2. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree Never underestimate the power of a friend. Elizabeth Blackwell initially decided to go into teaching, but after a close friend, who was dying, said she may have suffered less if her doctor had been a woman, she immediately opted to join the medical field. Born in England in 1821 to abolitionists, she moved with her family to the U.S. when she was 11 years old. After deciding to become a doctor, Blackwell consulted with two physicians who claimed it would be impossible for a woman to join their ranks—despite the fact that they though the idea was brilliant. But she wouldn’t take no for answer. The rest is history: Blackwell applied, and the school put it up for a vote. The all-male student body allegedly voted “yes” as a joke, but it didn’t matter. She graduated from Geneva Medical College two years later—becoming the first woman to graduate from an American medical school. Blackwell then worked in clinics in Paris and London before losing sight in one eye—which forced her to give up her dream of being a surgeon. She opened up a practice in New York with her sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell, and together with Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which would provide training for women doctors and provide medical care for the poor.
5. Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress It took a special woman to be elected to U.S. Congress before the 19th Amendment was passed. Born in Montana in 1880, Jeannette Rankin worked in a number of careers after earning a degree in biology. But it wasn’t long before she found her true calling: women’s suffrage. After leading successful campaigns to get women the vote in Washington state and in her home state, she ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1916—and won. Shortly after she arrived in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson asked for a resolution to enter World War I, but Rankin was one of 50 legislators who voted against it, saying “I want to stand behind my country, but I cannot vote for war.” She sought the Senate nomination in 1920 but lost. It was 20 years before she returned to Congress, when she cast the lone dissenting vote against World War II, despite the hissing and booing of legislators who wanted the vote to be unanimous. “As a woman, I cannot go to war and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. Later in life, she became active against the Vietnam War, later calling the women whose rights she had fought for, worms. “They let their sons go off to war because they’re afraid their husbands will lose their jobs in industry if they protest.” She died in 1973, at the age of 92—but before the U.S. left Vietnam.
7. Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina “A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own,” said Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina. Tallchief was born in the Osage reservation in Oklahoma in 1925, where she took ballet and piano lessons starting at age 3. Her family soon moved to Los Angeles, where she began studying under the Russian ballerina Madame Nijinska. At 15, Tallchief danced her first solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl, and instead of college, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Russian ballet troupe based in New York. The first Native American to be part of the troupe, she was pressured to change her name to something more European-sounding. She married the ballet dancer George Balanchine, and became the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947 until 1960. She danced with the company until 1965, when she retired, at the top of her performance. With her sister Marjorie, she formed the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as the artistic director from 1981 until 1987. She was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1996, with guests Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Edward Albee, and Benny Carter in attendance.
8. Colette, a famed writer and the first French female given a state funeral Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known simply as Colette, is considered one of the greatest modern French writers. Born in Burgundy in 1873, her father was a politician who challenged her to match wine glass to wine glass while he tried to get supporters at local cafés—when she was just 6 years old. She left village life when she fell in love with the French music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, whom she later married. Willy encouraged her to write and shipped her novels off to an editor—under his own name. Although she later divorced him—after he became famous for her writing—many claim Willy was a good editor to her. In 1910 she wrote her first critically acclaimed work in her own name titled, Renee, and by 1927, she became known as the “greatest living writer in France.” Her fame only increased with her novel Gigi, the Caroline series, and the play Cheri. She was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy, but was not admitted to the Academie Française, because it was for men only. Upon her death in 1954, she was the first woman given a state funeral in France.
9. Kate Sheppard, one of the first—and fiercest—crusaders for women’s suffrage in New Zealand The first country to grant women the right to vote was New Zealand—and one of the key players was Kate Sheppard, a suffragette who is honored on the country’s $10 note. At first, Sheppard joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated for suffrage as a means to ban alcohol. But Sheppard quickly realized the importance of suffrage itself and took the campaign on for other reasons. She lobbied Parliament, wrote letters to newspapers, and gathered signatures. In 1893 a 766-foot-long petition was rolled out in front of Parliament—the longest ever—and despite some fierce opposition, the Electoral Act of 1893 was passed. As a result, 65 percent of women voted in the next election. Sheppard didn’t rest on her laurels after suffrage—she took other women’s issues, such as fighting for contraception rights, and eventually becoming the editor of The White Ribbon, the first newspaper in New Zealand to be owned, managed, and published exclusively by women. She died in 1934, one year after the first woman was elected to Parliament.
10. Umm Kulthum, extraordinary Egyptian singer. Called the “Voice of Egypt,” Umm Kulthum has been described by blogger David Shasha as having the cultural importance of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles—combined. Her exact birth date is unknown, but what is known is that she began to show immense singing talent at a young age. Despite her humble origins, she quickly became recognized by the fashionable elite in Cairo. But she never forgot her roots, and always left her concerts open to the public. Her popularity grew so large that in 1944, King Farouk I of Egypt recognized her with Egypt’s highest honor. In spite of the reward, she distanced herself from the royal family when they opposed her marriage to the king’s uncle. This incident led her to answer a song request during her radio broadcast to trapped a Egyptian legion in Fallujah during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict—garnering the support of Gamal Abdel Nasser during the bloodless coup. Her “golden years” are generally considered the 1940s and 1950s, although her performance in 1966 of Ibrahim Nagi’s “Al-Atlal” is considered by many to be her magnum opus. She died in 1973, with millions of Egyptians attending her funeral procession.