Amazing Firsts for Women in the 21st Century
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Ladies First1 of 11
By Katherine Berg
In celebration of International Women's Day, we've rounded up a list of ten (actually 11) extraordinary, inspiring, life-loving, truth-telling, all-around-awesome women of the 21st century.
We're not forgetting the ground-breaking women who came before them, or the familiar trailblazers of today like Oprah, Hilary, Malala, or, of course, Tina and Amy. We just want to make sure these women get a shout out, too.
Flying High2 of 11
It's hard to think of a sport that looks more like flying than ski jumping, and this year at the Sochi Olympics—90 years after men first started launching themselves into the sky in the Winter Games—women finally got their chance. With great elation, 24 women glided off the snow and into the air. In the end, it was Carina Vogt, 22, of Germany who brought home the historic gold. For any woman who's ever dreamed of flying or doing anything else against big odds, we can think of no better symbol of perseverance than Vogt and the other 24 brave women who ski jumped into history this year.
Paris Match3 of 11
Oh, Paris. We love you for your romance, your art, your wine, your all-around élégance. And yet for a city so chock-full of sophistication, in your 2,000-year history, you have never been run by a woman! At last, this year's election has come down to two female contenders for the office of mayor: Socialist party candidate, Anne Hidalgo, former deputy mayor of Paris, and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, current deputy of the 4th electoral constituency of Essonne. As they compete for that prestigious office, they represent a major upset of an old boys' club that's as stale as a week-old baguette.
Toy Story4 of 11
Charlotte Benjamin gave one of the biggest toy companies a piece of her mind in the now-famous letter that blazed across social media. She wrote that "she loved Legos," BUT had some serious issues with what the little figurines were up to. She pointed out that there were not as many girls in Legoland, and they didn't do much—just "sit at home, go to the beach, and shop." Meanwhile, "the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks." Her request? She wanted the company to "make more Lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun, okay?!"
Great Shape5 of 11
We count Spanx shapewear among the great inventions of the 21st century, and we might be tempted to recognize Spanx's founder here for this contribution alone. But Sarah Blakely, the world's youngest self-made female billionaire, just keeps giving and giving. In 2013, she became the first female billionaire to join the Giving Pledge, the initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to donate at least half of their money to charity.
Action!6 of 11
In 2007, Haifaa al-Mansour, 39, set out to make the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, her native country. Making any movie is no small feat, but due to the closed nature of Saudi society and the suspicion she faced as a female filmmaker, al-Mansour faced the added difficulty of having to shoot the entire film from inside a van. The result of her efforts is Wadjda, the story of a feisty young girl and her quest to buy a green bicycle. Although the film can't be shown in Saudi Arabia, it was released to worldwide critical acclaim in 2012 and 2013.
The Voice7 of 11
At the ripe old age of 16, Lorde became the first woman of the 21st century to reach the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Alternative Songs Chart for her debut single, "Royals." Then in 2014, at 17, she won the Grammy for Song of the Year. But beyond her talent for writing music that's innovative enough to reach across oceans, blur genres, and win big awards, we admire Lorde because her lyrics convey a self-confidence and priorities that aren't focused primarily on boys or her seduction skills.
True Beauty8 of 11
After this awards season, it's hard not to recognize Lupita Nyong'o. Her outstanding debut performance in 12 Years a Slave earned her too many accolades to count, including a SAG Award and an Oscar (she was the first ever African to win one). We, too, are wowed by Nyong'o's acting chops, but she earns our deepest admiration for those moments when she's being herself. Nyong'o's words as she accepted her Oscar moved the world in their humble grace. And just the week before, she gave another poignant speech as she accepted Essence's Black Women in Hollywood Breakthrough Award.
Good Advice9 of 11
You may have heard of Cheryl Strayed's best-selling 2012 memoir Wild, the book that inspired Oprah to re-launch her book club—and that's now in the works as a film starring Reese Witherspoon. Or you may know her from her Dear Sugar advice column (or from Tiny Beautiful Things, her compilation of the best of those columns). If not, our simple advice is: Get to know her. The woman has things to tell you. Over and over again—in her advice to overwhelmed mothers, betrayed spouses, teenagers struggling with all kinds of pains, big and small—Strayed nudges us back onto the craggy trail that is life.
Learning Curve10 of 11
As a teenager, Zhang Xin worked 12-hour-days in a sweatshop outside Beijing. By 19, she had saved enough to get herself to London, where she began her education at secretarial school before earning scholarships to study economics. Today, she is the CEO and founder of SOHO China, the largest real estate developer in Beijing. She's also one of the top ten self-made female billionaires in the world. In addition to her extensive duties as tycoon extraordinaire, she's also the chairwoman of Teach for China, an organization that seeks to improve opportunities in China's underserved schools.
Write On11 of 11
In 2013, author and short-story master Alice Munro, 82, became the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In her novel, The Lives of Girls and Women, Munro writes: "People's lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing and unfathomable—deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum." Munro has spent decades impeccably describing the "unfathomable caves" that make up the lives of mostly very ordinary women. In her extraordinary stories—in their surprises and humor and profound insight—she shines gentle light under that dull kitchen floor and into the depths of all of us.