The past year was a big one for women, especially women who changed the world and made history. Notably, we finally got our first woman Vice President (Kamala FTW), and women made exceptionally strong showings throughout all levels of government in America, with more women than ever before taking congressional seats in 2020. (Doubly exciting? 2020 saw a record 27 Black women elected to Congress—talk about Black history!)
But we didn't only make history in politics. We broke records and changed the game across sports, science, arts and culture, and even outer space in the past year. So let's raise a metaphorical glass (or a real one—celebrate however you choose!) to 20 pioneers who had the gumption, skills, and character to do it first. May they not be the last.
And thankfully, there doesn't seem to be any slowing down. In 2021, we've already seen several historic firsts from talented women: Chloé Zhao became the first Asian woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards, Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet ever to perform at a U.S. presidential inauguration, and NFL referee Sarah Thomas became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl. There is always more work to do, but if the last year has shown us anything, it's that women are only just getting started.
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Twenty women who changed the world in 2020:
1. Becky Hammon
In December 2020, assistant coach Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs made history becoming the first woman to act as an NBA head coach during a regular season game. Fellow trailblazer Kamala Harris commended Hammon on social media after the game, tweeting (opens in new tab): "Congrats, @BeckyHammon. You may be the first, but I know you certainly won't be the last."
2. Billie Eilish
The "Bad Guy" singer became the first woman and only the second artist in Grammy history to sweep the show's Big Four awards—Best New Artist, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and Record of the Year—for her hit album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? at the 2020 Grammys. For the latter two categories, she also became the youngest winner ever.
3. Christina Koch
American engineer and NASA astronaut Christina Koch had already made history in 2019, when she and Jessica Meir became the first women to participate in an all-female spacewalk. She broke barriers yet again in February 2020, when she touched down back on earth after setting the record for NASA's longest continuous spaceflight by a woman.
4. Cori Bush
Registered nurse and community activist Cori Bush became the first Black-American woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives from Missouri. Following her win, Bush posted a photo (opens in new tab) of herself posing in front of a portrait of another notable lady: Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black-American candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States in 1972. Bush captioned the touching photo: "The First."
5-7. Deb Haaland, Teresa Leger Fernandez and Yvette Herrell
For the first time in the state's history, New Mexico elected all women of color to the U.S. House of Representatives. Deb Haaland (above)—who also made history back in 2018 when she became one of the first Native American congresswomen—along with Teresa Leger Fernandez and Yvette Herrell became the country's first all-WOC House delegation since Hawaii in 1990.
8. Eimear Noone
One of the long-standing traditions of the Academy Awards is to have a live orchestra accompany the glam ceremony. The 2020 Oscars added an extra bit of pomp and prestige to the occasion: Irish composer and director Eímear Noone became the first woman to conduct the ensemble.
9-10. Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna
In October 2020, Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their game-changing work on DNA editing, specifically the Crispr-Cas9 "genetic scissors." The honor marks the first time in history that the prestigious prize has gone to two women.
11. Gitanjali Rao
The 15-year-old Indian-American scientist was named TIME magazine's first-ever "Kid of the Year" in 2020 for her incredible scientific solutions, specifically the lead detection tool she created when she was only ten after learning about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
12. Dr. Jill Biden
After her husband Joe Biden accepted the Democratic nomination to run for U.S president in 2020, Dr. Jill Biden proved that she would be no ordinary First Lady. Biden, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership, taught writing full-time at Northern Virginia Community College during her two terms as Second Lady, and reiterated that she would continue to teach during her husband's presidential administration, making her the first First Lady to hold a paying job outside the White House.
13. Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris shattered the proverbial glass ceiling when Joe Biden announced the California senator as his running mate in August 2020, becoming the first woman, the first Black-American and the first Asian-American person to become vice-president elect. She, of course, was then sworn in as the country's first woman Vice President in January 2021.
14. Katie Sowers
Already the first openly LGBT coach in the National Football League's history, offensive assistant Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers further distinguished herself by becoming the first female coach to make it to the Super Bowl in 2020.
15. Kim Ng
In being named the general manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team in 2020, Ng became the highest-ranking woman executive in Major League Baseball and the first female GM of a team in any of the Big Four leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL) in North America. She is also the first person of East Asian descent to serve as GM of an MLB team.
16. Lt. Madeline Swegle
Upon completing the Tactical Air (Strike) syllabus, student naval aviator Lieutenant Madeline Swegle earned her wings and made history as the service's first Black-American woman to become a fighter jet pilot. Rear Adm. Paula Dunn, who serves as the Navy's vice chief of information, gave Swegle major props on Twitter (opens in new tab): "Go forth and kick butt."
17. J. Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The world lost an icon when the late, great RBG passed in September 2020. But in her death, as in her life, the Supreme Court justice pushed the way forward for women in the country. She became the first woman to lie in repose at the Supreme Court Building on September 23rd and the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol two days later.
18. Sarah McBride
When LGBT advocate Sarah McBride won her race for a seat in the Delaware state Senate in the 2020 election, she became the first transgender state senator in U.S. history, as well as the highest-ranking openly trans elected official in the nation.
19. Valentina Sampaio
Brazilian model-actress Valentina Sampaio—who in 2017 was the first openly transgender model ever to be featured on a cover of Vogue and has long advocated for the LGBTQIA communities in her native Brazil—became the first transgender model to appear in Sports Illustrated's uber-popular Swimsuit issue.
At 24-years-old, the Euphoria star became the youngest woman ever to win the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 72nd Emmy Awards. With her historic win, Zendaya joins another one of our acting favorites, Viola Davis, as only two Black actresses to have received the prestigious TV award.
Christina Izzo is the Deputy Editor of My Imperfect Life.
More generally, she is a writer-editor covering food and drink, travel, lifestyle and culture in New York City. She was previously the Features Editor at Rachael Ray In Season and Reveal, as well as the Food & Drink Editor and chief restaurant critic at Time Out New York.
When she’s not doing all that, she can probably be found eating cheese somewhere.
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