Notable Firsts: American Women Leaders

America’s First Women in Office

10 trailblazers in top government and military positions, in their own words 

During Women’s History Month, we honor some of the first women to hold leadership positions in top government and military positions. In reflecting on their achievement, many looked to the future, noting that more change was yet to come.

First Woman in the U.S. House of Representatives:

Jeannette Rankin

In 1916, four years before American women won the right to vote, the people of Montana elected Rankin to the U.S. House of Representatives. A leader in the women’s suffrage movement, she successfully advocated for Montana’s women to gain full voting rights in 1914.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” Rankin remarked after she was elected. “But I won’t be the last.”

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First Female Senator:

Rebecca Latimer Felton

In 1922, Georgia’s governor, Thomas Hardwick, appointed Felton to fill a vacant Senate seat until a special election could be held. The term of the newspaper columnist and political activist was short — just 24 hours.

In her only speech on the Senate floor, Felton said to her fellow lawmakers: “When the women of the country come in and sit with you ... I pledge you that you will get ability, you will get integrity of purpose, you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness.”

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First Female Governor:

Nellie Tayloe Ross

Upon the death of Governor William B. Ross in 1924, voters in Wyoming elected Nellie Tayloe Ross to serve the remaining two years of her husband’s term. Ross lost her bid for re-election, but in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her director of the U.S. Mint, a position in which she served until 1953.

“It may yet be the hand of woman that will lead the world into the path of permanent peace,” said Ross, advocating for greater women’s political participation, in a 1929 speech in Columbus, Georgia

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First Female Federal Judge:

Genevieve Rose Cline

President Calvin Coolidge nominated Cline to the U.S. Customs Court in New York City (now called the Court of International Trade) in 1928. Cline, a native of Ohio, served on the bench for 25 years.

“As soon as women learn to stand together, then they will find out their influence and power in politics,” said Cline, speaking to the Indianapolis League of Women Voters in 1929.

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First Female Cabinet Member:

Frances Perkins

Perkins served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor from 1933 until 1945. The pair had previously worked together; she served as Roosevelt’s industrial commissioner when he was governor of New York.

In a letter to a friend, Perkins explained why she accepted the post of labor secretary: It “was the realization that the door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and that I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down ... and so establish the right of others.”

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First Female U.S. Ambassador:

Helen Eugenie Anderson

President Harry S. Truman appointed Anderson as the U.S. ambassador to Denmark in 1949. She went on to serve in several other diplomatic posts at home and abroad.

Before departing for Denmark, Anderson told a reporter that “only the participation of average citizens in political parties will keep democracy safe.”

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First Female Generals in the U.S. Army:

Anna Mae Hays and Elizabeth Hoisington

In 1970, President Richard Nixon promoted two women to the rank of brigadier general for the first time in U.S. history: Anna Mae Hays, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, and Elizabeth Hoisington, director of the Women’s Army Corps. Hays and Hoisington were veterans of three wars, having enlisted during World War II and served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Upon accepting the promotion in 1970, Hays remarked that it “reflect[s] the dedicated, selfless, and often heroic efforts of Army nurses throughout the world.” Hoisington said that “all women are standing taller today.”

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First Female Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court:

Sandra Day O’Connor

President Ronald Reagan appointed O’Connor, an attorney and judge in Arizona, to the Supreme Court in 1981. She served for 25 years, retiring in 2006.

At a symposium on women and the Constitution in Atlanta in 1988, O’Connor said, “Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement, and remuneration based on ability.”

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First Female Vice President:

Kamala Harris

Harris, former U.S. senator and attorney general of California, was elected vice president of the United States in 2020. She accomplished a triple first: the first Black American, the first South Asian American, and the first woman to be elected vice president.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris declared in her acceptance speech. “Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

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First Female Chair of the Federal Reserve and Secretary of the Treasury:

Janet Yellen

President Barack Obama appointed Yellen as chair of the Federal Reserve in 2014. The former economics professor currently serves as President Joe Biden’s treasury secretary; she is the first woman in this role as well.

In a speech at her alma mater, Brown University, in 2017, Yellen said: “Further advancement [in the progress of women] has been hampered by barriers to equal opportunity and workplace rules and norms that fail to support a reasonable work-life balance. If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to … our economy.”

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