Feminism Started 5,000 Years Ago: 5 Feminist Feats You Have Never Heard of

As America mourns the passing of Sally Ride, much has been written about her status as the first female American astronaut. Somewhere along the way, the word “American” sometimes gets dropped, and we begin to think of her as the first woman in space. In fact, that title belongs to Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, who flew the Vostok 6 into space in 1963, 20 years before America sent a woman into space. What other feats of feminism happened decades, or even centuries, before we think they did?

1) The Feat: First female doctor

You probably think of: Florence Nightingale (actually a nurse), Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross, also a nurse), or Elizabeth Blackwell (first female recipient of a medical degree in the United States, the first woman on the U.K. Medical Register, and the first Google result for “first female doctor.”)

It was actually: Merit Ptah, an Egyptian living c. 2700 BCE, whose image appears in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and who was described by her High Priest son as “the Chief Physician.”

2) The Feat: First female voter in the United States of America

You probably think of: The first woman to vote after the passage of the 19thAmendment, Marie Ruoff Byrum

It was actually: Any woman living in New Jersey between America’s independence in 1776 and 1807, when female residents of New Jersey lost the right to vote. Oops.

Bonus: In 1655, Deborah Moody was legally allowed to vote in New Netherlands (which became the state of New York) since she owned land in her own name. You go, Dutch.

3) The Feat: First Female Head of State or Government

You probably think of: Indira Gandhi (elected Prime Minister of India in 1966), Golda Meir (elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1969), or another famous female leader.

It was actually: Khertek Anchimaa-Toka, who chaired the parliament of the Tuvan People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite state, between 1940 and 1944.

Bonus: America has yet to have a female head of state. I know the Cold War is over, but why are we still losing to the Soviet Union?

4) The Feat: First Woman to Act on Stage

You probably think of: Elizabeth Barry and Anne Bracegirdle, two of the first women to appear onstage in England, who first began acting in the 1660’s.

It was actually: One of the many female performers in Ancient India, where there were no limits on the gender of performers, though certain roles were earmarked for certain genders, as described in the text the Nayashastra (c. 200 BCE – 200 CE). 

5) The Feat: First Female Presidential Candidate in the U.S.

You probably think: we haven’t had any

It was actually: Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 ran for president with abolitionist Fredrick Douglass as her running mate, having been nominated by the Equal Rights Party. Ulysses S. Grant was reelected, and Woodhull received no electoral votes, but she did make history.

Bonus: 34 women have run for president in the 140 years since Woodhull ran, but never as the nominee of one of the two major parties.