The revelation that she held 740, 000,00 Euros in Swiss banks fueled the perception of corruption.  Still, Bhutto denied the repeated charges of corruption and stayed involved politically, despite a period of exile in London.  Bhutto was assassinated while leaving a campaign rally in Rawalpindi in 2007, shot while standing and waving to the crowd from the moon roof of an automobile, with explosives thrown at the car for good measure.

6. 1st Queen to Rule England in her Own Right, Mary I, 1553.

Prior to Mary I’s coronation in 1553, Queens of England had always been only consorts of their husbands, the Kings, and were not actual rulers.  Former Holy Roman Empress Matilda had a brief, disputed “reign” as Lady (but not “Queen”) of the English in the 1140s, but she was never crowned and nor was she universally recognized as England’s ruler.  Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon, ruled from 1553 to 1558, until her death when Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn, became Queen.  Mary had succeeded her half-brother, Edward VI (the son of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour), as Edward did not have an heir to pass the throne to.  Edward, dead at 15 years old, had attempted to keep Mary out of his line of succession due to her Catholicism.  A power play to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne failed, and Jane was executed, with Mary quickly becoming queen.  Known as “Bloody Mary,” Mary was Catholic and sought to return Catholicism as the State Religion of England after her father’s break with the Church and her brother’s Protestantism.  Mary’s efforts to stamp out Protestantism and restore Catholicism resulted in her having mass executions of Protestants, including over 280 religious dissidents burned at the stake.  Mary married King Phillip II of Spain (a Catholic), but did not produce an heir, with Mary dead at the age of 42, possibly from influenza.  Elizabeth I succeeded Mary and returned England to Protestantism.

7. 1st Member of US Congress, Jeanette Rankin, 1916.

Incredibly, Rankin was elected to the US House of Representatives from Montana 4 years before women in the US had the right to vote!  Rankin, a pacifist, is famous as having voted against the US entry into World War I, and when reelected to Congress in 1940, again voted against going to war (World War II) after the Pearl Harbor attack.  Rankin was educated at the University of Montana (BA in Biology), later attending what became Columbia University School of Social Work and then the University of Washington at Spokane.  Rankin became involved in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and between stints in Congress as well as after leaving Congress following her second term, Rankin continued as an advocate for peace and for Women’s Rights.  A feminist, Rankin never married, and died in 1973 at the age of 92, leaving her estate to fund scholarships for women.

8. 1st Head of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, 2014.

The recent nature of Yellen’s appointment as Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve goes to show there are still groundbreaking first for women to be made in the 21st Century.  Educated at Brown University and Yale University (MA and PhD), this economist born into a Jewish family in 1946 in New York has a history as a Harvard Professor and a government economist.

9. 1st US Cabinet Secretary, Frances Perkins, 1933.

Perkins became the first Cabinet Secretary in US history when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as Secretary of Labor in 1933.  Perkins served in that office until 1945, possibly the most important period of labor related business in American history, with the beginning in the Great Depression and ending up through all of World War II.  Educated at Mount Holyoke College (BA in Chemistry and Physics), Perkins went on to her MA in Political Science at Columbia University and later studied Economics and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.  Perkins worked for the US Civil Service Commission under President Truman, and later lectured and taught, as well as doing some writing.  She died in 1965 at the age of 85.

10. 1st Empress of Imperial Russia, Catherine I, 1724.

Born in 1684  (maybe) as Marta Skowronska (possibly Polish, Byelorussian, or even part German or Swedish) Catherine was in any case a commoner whose parents died of plague when the girl was only 5 years old.  Sent to Latvia to be raised, Marta married a Swedish Dragoon (cavalryman) at 17, but only for 8 days!  A hazy record of her life as a maid, possibly a laundress, ensued, until she became involved with Russian Prince Alexander Menshikov, possibly as a mistress.  By 1704 Marta had become a mistress in the household of Peter I (The Great), Czar of Russia.  In 1705 Marta converted to Eastern Orthodox and changed her name to Catherine.  Catherine bore Peter I a son, also named Peter, and 11 more children over the years.  They married secretly in 1707, and officially in 1712, with Catherine becoming Empress Consort.  In 1724 Peter elevated Catherine to co-ruler, and in 1725 on Peter the Great’s death, Catherine became Empress Catherine I of Imperial Russia, the first female to rule the Empire on her own.  Never taught to read and write, Catherine ruled until her death in 1727 at the age of 43, of some sort of lung malady.  Catherine was succeeded by her son, Peter II, and had paved the way for other women to become ruler of Russia, including her own daughter Elizabeth and her granddaughter, Catherine II (The Great).  Catherine’s legacy is that of a fair and just leader.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.