Today we take a look at some notable and some slightly odd female firsts that went under the radar of history. Some were daring pioneers prepared to sacrifice everything in order to break down barriers and set new records. Others had more practical, even dubious reasons for their actions. And some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
10. Ann Hodges
On the afternoon of November 30, 1954, Ann Hodges was taking a nap in her home in Sylacauga, Alabama. She received quite a rude awakening as a chunk of rock about the size of a grapefruit crashed through the roof of her home, bounced off a console radio, and hit her in the thigh. Thus, she became the first and, so far, only recorded victim of a meteorite.
Fortunately for Hodges, the space rock hit her on the rebound so, aside from a giant bruise, she was physically fine. However, she was greatly affected by the media frenzy that followed which eventually caused her to have a mental breakdown and ended her marriage.
In the immediate aftermath, though, people were more concerned with who owned the meteorite. The Sylacauga police chief was the first to claim possession and he turned it over to the Air Force.
Once it was determined to genuinely be a meteorite and not part of some crashed plane, the Air Force returned it to Hodges. However, as Ann and her husband, Eugene, rented their home, their landlady now claimed it as her own. She was a widow named Birdie Guy who argued that the rock belonged to her because it landed on her property.
The two sides went to court. Guy surrendered her claim of ownership in exchange for $500. The Hodges were banking on recouping their losses and then some by selling the meteorite. Unfortunately, over a year had passed before this was resolved and the world moved on. There was no interest and, eventually, the Hodges donated the rock to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
9. Cynisca of Sparta
Born circa 440 BCE, Cynisca was the daughter of Archidamus II, King of Sparta. Like other Spartan women, she was encouraged to take an active role in physical activities, more so than women in any other Greek societies. Therefore, Cynisca took up equestrianism and became the first woman to win at the Olympic Games.
Her accomplishment is known to us courtesy of Greek traveler and historian Pausanias. He wrote Descriptions of Greece which details his first-hand observations and experiences of the ancient world.
Cynisca competed at the Olympiads in the four-horse chariot races. She won at the 396 and 392 BCE events, albeit she did it as a trainer and as a breeder, not as a racer. Women in Spartan society were provided more liberties, but they were far from equal citizens. Even as a princess, Cynisca was not allowed to participate in the Olympic events, nor was she permitted to take part in the winners’ ceremony. However, Pausanias says that two monuments were erected to commemorate Cynisca’s victories.
8. Annie Edson Taylor
When Annie Edson Taylor achieved her claim to fame at the beginning of the 20th century, she was a widow and an unemployed schoolteacher in her 60s. She didn’t exactly fit the image of a daredevil, yet she became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.
Taylor considered the feat a good way to make money. Stunts at Niagara were all the rage back then. In fact, she was not the first to jump into the river and make it out alive. Sam Patch, also known as the “Yankee Leaper,” did it in 1829. However, he dived into the river near the base of Niagara Falls from an elevated platform. He didn’t actually go over the waterfall.
Annie Taylor took the plunge on October 24, 1901, on her 63rd birthday. She had a sturdy barrel constructed out of oak and iron and lined with cushions to soften the ride. A boat towed her to the middle of the river and then just let the barrel go adrift. The rapids propelled Taylor over Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three waterfalls at the site. The whole journey lasted about 20 minutes. When the barrel was recovered, Taylor was battered, bruised, and had a cut on her head, but otherwise uninjured.
Unfortunately, Taylor’s stunt did not bring the windfall she envisioned. She made some money giving interviews and posing for photographs with tourists, but had to spend most of it on private investigators when her manager ran off with her savings and her barrel.
7. Alaska Davidson
Alaska Packard Davidson’s time in law enforcement was short, but enough to make a mark on history. On October 11, 1922, she became the first female FBI agent.
Strictly speaking, back then it was still known as the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) under the leadership of William J. Burns, a former private investigator dubbed “America’s Sherlock Holmes.” The bureau’s main concern at that time was the Mann Act or the White-Slave Traffic Act passed in 1910. BOI officials felt that female agents could prove useful in working such cases.
Alaska Davidson was hired by the BOI when she was 54. Although there are no records of her specific assignments, she was considered “very refined” and too proper of a lady to work the more sordid cases. Two other women, Jessie Duckstein and Lenore Houston, were hired in subsequent years.
The BOI’s reputation took a severe hit following multiple controversies and allegations of corruption, most notable being the Teapot Dome Scandal. Burns stepped down and, in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover became the new director.
Hoover’s first mission was to streamline the department and get rid of unnecessary agents. Alaska Davidson was on the chopping block, as was Duckstein. Both women turned in their resignations in 1924. Lenore Houston, an agent actually hired by Hoover, lasted until 1928. Two years later, she was in a mental institution in a delusional state, threatening to shoot Hoover if she would ever be released.
6. Alice Guy-Blaché
When film was first created, people initially used it to record occurrences of everyday life. The most famous example was the movie which depicted the arrival of a train. According to urban legend, this frightened some viewers who ran to get out of the way.
It took a few years before people realized that movies could be used to tell a story. This led to the appearance of the narrative film and one of the first to direct such a feature was Alice Guy-Blaché.
For over a decade, Guy-Blaché was not only the first female director, but likely the only one. Born Alice Guy in France, she started as a secretary for a company that manufactured cameras and photography supplies. The business changed hands and came under the leadership of Léon Gaumont. In 1896, Alice, then Gaumont’s secretary, convinced him to let her film a movie with a story. The result was La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages).
The 1896 version doesn’t exist anymore. Alice remade it in 1900 and 1902, but there are records and newspaper stories that attest to her original accomplishment. She was named head of production for Gaumont’s film studio and was responsible for hundreds of other features.
Guy married a cameraman named Herbert Blaché in 1907. The two moved to America and founded their own company, Solax Studios, in New York City. As director, writer, and producer, Alice Guy-Blaché was responsible for around 1,000 films, but few of them still survive today.
5. Bathsheba Spooner
Not all female firsts are positive. Some, like that of 18th century Massachusetts wife Bathsheba Spooner, are notorious. On July 2, 1778, she became the first woman to be executed in the United States of America following the Declaration of Independence.
Bathsheba plotted to kill her husband, Joshua Spooner, with the help of three soldiers. She was having an affair with one of them, a 16-year-old named Ezra Ross. After she became pregnant, Bathsheba knew that her husband will soon discover her infidelity so she urged the young soldier to poison him.
Initially, Ross agreed to do the deed, but backed out at the last minute. This prompted Spooner to enlist the aid of two British deserters, Williams Brooks and James Buchanan. They attacked her husband on his way home from the tavern. Ross then helped them dispose of the body in a well. The crime was discovered soon after and all four were sentenced to the gallows.
History’s portrayal of Bathsheba Spooner has fluctuated. Sometimes she was seen as a cold-hearted, manipulative killer; other times she was regarded as a desperate woman trapped in a loveless marriage with an abusive man. Some, like her defense lawyer and future Attorney General Levi Lincoln, argued that Spooner was a woman with a “disordered mind.”
4. Sophie Blanchard
On November 21, 1783, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes made the first manned balloon flight, thus triggering the start of humanity’s obsession with flying through the skies. This led to a period of time dubbed “balloonomania” and the two daredevils were soon followed by other pioneers. Among them were Jean-Pierre Blanchard and his wife, Sophie.
Blanchard made his first successful balloon flight in 1784. He married Sophie two decades later and the couple had their first flight together soon after. Jean-Pierre died in 1809 from injuries sustained from a fall from his hot air balloon. Sophie Blanchard continued flying solo after his passing, thus becoming the first professional female balloonist. She wasn’t the first woman to ride in a balloon as that distinction most likely belongs to Élisabeth Thible. However, she was the first to pilot her own craft and to undertake the practice as her profession.
Sophie won the favor of Napoleon and King Louis XVIII and they both bestowed upon her official appointments related to aeronautics. She became wildly popular throughout Europe and drew large crowds each time she made an ascent.
Blanchard was also responsible for another, more tragic milestone as she became the first woman killed in an aviation accident. On July 6, 1819, she took off over the Tivoli Gardens in Paris and her balloon caught on fire. The circumstances are not exactly clear, but it seemed to be a combination of strong winds and the pyrotechnics she used in her show. Her craft struck the roof of a house and Blanchard was thrown to the ground below. She was either killed instantly or died soon after.
3. Aloha Wanderwell
Aloha Wanderwell earned monikers such as “the world’s most widely traveled girl” and “the Amelia Earhart of the open road.” She is recognized as the first woman to drive around the world. Her life was full of thrilling adventures, constant novelties, and even a puzzling murder mystery.
Born Idris Hall in Winnipeg, Aloha had the yearning for excitement from a young age. In 1922, the 16-year-old saw a wanted ad in a Parisian newspaper. It was looking for a beautiful, brainy young woman who wasn’t afraid to “rough it” on an expedition throughout Asia and Africa. She would have to work in front and behind a camera.
This was Aloha’s dream job so she joined the expedition. It was a round-the-world endurance race organized by one Walter Wanderwell. The plan was to drive as much as possible in a 1917 Ford Model T. Funding came from filming and screening their travels as well as giving lectures.
The expedition made its way through Europe, then into Asia through India and China. On its way back, it crossed the USSR. Afterwards, the team flew to Africa and traversed the continent from Cape Town to Cairo. Walter and Aloha married during this journey.
Walter Wanderwell was killed in 1932 aboard his schooner in Long Beach. He had a shady past so there was a list of suspects an arm long, but nobody was convicted of his murder. Aloha eventually remarried and continued her globetrotting ways, adding North and South America, Australia, and Indochina to the list.
2. Harriet Quimby
Harriet Quimby was a pioneer of aviation who was responsible for multiple firsts in that area. Her crowning achievement took place in 1912 when she became the first woman to fly over the English Channel. Her success was greatly diminished in terms of media attention, however, due to unfortunate timing.
Born in Arcadia, Michigan, Quimby joined the Aero Club of America and became the first woman to obtain a pilot’s license in the United States. She proved to be a popular attraction and drew large crowds whenever she took to the skies. When she wasn’t flying, Quimby had a fruitful career as a Hollywood screenplay writer. She wrote seven scripts that were turned into movies directed by D. W. Griffith and even had a minor role in one of them.
In 1912, Harriet wanted to fly across the English Channel. On April 16, she took off from Dover and landed in Calais after a 59-minute flight.
Harriet Quimby was the first woman to perform this feat and at a time when the public had a great interest in aviation stories. Yet her flight received little attention from newspapers because, just the day before, the Titanic had sunk in the Atlantic Ocean.
1. Jeanne Baret
In the mid 18th century, scientific voyages of exploration were very popular. Consequently, King Louis XV of France tasked Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville with the first French circumnavigation of the globe. He set off in 1766 with two ships: Boudeuse and the Étoile. He had a large crew of over 300 men and, unbeknownst to everyone, one woman. Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a man and became the first known woman to circumnavigate the Earth.
There was one person who was aware of Baret’s true identity: Philibert Commerson, the expedition’s botanist. The two of them were lovers and Baret came along as his assistant. Although the duo had their own private cabin, rumors still spread that Baret was, in fact, a woman. De Bougainville noted in his journal that the valet had a beardless chin and a soft voice and was in the habit of never undressing or peeing in front of others.
Eventually, Baret came clean to the captain. The ships reached Mauritius where Commerson realized that his friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was the governor. The two left the expedition and stayed on as his guests.
Besides sailing around the world, Baret also helped Commerson with his botany work. However, the naturalist was in poor health and died a few years later. Eventually, Baret married a French officer and returned to France sometime in 1775, thus completing her circumnavigation.
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