Ladies First: 8 Inspiring Women Who Pioneered the Feminist Movement

FEMINIST1As I begrudgingly wake up every morning and head into Manhattan for another day at the office, it’s easy to forget that just 50 years ago, what I’m doing was unheard of for women. This was a time when most girls went to college to find a husband rather than a passion — a time when their “career” consisted of getting married, having children, and raising them. As a girl who grew up repeatedly being told by my parents that I was going to go to college and  find a job, it’s difficult to fathom not being able to do this. But that’s precisely the way it was for many of the women highlighted in MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA, a groundbreaking documentary that chronicles the extraordinary stories of women who led, opposed, or were trailblazers in the feminist movement.

I had the opportunity to attend a preview of this film earlier this month, and let me tell you, I was inspired — and a bit embarrassed. I never fully realized just how much the feminist movement impacted my own life or how far women’s rights have come in a matter of decades. The documentary, which premiers on PBS next Tuesday, touches on everyone from the movement leaders, Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf; those who opposed it, like Phyliss Shlafly and Beverly LaHaye; and famous faces, like Barbara Walters and Hillary Clinton. In honor of these fearless ladies, I rounded up 8 inspiring feminists who helped shape women’s rights in their own respective careers and fields. From the first female NBA referee to the first actress to play a single working woman on television, we can all take a lesson from these women’s courage and determination. — By Jennifer Gimbel


  • Violet Palmer | First Female NBA Referee 1 of 8
    Violet Palmer | First Female NBA Referee
    "My mother couldn't make me cook ... or play with the Barbies I didn't want to do it." Sports on the other hand, Violet Palmer could do. During her college years, she spent summers score-keeping men's basketball games. Whenever the referees didn't show up, she'd fill in. Such was the start of Palmer's groundbreaking career. She went on to work as a professional referee for the women's NCAA, then made history in 1997 by becoming the NBA's first female referee. It wasn't a complete slam dunk though; Palmer has had to deal with men who resented her new position, commenting that she belonged in the kitchen making bacon and eggs.
    Read more about Violet Palmer's entrance into the world of men's sports at
    Photo credit: ©Glenn James, NBAE / Getty Images
  • Sandra Cisneros | Pioneering Mexican-American Writer 2 of 8
    Sandra Cisneros | Pioneering Mexican-American Writer
    Sandra Cisneros knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age. While her father wanted her to go to university to find a husband, she had other plans. After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree, she was invited to attend the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Though she should have been honored, Cisneros found the experience degrading toward women, especially ethnic women. She used her anger as the fuel to write her first book, The House on Mango Street (1984), and became the first female Mexican-American writer to have her work published by a mainstream publisher. Cisneros' work, which addressed such taboo topics as gender inequality and the marginalization of cultural minorities, has since helped pave the way for the Chicano literary movement.
    Read more about Sandra Cisneros' impressive writing career at
    Photo credit: ©2004 Ulf Andersen / Getty Images
  • Danica Patrick | First Female Champion Race Car Driver 3 of 8
    Danica Patrick | First Female Champion Race Car Driver
    Danica Patrick started racing go-carts at the mere age of 8. And it wasn't enough for her to be the fastest girl... Her parents wanted her to be the fastest racer ever. After breaking into the Indy racing scene when she was 16 years old, Patrick went on to become the first woman to win any Indy car race (the 2008 Indy Japan 300) and later moved on to race in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The secret to her success? "Perhaps it just comes down to my parents not letting me feel like I was any different or like I should give myself different standards because I was a girl." Take note, moms and dads.
    Read more about Danica Patrick's race to success at
    Photo credit: ©ScottMacum
  • Barbara Walters | First Woman Co-anchor of Network Evening News 4 of 8
    Barbara Walters | First Woman Co-anchor of Network Evening News
    In the 1960s, any career other than secretary was hard to come by for women, but joining the ranks of TV journalism? Nearly impossible. Barbara Walters recounts the policies of NBC studios: "They had one female writer ... and the only way you could get the job is if that female writer got married or died." When Walters managed to become NBC's new "Today Girl" in 1963, she sucked it up and did the "fluff" interviews that were expected of female journalists at the time. This position proved to be the catalyst for her career; she went on to become the first woman co-anchor of network evening news, paving the way for aspiring journalists across the country.
    Read more about Barbara Walters' leap into the world of journalism at
    Photo credit: ©Joella Marano
  • Marlo Thomas | First Single Working Woman on Television 5 of 8
    Marlo Thomas | First Single Working Woman on Television
    Award-winning actress Marlo Thomas changed the world of American entertainment with her Golden Globe-winning television show, That Girl. During a time when women were only expected to get married and have kids, this 1960s show told the story of a single working woman living on her own in New York City. Though many of the writers wanted to end the show with an extravagant wedding, Thomas wouldn't hear of it: "I had the feeling that there's millions of these girls who've been hanging on Ann Marie's every word and following her journey and if she gets married at the end, it means that's the only happy ending." If it weren't for Thomas' pioneering, shows like Girls wouldn't be around today. Marlo, Lena Dunham thanks you.
    Read more about Marlo Thomas' revolutionary role in "That Girl" at
    Photo credit: ©AlanLight
  • Kathrine Switzer | First Woman to Enter the Boston Marathon 6 of 8
    Kathrine Switzer | First Woman to Enter the Boston Marathon
    Even long-distance running wasn't a welcome space for women back in the day. According to Kathrine Switzer, it was due to the obvious: "An arduous activity means you'd get big legs, grow a mustache, grow hair on your chest, and then your uterus was going to fall out." In 1967, she pushed aside those stereotypes to become the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon; it had been an all-male event for 70 years. How'd she swing it? By signing up with just a "K." for her first name. Come Marathon day, when the race director tried to physically push her out of the race, the press caught wind and a media firestorm broke out. Five years later, women were officially allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon.
    Read more about Kathrine Switzer's aspiring story at
    Photo credit: ©Marathona
  • Billie Jean King | Female Tennis Champion and Activist 7 of 8
    Billie Jean King | Female Tennis Champion and Activist
    Billie Jean King started making a name for herself in the world of competitive tennis in the early ‘60s, but it wasn't until she won the 1968 Wimbledon championship that she truly realized the gender gap on the courts. This was the first year they handed out prize money at the competition, and to King's dismay, she received a mere 750 pounds compared to the male winner's 2,000 pounds. After the Men's Tennis Association was founded in 1972, King went on to organize the Women's Tennis Association. She looks back on that day with fond memories: "we wanted any girl in the world who was good enough to know there was a place for her to play and make a living."
    Read more about Billie Jean King's inspiring tennis career at
    Photo credit: ©Jonathan Exley / King Enterprises
  • Brenda Berkman | First Female NYC Firefighter 8 of 8
    Brenda Berkman | First Female NYC Firefighter
    After winning a discrimination lawsuit in 1982, Brenda Berkman became the first woman hired by the New York City Fire Department. Her fight against "the man" didn't stop there, though. During her first 10 years of service, Berkman dealt with a large amount of harassment from her male coworkers from dead rats put in her uniform pockets to having her work boots peed in to sexual assault. Why put up with it? She realized "if it was an important cause, there were going to be prices to be paid." And she knew if she backed down, men would have license to bring down the rest of the feminist advocates.
    Read more about Brenda Berkman's challenging career at
    Photo credit: ©2002 Daily News, L.P. ( New York ) / Getty Images

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