In the 1960s, a group of the first American female astronaut trainees, later dubbed the Mercury 13, went through extensive tests designed by William Randolph Lovelace ll, M.D. Lovelace was running the privately-funded, unofficial project, which he called the “Woman in Space Program,” according to the Library of Congress, around the same time he was testing the Mercury 7 astronauts. Though the women were equally qualified and outperformed the men on several levels, they were ultimately excluded from joining the NASA space program, and the “Woman in Space Program” was canceled.
Nearly 60 years later, on Oct. 18, 2019, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch completed the 221st spacewalk in support of the International Space Station’s maintenance and assembly, and marked the first all-female spacewalk in history.
In 1917, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, representing her state of Montana. During her time as the sole woman in Congress—and even after—she pushed for legislation to protect children, women and worker’s rights, and introduced a bill that later became the 19th amendment, which secured women the right to vote nationwide in 1920.
Now, over 100 years later, more women have been elected to Congress than ever before. According to Pew Research Center, “Counting both the House of Representatives and the Senate, women account for 153 of 540 voting and nonvoting members of Congress.” This includes Sarah McBride, who is the first openly transgender senator. The U.S. even elected its first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also the first Black and South Asian American person to serve as Vice President of the U.S.
Recent notable achievements by and for women
As we embark on Women’s History Month 2023, it’s easy to feel inspired by how far women have come, getting us a little bit closer to gender equality. Headlines celebrating the accomplishments of women’s firsts have filled our newsfeeds more than ever before. Despite the pandemic—though workplaces are still notably dominated by men—the number of female employees in the workplace has “surpassed prepandemic levels” as of September 2022, according to a USA Today report, making the glass ceiling feel… destructible.
Women in sports
- In 2016, Brehanna Daniels became the first Black woman member of the pit crew in NASCAR.
- Simone Biles earned her spot in history as the first gymnast to win 25 championship medals in 2019 and now has two moves named after her.
- ESPN, in response to the rise in Women’s National Basketball Association viewership, featured 13 additional games in the 2020 season for a total of 37 broadcasts.
- In December 2020, after head coach Gregg Popovich was ejected from a game, San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon became “the first woman to act as head coach during an NBA regular-season game,” according to ESPN.
- Sarah Thomas became the first full-time female official for the NFL in 2015 and the first woman to referee the Super Bowl in 2021.
Achievements by women in STEM
- Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2020, which was “the first time a science Nobel has been awarded to two women,” according to Glamour. Charpentier and Doudna received the Nobel for their work on the technology of genome editing.
- Nicole Aunapu Mann and Katya Echazarreta both made history in 2022 as the first Native American woman and the first Mexican-born American woman, respectively, to travel to space.
Women in business
- In 2020, Jane Fraser was appointed as CEO of Citigroup, marking the first time a major Wall Street Bank was led by a woman.
- As of 2022, the U.S. has a record number of women-led Fortune 500 companies, with “74 female CEOs employed at America’s 500 highest-grossing companies, up from 41 in June of 2021 and only 7 in 2002,” according to the World Economic Forum.
Achievements by and for women in politics
- Scotland passed a bill in November 2020 that made period products free for all women.
- A 2020 study for Harvard Business Review showed that women leaders “were rated more positively on 13 of the 19 competencies in our assessment that comprise overall leadership effectiveness. Men were rated more positively on one competency—technical/professional expertise—but the difference was not statistically significant.”
- The appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in 2022 has made her the “first Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court,” according to CBS News.
- In February 2023, Spain “approved legislation expanding abortion and transgender rights for teenagers, while making Spain the first country in Europe that will entitle workers to paid menstrual leave,” according to NPR.
And yet, gender equality in pay doesn’t exist
A list like that, well, it should make our predecessors proud. However, even with these significant achievements and strides toward gender equality and inclusivity for women across industries, our work is far from over. Data released by Pew Research Center in March 2023 shows women still earn, on average, just 82 cents for every dollar earned by men, “results [which] are similar to where the pay gap stood in 2002, when women earned 80% as much as men.”
One of the most publicized examples is the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and the players’ fight for equal pay. “The U.S. women’s team has been far more successful on the international stage than the men’s team,” according to ESPN. In 2019, the women won their fourth World Cup, whereas the men’s team not only didn’t qualify for the 2018 World Cup, their “best finish came in 1930, when the team placed third.”
Despite outperforming their male counterparts, the minimum league salary for a player in the NWSL was just $20,000 in 2020, as compared with $70,250, “the minimum yearly salary for the first 24 players on each [Major League Soccer (MLS)] roster,” according to The Sporting News. The minimum for other MLS players, “who must be 24 or younger,” was $56,250.
However, in 2022, a lawsuit filed by the NWSL against the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a settlement. Alongside $22 million in back pay, “The federation will also put $2 million into a fund for USWNT players’ post-career goals and charitable efforts, with each player able to apply for up to $50,000. The federation has also promised to provide an equal rate of pay between the men’s and women’s national senior teams in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup,” according to NPR.
True gender equality has stalled
According to the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap Report 2020,” the U.S.’ trajectory toward women’s equality has stalled, and based on the current pace, North America is about 151 years away from achieving gender parity. According to the same report, The U.S. ranks 53 out of 153 countries in regards to the gender gap, though that number rose to 27 out of 146 in 2022. It’s a hard pill to swallow considering the numerous milestones women in America have surpassed in just the past several years, and there is data to help explain why.
Studies by Oriane Georgeac and Aneeta Rattan, published in Harvard Business Review, found that “seeing progress for women’s representation in top leadership (either spontaneously or after reading an article) leads both women and men to think that women have greater access to equal opportunities. This overgeneralization of progress, in turn, makes people less worried about the persisting inequalities that women face daily, across a variety of domains at work and beyond.”
But many still believe gender equality will be achieved
The good news? In Spring 2020, Pew Research Center surveyed 3,143 U.S. adults, and found that “a majority (57%) of adults say the U.S. hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving women equal rights with men.” The better news? A majority of those who say the country still has work to do believe equality will be achieved in the future.
Pushing a boulder up a mountain will always feel heavier the closer you get to the top. As we climb, let us continue to engage others to help us shoulder the load. Let us continue to reshape how society regards women, and let us celebrate our achievements every step of the way. Because whether you’re a first in your own field, or simply negotiating your salary for the first time, remember that even baby steps will take you in the right direction.
This article was published in March 2021 and has been updated. Photo by Southworks/Shutterstock
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.