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February 25, 2009 > Women breaking glass ceilings

Women breaking glass ceilings

March is National Women's History Month

By Rhonda Rigenhagen

From Harriet Tubman to Rosie the Riveter to Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton, women have made substantial contributions to our nation. But relatively few made it into the history books. March has been designated National Women's History Month so women's pioneering achievements would not go unnoticed or unappreciated. The following little-known tidbits illustrate how far some had to go, as well as how far women have come.

In 1902, Madge Syers of Britain was the first woman to enter the world figure skating championships when she discovered the rules did not specifically prohibit female participants. She finished second. Officials then banned women from competing, ostensibly because their long skirts made it difficult for judges to see their feet. Syers started the shocking trend of wearing skirts at mid calf. In 1908 she became the first woman to win Olympic gold in figure skating.

Another athlete followed her unconventional footsteps in 1931. Seventeen-year-old Virne "Jackie" Mitchell became the first of her gender to play professional baseball. She astounded spectators by striking out the first two batters - Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. One newspaper speculated "her curves were too much for them." After pitching to a third Hall of Famer, she was taken out of her first and last pro game. Days later, the baseball commissioner voided her contract and banned women from the sport, saying it was "too strenuous" for them.

The first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was also limited to a single appearance. In 1922, Rebecca Felton was appointed to the position by Georgia's governor, who had opposed giving women the right to vote two years earlier. It was a symbolic gesture because Senators were not scheduled to convene until after the seat was filled by special election several weeks later. When President Warren Harding had to call a special session, the governing body spent a day debating whether or not to accept Felton's credentials. She was replaced by her elected successor a day after being sworn in.

Felton was not, however, the first woman in Congress. That honor went to Jeannette Rankin of Montana. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, even though the 19th Amendment did not grant women the right to vote until 1920. Serving her country in this way, Rankin confirmed the old adage, "A woman's place is in the House."

Legislators were not alone in excluding women from their ranks. Carnegie Institute of Technology only permitted men to attend its College of Engineering in 1942, so Stephanie Kwolek entered its women's college instead. As a chemist at DuPont, she watched her male colleagues get advancement and pay raises while she had to wait 15 years for her first promotion. When Kwolek began experimenting with a new kind of fiber in the 1960s, the man in charge of the spinning equipment initially refused to process it. But her persistence paid off. Although she would not have been allowed in combat in 1965, Kwolek created the chemical process responsible for a vital military item: Kevlar. Today the strong and lightweight material is also used in boats, airplanes, bridge suspension cables, tires, skis and 200 other applications.

It all goes to show, even when treated like second-class citizens, women often end up in a class by themselves.

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