50 Fearless Female Firsts in the Arts


March is Women’s History Month — a time to pay “tribute to the generations of women whose commitment to nature and the planet have proved invaluable to society.” Since the national celebration’s beginnings in 1981, women have continued to break the gender barrier and contribute significantly to the historical evolution of various forms of art. Here’s a look at some of those women — the filmmakers, writers, singers, and other creative pioneers who paved the way.

Maya Angelou

The celebrated author became the first African-American woman to have a feature-length screenplay produced — 1972’s Georgia Georgia. And in 1993, during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Angelou became the first poet to make an an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost (at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration) with her work, “On the Pulse of Morning.”

Alice Guy-Blaché

The French filmmaker is widely considered the first female director. She also wrote, produced, shot, and acted in her own films (her filmography lists hundreds of credits). She rose through the ranks at engineer and inventor Léon Gaumont’s photography company (starting as a secretary), eventually joining his motion picture studio, the Gaumont Film Company. Guy-Blaché is also one of the first women to shoot a narrative film and own her own studio, The Solax Company.

Dorothy Dandridge

The first African-American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (1954’s Carmen Jones), Dandridge was also the first black woman to appear on the cover of Life magazine.

Halle Berry

Former fashion model Halle Berry was the first — and, as of last year, the only — African-American woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress (the Lee Daniels-produced Monster’s Ball).

Lydia Maria Child

Juvenile Miscellany was the first monthly periodical for children published in America, founded by activist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child.

Janet Gaynor

What does 1920s actress Janet Gaynor have in common with Jennifer Lawrence and Marlee Matlin? She’s one of the youngest stars to win an Oscar. But Gaynor’s biggest claim to fame is that she was the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in three films: 1927’s 7th Heaven, 1927’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and 1928’s Street Angel.

Sarah Caldwell

The Metropolitan Opera welcomed Sarah Caldwell, the company’s first female conductor, to its stage in 1976 to lead a performance of La traviata.

Harriet E. Wilson

Generally considered the first female African-American novelist, Wilson’s autobiographical book Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously (the author was listed simply as “Our Nig”) in 1859. Filmmaker and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. rediscovered it in 1982. Listen to his fascinating story about its history, over here: “One wrote oneself out of slavery.”

Ida Lupino

In 1953, Lupino became the first woman to direct a mainstream American film noir with The Hitch-Hiker — a tense drama in which a fishing trip becomes a car ride from hell for two friends held hostage by an escaped convict.

Anne Bradstreet

After emigrating to America, Bradstreet became one of the first poets to write English verse in the American colonies. Her first volume of poetry was The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, published in 1650.

Dorothy Arzner

The San Francisco-born director was a medical student and ambulance driver during World War I before she started a career in cinema, spanning from the silents to the 1940s. She was also one of the only lesbians working during this time period. Arzner became the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America in 1936.

Florence Lawrence

Hailing from chilly Canada was Florence Lawrence, considered the first movie star. She starred in nearly 300 films and had many nicknames, including “The Biograph Girl” (she was Biograph Studio’s leading lady) and “The Girl of a Thousand Faces.”

Audrey Munson

Billed as the “American Venus” and the “Most Famous Art Model in the World,” American model and silent cinema actress Audrey Munson was the first woman to appear fully nude on film (1915’s Inspiration). Today, censors are often afraid to portray nudity and extreme subjects. In Munson’s day, censors were fearful that banning her movie would lead to a ban on fine art in museums everywhere.

Suzanne Théodore Vaillande Douvillier

Born in France, Douvillier was the first celebrity ballerina in the United States. She’s also known as “perhaps” the first female American choreographer and “probably” the first to design and paint stage scenery. Douvillier made her debut in New York City in 1792, performing what is regarded as the first ballet in New York, The Bird Catcher.

Maria P. Williams

Maria P. Williams was the first African-American producer, with 1923’s Flames of Wrath. But as the Women Film Pioneers Project writes, Williams was also named “the first African-American woman director. Her film, A Woman’s Error (1922), was distributed by the Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company based in Kansas City, Missouri.”

Adela Rogers St. Johns

Her nickname was the “Mother Confessor of Hollywood.” Adela Rogers St. Johns was one of the first female reporters — for the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and Photoplay. She got the nitty-gritty on all the biggest stars of the 1920s and ‘30s, and worked for more than six decades.

Mary Katherine Goddard

Goddard was the first female postmaster in colonial America, the first to print the Declaration of Independence, and (along with her family) started a printing press to publish Providence’s first newspaper, the Providence Gazette.

Henrietta Johnston

Pastel artist Henrietta Johnston was the earliest recorded professional female artist in America and first pastelist in the English colonies. It’s believed she came from France. There are only 40 surviving artworks by Johnston.

Lois Weber

Weber, the first native-born American, female film director, is often cited as the first female auteur in cinema, as she was involved in all aspects of her productions. She experimented with sound and showed off her split-screen technique in the 1913 film Suspense.

June Mathis

Mathis became the first female executive for Metro/MGM at only 35 years old. She was also the highest paid executive in Hollywood. When she wasn’t busy being the ultimate lady boss, she was writing essential films like 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and 1922’s Blood and Sand. Mathis also discovered Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino.

Amy Beach

Working under the genderless pseudonym “H.H.A. Beach,” Amy Beach was America’s first successful female composer and the first president of the Society of American Women Composers.

Tsuru Aoki

Like her husband, Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian actor to find major success in the United States and Europe, Aoki is considered one of the first Asian actresses to receive top billing in an American film.

Rita Dove

Poet Rita Dove, the first African American to be named United States Poet Laureate since the position was created by Congress in 1986 (it was previously called “Consultant in Poetry”), comes from a family of firsts. Her father, Ray Dove, was the first African-American chemist to work in the United States.

Penny Marshall

The 1988 film Big was huge for several reasons — and director Penny Marshall is one of them. Thanks to the success of the Tom Hanks-starring film, Marshall became the first woman to direct a blockbuster that grossed more than $100 million.

Toni Morrison

She’s penned 11 novels, won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for her tale Beloved, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. But in 1993, Morrison — “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality” — became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Julie Dash

In 1991, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust — centered on the lives of three generations of Gullah women making the migration north from St. Helena Island in the early 20th century — was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States.

Mona Van Duyn

Mona Van Duyn, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Near Changes and the National Book Award-winning To See, To Take: Poems, was named the first female Poet Laureate of the United States in 1992. “Although she disliked the term, Ms. Van Duyn often was called a ‘domestic poet’ because of the relatively small canvas on which she worked. Her subjects included time, love, art and, as she once put it, ‘the wintry work of living, our flawed art.'”

Kathryn Bigelow

In 2010 (brace yourself), Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director with The Hurt Locker.

Susanna Rowson

English-born author and actress Susanna Rowson penned the first American bestseller in 1791, Charlotte Temple. “The book tells of the seduction of a British schoolgirl by a dashing soldier, John Montraville, who brings her to America and there abandons her, pregnant and ill. As such, it belongs to the seduction novel genre popular in early American literature.”

Jessie Maple

IMDb reminds us that Jessie Maple was “the first black woman to direct two feature-length films.” She’s better known as “the first African-American woman to direct an independent feature-length film, after working/training at Channel 13 and Third World Cinema, apprenticing as an editor on films like Shaft’s Big Score (1972), as well as handling camerawork and editing for New York’s ABC, CBS and NBC affiliate TV stations.”

Aretha Franklin

In 1987, Franklin was the first female performer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The year before, the “Michigan Legislature declared [Franklin’s] voice to be a precious natural resource.”

Maya Deren

In 1947, Deren became the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim grant for creative work in cinema. Her landmark, influential short Meshes of the Afternoon was the first narrative, avant-garde American film.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Here’s Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, on her winning composition, Three Movements for Orchestra (Symphony No. 1):

Symphony No. 1 grew out of several of my most central music concerns. First, I have long been interested in the elaboration of large-scale works from the initial material. This ‘organic’ approach to musical form fascinates me both in the development of the material and in the fashioning of a musical idea that contains the ‘seeds of the work to follow.’

Mourning Dove

Also known as Christal Quintasket, Okanagan author Mourning Dove wrote one of the first novels by a Native American woman (that featured a female protagonist) in 1927, Cogewea the Half-Blood: A Depiction of the Great Montana Cattle Range. (Creek author Sophia Alice Callahan’s 1891 novel Wynema, a Child of the Forest, is the first by a Native American woman in the United States). Mourning Dove’s great-niece Jeannette Armstrong also holds one of the “first” records, but not in the United States. She published a 1985 novel, Slash, the first by a First Nations woman in Canada.

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s 12th novel, The Age of Innocence, which examines the morals of upper-crust New York during the 1800s, made her the first woman to win the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1921.

Rachel Whiteread

The Turner Prize is named after the painter J. M. W. Turner and is presented to a British visual artist under the age of 50. In 1993, Whiteread was the first woman to win the annual prize for her temporary public sculpture House — a concrete cast of the inside of a three-story London home.

Margaret Bourke-White

The Bronx-born Bourke-White was hired by Life in 1936 as the magazine’s first female photojournalist. (She also founded the first photography laboratory at the magazine headquarters.) Her images of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam were featured in Life’s first issue and also appeared on the cover. During World War II, she became the first female war correspondent, capturing shocking images at the concentration camps. In 1930, she became the first Western photographer permitted to take pictures of the Soviet industry.

Suzanne Valadon

The first female painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, French artist Suzanne Valadon’s work was focused on the female nude — a scandalous endeavor for her time.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner

American academic and salon painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner was the first American woman to exhibit at the Paris Salon, where she won the gold medal in 1872 (the first woman to ever receive the honor).

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, famous for her striking portraits of the Depression era, became one of the first female faculty members (along with Imogen Cunningham) at the first university fine art photography department in the United States, founded by Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA).

Lydia Canaan

Lebanese recording artist Lydia Canaan is credited as the first rock star of the Middle East, achieving international success. “Her career began with her risking her life to perform amidst enemy military attacks, her concerts literally being held in vicinities of Lebanon which where simultaneously being bombed.”

Julia Phillips

She co-produced some of the best films of the 1970s, including The Sting, Taxi Driver, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Famous for her tell-all memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips was the first female producer to win an Academy Award for Best Picture (The Sting).

Edmonia Lewis

“The first professional African-American and Native-American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis earned critical praise for work that explored religious and classical themes,” writes Biography. “Perhaps her most famous work was a commanding depiction of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, titled The Death of Cleopatra. Met with critical acclaim when she showed it at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and in Chicago two years later, the two-ton sculpture never returned to Italy with its creator because Lewis couldn’t afford the shipping costs.”

Louise Blanchard Bethune

The first professional female architect in America, Louise Blanchard Bethune’s design for the neoclassical Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo, New York was a $1 million commission completed in 1904.

Bette Davis

The “First Lady of the American Screen,” Bette Davis was the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was also one of the first stars awarded ten nominations for acting from the Academy and the first woman to take home the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Not bad for a woman who bombed her first screen test and thought she was no good.

Marian Anderson

After wowing a crowd of more than 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in 1939, Anderson became the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. She played Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

Hildreth Meiere

If there’s a mid-20th-century mural that you love, chances are that Art Deco artist Hildreth Meiere designed it. Some of her most famous creations include the roundels depicting dance, drama, and song at Radio City Music Hall. Meiere became the first woman honored with the Fine Arts Medal of the American Institute of Architects and the first woman appointed to the New York City Art Commission.

Julie Taymor

The first woman to win the Tony Award for directing a musical, Julie Taylor took home the statue for her work on The Lion King in 1998. So let’s all just pretend that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark never happened.

Barbra Streisand

She’s one of less than two dozen entertainers to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award. But Barbra Streisand’s best-known accomplishment is that she was the first woman to win Golden Globe Award for Best Director, for Yentl — which she also wrote, produced, and starred in.

Selma Lagerlöf

The first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf is best known for her children’s novel The Wonderful Adventures of Nils — about a young boy whose “chief delight was to eat and sleep, and after that he liked best to make mischief.”