We saw the TIMES Firsts women leaders list this weekend and all we could say was ‘wow’. The list features diverse and powerful women from around the world who through their stories other women and girls can find the validation and encouragement needed to keep pursuing their dreams fearlessly.
According to the publishers their goal with Firsts is ”for every woman and girl to find someone whose presence in the highest reaches of success says to her that it is safe to climb, come on up, the view is spectacular. ”
A number of black women are featured on this list and you’ve got to excerpts from the interview. We hope that by reading this you find the courage to go on.
First person to invent and demonstrate laserphaco cataract surgery.
”Sometimes even now when I’m told I was a “first,” it comes as a surprise, because it’s only through history that you understand that kind of thing. I didn’t realize when I joined UCLA in 1974 that I was the first woman in the ophthalmology department. I simply wanted to be part of a great team at an incredible facility. I wasn’t seeking to be first. I was just doing my thing, and I wanted to serve humanity along the way—to give the gift of sight.
I was in college between 1960 and 1964, so I did my marching, I did my protesting. When I was offered an office that was not equivalent to that of my male colleagues, I could have marched. But I felt it was more important to focus on the prize. One rainy, cold, lonely night in the lab, we had a donor eye. The laser was finely tuned, the optical fiber was in position and … Eureka! I knew that I had made a scientific breakthrough in removing cataracts.
I went to a prominent institute in Orange County and explained to the director what I had achieved. He said, “That’s impossible. People have been trying to do that for years.” He didn’t believe me. A month or so later, after my patent had been granted and I published the findings, he was shocked. He wouldn’t look me in the face.
In science, the evidence is the truth. I knew that my work would win the argument. And it did.”
First woman to own and produce her own talk show
”I made every single choice of my career based on my gut. I would literally ask myself, “Does this feel right?” So when I got my show in Chicago, I built it around myself and the producers. We were young women in our 30s who were trying to figure it out and find our own way. We’d literally sit around and say, “What’s going on in your life? What happened at the beauty shop this week? What’s your mother talking about? What are your friends saying?”
It wasn’t until the very first national Oprah Winfrey Show that I remember coming up with a sort of vision mission statement for what the show was, mainly because I was trying to explain to the national audience, who hadn’t been watching along with Chicago for almost two years, who I was and what it was. I remember saying one of the reasons I want to do this show was to let you know that you—no matter where you are in your life—you are not alone.”
First tennis player to win 23 Grand Slam singles titles in the open era
”I think the biggest criticism that I have received, along with my female peers, is when someone says that we don’t deserve as much prize money as our male counterparts. In 2016, the CEO of Indian Wells said women players ride on the coattails of men, and thanked certain male players for carrying the sport. I have been in so many finals, either when I played my sister or other opponents, that were the most watched finals in the history of the tournament. So to hear that we as women should thank the men … I was like, Wait a minute!
I see these young women, including myself, who are working so hard and training for hours and hours every day just to have the opportunity to go out on the court and play their best. There shouldn’t be any double standard.
My sister and I boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years due to a separate, unfortunate experience. But when I did return in 2015, I saw so many people—young kids, young black girls—so excited to see me. One girl was holding up a sign that said “Straight Outta Compton”—that’s where my sister and I first learned how to play tennis. To see that little girl having the dream to play tennis too was incredible. In that moment, I realized my presence there was helping people. I was able to embrace that moment and fully appreciate it.”
First black woman to create and star in a premium cable series
”I put up the first episode of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl on Feb. 3, 2011, and saw that it was surpassing the other two web series that I had done within the first day. It kept growing, and people were reaching out and saying, “This is me. This is my experience. I love this.”
Hearing that positive feedback from black girls, black guys and then everyone else was an “aha” moment: they’re relating to black people, at the end of the day. But I still get responses from people who think that because I have a show about two black women, I have to represent all black women. Obviously, we’re not a monolith—we’re not trying to be the end-all, be-all for black women’s experiences in the United States.”
First woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
”I didn’t think my songs would become anthems for women. But I’m delighted. Women probably immediately feel compassion and relate to the lyrics. We can all learn a little something from each other, so whatever people can take and be inspired by where my music is concerned is great.”
First woman to create three hit shows with more than 100 episodes each
”I didn’t watch a lot of television before I started writing it, and I wanted to write people I wanted to watch. I was very surprised to discover that people thought Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang were revolutionary—they were like women I knew. Then I looked around the landscape of television and realized that a lot of the women were “nice.” They were wives, they were people’s girlfriends, and they were more interested in being mothers than they were in their jobs. That’s fine—there are plenty of real-life women like that, but they just weren’t women I knew. So it was interesting to discover that there was an issue about that.”
First girl to pitch a shutout and win a game in a Little League World Series
One of the most significant moments for me was the first time I opened a trial on my own. I stood in court, in front of a jury, and said my name, and then I said, “and I represent the United States of America.” It resonated within me to such a degree that I knew it would color whatever else I did going forward.
First black woman to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar
”Regarding “the glass ceiling,” I think there have been cracks made by women who can get close enough to hit it with the weapon of their presence. But I’m mostly bolstered by folks who create their own ceilings. I’m less interested in banging down the door of some man who doesn’t want me there. I’m more about building my own house. Certainly, I sit here privileged, after decades of women who have done it and have allowed me to think in this way. I am grateful to them.”
First black woman to run a Fortune 500 company
”For women and women of color, if you walk into a STEM environment, you will be the minority in the room. Everybody has their eye on your work. Instead of your differences becoming a burden, it should be an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself.”
First black U.S. poet laureate
”Although I am not a confrontational person by nature, racism and sexism are still very much alive, and whenever I encounter prejudice, I tackle the issues and move on, refusing to be sidetracked by hate or bitterness. When I was a young poet, my work was considered “slight” by some male critics. The sexist undertone was undeniable, though difficult to corroborate. These things are subtle. For example, during my 20s and 30s there was an unspoken rule that if you wore makeup or gave a poetry reading in a dress, you weren’t considered a serious artist—a variation on brain vs. beauty, that ancient claim that pretty girls are airheads and smart girls are plain. It sounds so trivial nowadays, yet the implications could be profound—or so I was told. To hell with it, was my response. This is who I am. I still wear skirts to readings. And I still like my lipstick!”
First American gymnast to win solo and team all-around gold medals at one Olympic
”The last Olympic Games were pretty rough for me. I was not expecting a whole bunch of criticism on every single thing I did. Sure, I was expecting a little here and there because I had dealt with it in 2012, but I was caught off guard by the extent of it. Even though you have to perform, you also have to look your best, but sometimes you don’t have makeup in your bag, or you sweat, or you don’t have a brush. Some gymnasts don’t wear makeup, and people say, “Oh, she looks rough!” Makeup to me is part of being in character—like a bow in your hair. And then of course people say, “Why do you have makeup on? This is a competition, not a beauty pageant! You don’t need makeup, you look pretty without it.” You can’t please everybody, so just do your normal.
My mom always used to say, “Inspire a generation.” It’s one thing when you say it, but I never thought that I would be a trailblazer and that people would draw inspiration from my story. When that happened, we were like, “Whoa!” To be a role model to these young girls … I love it. It’s like I’m a big sister.”
First woman and first African American to be Librarian of Congress
”In terms of being the Librarian of Congress, it’s important that a woman is in the position. Librarianship is one of the four “feminized professions.” Eighty-five percent of the workforce is female but men are in most of the directorships and management positions. So to have a woman Librarian of Congress is just as significant as race in terms of diversity.”
Read the full list here