Feminist Firsts: How Far We’ve Come in 2021

In every issue of Ms., we track research on our progress in the fight for equality, catalogue can’t-miss quotes from feminist voices and keep tabs on the feminist movement’s many milestones. We’re Keeping Score online, too—in this biweekly roundup.

Every other week, Ms. has been keeping you in the loop on major feminist milestones—both the good and the bad, from global victories to small-scale setbacks. As you may have noticed, there was no shortage of trailblazing feminists taking initiative at Capitol Hill, on the field and behind the scenes.

Women, and especially women of color, stepped into leadership roles like never before to tackle the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. They took on new positions and pushed through impactful policy, from the first women prime ministers of Estonia and Samoa to the first woman of color elected vice president of the U.S. They created art that inspired others. They shattered glass ceilings. They took home Olympic medals. And yes, we kept score.

So as 2021 comes to a close, it’s about time we take a look back at the many “firsts” we’ve garnered this year, both at home and abroad.

Global Milestones

+ Mary Simon, an Inuit advocate, became Canada’s first Indigenous governor general after being appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Simon called her nomination “an important step forward on the long path towards reconciliation” and towards “building a more inclusive and just Canadian society.”

+ In response to corruption within its governing Cabinet, Estonian political parties selected the Reform Party’s chairwoman Kaja Kallas to be the country’s first female prime minister.

+ On Saturday, May 8, Kaukab Stewart—a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP)—became the first woman of color elected to serve in the Scottish parliament. “It has taken too long, but to all the women and girls of colour out there: the Scottish parliament belongs to you too, so whilst I may be the first, I will not be the last,” Stewart said.

+ A court order on Monday, May 17, cleared the way for Fiame Naomi Mata’afa to become Samoa’s first woman prime minister, replacing the island’s leader of 22 years. But the day of her swearing-in ceremony, Mata’afa found that she had been locked out of the room, forcing her to take the oath from a tent her followers pitched on the statehouse lawn.

“This is an illegal takeover of government,” Mata’afa said. “Because it’s a bloodless coup, people aren’t so concerned or disturbed by it.”

+ In a ceremony held by President Alberto Fernández on Wednesday, July 21, Argentina became the first Latin American country to issue gender neutral IDs. 

“We have the need to expand our minds and realize that there are other ways to love and be loved and there are other identities besides the identity of man and the identity of woman,” Fernández said. “And they must be respected.”

+ Judge Martha Koome, 61, became Kenya’s first female chief justice, with an endorsement by President Uhuru Kenyatta. She is the first woman to head a branch of the nation’s government.

+ This month, Germany achieved its first gender-equal Cabinet under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It includes eight men and eight women, including the first female foreign and interior ministers.

+ With U.S. troops withdrawing abruptly from Afghanistan this year under the direction of President Joe Biden, the Taliban regained control of the country for the first time in 20 years. Taliban rule put women’s rights and security on the line, with many attempting to flee while there was still some U.S. military presence.

National News

+ Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to be inaugurated as vice president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2021. The term “second gentleman” was subsequently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in light of her historic inauguration alongside husband Doug Emhoff.

+ Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay man confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 2. 

+ In only one term, Donald Trump became the first president in American history to be impeached twiceThe House, including 10 Republicans, voted on the single article of impeachment which charged Trump with “inciting violence against the government of the United States.” 

He set another record when he refused to attend President Joe Biden’s inauguration—becoming the first president since Nixon to be absent at his successor’s swearing-in.

+ For the first time since 1953, the U.S. executed a woman on federal death row on Wednesday, Jan. 13Lisa Montgomery died for crimes committed in 2004, despite a mental illness diagnosis and a lifetime of abuse.

“Lisa was much more than the tragic crime she committed, a crime for which she felt deep remorse before she lost all touch with reality in the days before her execution,” said Montgomery’s attorney, Kelley Henry, the day after her execution. “Lisa was also much more than the horrors inflicted upon her, the sexual violence and abuse she endured at the hands of those who were supposed to love, nurture and protect her.”

+ 22-year-old Amanda Gorman was chosen as inaugural poet—the youngest in American history.

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

+ The House and Senate passed a bill proposed by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to rename the Manhattan VA after Margaret Corbin, making it the first VA in American history to be named after a female veteran.

“Margaret Corbin’s legacy is a testament to all that women veterans have given to our country since its founding,” said Gillibrand. “Corbin is an iconic New Yorker, who until now, has received little recognition for her sacrifices as a soldier on the battlefield. While we have a long way to go to ensure that women veterans get the same treatment and benefits that their male counterparts receive, I am proud to say that New York will soon be home to the first VA named after a woman veteran in the United States.”

+ Ann Berry became the eighth woman and first African American secretary of the Senate since the position was created in 1789.

+ In two new executive orders signed on Mar. 8, International Women’s Day, President Biden established a White House Gender Policy Council and ordered a review of Title IX regulations and sexual violence policies by the Department of Education.

+ Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was confirmed by the Senate on Monday, Mar. 15, making her the first Indigenous member of the U.S. Cabinet. When sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, Haaland donned a ribbon skirt, earrings and bead necklace which paid homage to her Native heritage. 

+ Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was also confirmed on Thursday, Mar. 18, becoming the first Latinx person to hold the position, and assistant health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine became the first openly transgender official confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday, Mar. 24.

+ “Madam Speaker. Madam Vice President,” President Joe Biden said, greeting Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at his first address to a joint session of Congress. “No president has ever said those words, and it’s about time.” It marked the first time in history that two women shared the dais with the president.

“Being able to see the first woman speaker of the House and the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American vice president sitting behind the president is nothing short of HERstoric. … Women, especially Black women, have made groundbreaking strides over the past couple of years. The soul and moral compass of our nation rests on the shoulders of women.”

—Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), the only Black Congress member representing Michigan, after President Joe Biden’s joint address on Wednesday, Apr. 28.

+ Dr. Jewel Bronaugh was confirmed as the first Black woman to be deputy secretary of agriculture on Thursday, May 13, having previously served as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

+ In a long-awaited move—and on Tuesday, May 25, the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd—the Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division. Clarke is the first Black woman to serve in the role since the department was established in 1957. 

+ Judge Zahid Quraishi became the first-ever Muslim American federal judge appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate on Thursday, June 10. Quraishi will serve as a district judge in New Jersey.

+ Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine was sworn in as an admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps on Tuesday, Oct. 19, becoming the first openly transgender four-star admiral in the organization’s history.

Swearing-in of Dr. Rachel Levine to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, officially becoming the first openly transgender four-star officer in the uniformed services and first female four-star admiral. (Twitter)

For the first time in decades, a spending bill released by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, Oct. 18 excluded the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited abortion coverage for those on Medicaid, as well as the Weldon Amendment, which encouraged medical institutions to deny care and coverage.

“We are thrilled to see these important spending bills introduced without anti-choice policies that have blocked access to abortion care for far too long. This victory has been a long time coming and it is the result of steadfast leadership and work by women of color and our reproductive justice partners,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America Chief Campaigns and Advocacy Officer Christian LoBue.

The State Department issued the first American passport displaying an “X” rather than a traditional M or F gender marker. The designation—which is likely to be available to more citizens in early 2022—allows for the inclusion of intersex and nonbinary Americans, marking a major milestone for LGBTQIA activists.

“I almost burst into tears when I opened the envelope, pulled out my new passport, and saw the ‘X’ stamped boldly under ‘sex,’” said Dana Zzyym, an intersex Colorado resident who first sued the State Department in 2015.

+ The Senate voted to confirm two major firsts to the federal appeals court: Judge Beth Robinson is the first openly LGBTQ+ women to serve, and Myrna Pérez—a voting expert—is the only Latina on the court, and the first Latina since now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The Biden administration released the U.S.’s first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality on Friday, Oct. 22, characterized by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as “a roadmap to help our nation close pernicious gender gaps and propel us toward a world with equal opportunity for all people.”

+ Harris became the first woman with presidential power for 85 minutes on Friday, Nov. 19, as Biden underwent anesthesia for a routine colonoscopy. Letters were sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) enacting Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, and eventually reversing the transfer of power.

President Joe Biden signed the first of 12 ‘Momnibus’ bills on Tuesday, Nov. 30, providing $15 million in maternity care for veterans. The package was created by the Black Maternal Health Caucus to address maternal mortality, which has been on the rise in the U.S. since 1987.

+ On Tuesday, Dec. 7, the Senate confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel as the first female chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

State and Local Firsts

+ Virginia became the first Southern state where the death penalty is illegalIts General Assembly passed the bill on Monday, Mar. 1., and it was signed into law later that month.

+ On Wednesday, Mar. 31, Virginia became the first Southern state to sign a voting rights act into law, restoring protections for minority voters. Soon after, on Wednesday, Apr. 7, it also become the first Southern state to legalize recreational marijuana.

+ Evanston, a suburb north of Chicago, is the first city in the U.S. to issue $25,0000 reparations to Black residents in response to a stark racial wealth gap.

+ Arkansas became the first state to outlaw gender-affirming health care for transgender minors, with the Republican legislature voting to override just one day after governor Asa Hutchinson, a staunch Republican himself, vetoed HB 1570. Hutchinson said the bill would produce “new standards of legislative interference with physicians and parents as they deal with some of the most complex and sensitive matters involving young people.”

+ Tishaura Jones was elected the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis, Mo. She won by 2,280 votes, and was sworn in on Tuesday, Apr. 20.

+ On Thursday, July 15, California became the first U.S. state to approve a guaranteed income program. The state-funded payments—totaling $35 million—are allocated to new mothers, as well as young adults who recently aged out of foster care. Recipients can spend the money without restrictions.

City Councilor Michelle Wu was elected the mayor of Boston on Tuesday, Nov. 2, making her the first woman and person of color elected to the position.

Voting rights advocate and former state Representative Stacey Abrams announced her second run for governor of Georgia in 2022 on Wednesday, Dec. 1, with the potential to become the first Black woman to hold the office.

Cultural Breakthroughs

+ Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old contestant from Louisiana, became the first African American winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday, July 8. 

“I’m hoping that in a few years I’ll see a whole lot more African American females, and males too, doing well in the Scripps Spelling Bee,” she said.

Avant-garde also boasts three Guinness World Records for her basketball skills. She was one of 11 finalists who traveled to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for this year’s Bee.

+ Nomadland director Chloé Zhao became the second woman and first woman of color to win a Golden Globe for Best Director of a Motion Picture. Zhao and Emerald Fennell made history with Oscar nominations—released Monday, Mar. 15—for their films Nomadland and Promising Young Woman, respectively.

This is the first time in history that more than one woman was nominated for the best director category. Andra Day and Viola Davis also became the first two Black women simultaneously nominated for best actress since Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were both up for the award in 1973.

+ In posing for the newest TIME Magazine cover, actor Elliot Page became the first openly transgender man to do so. And in July, Leyna Bloom became the first trans model included in a swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.

Beauty influencer and MTV star Bretman Rock is the first gay man to land on the cover of a Playboy magazine. He is only the third male cover star in Playboy history, following in the footsteps of Bad Bunny and founder Hugh Hefner.

“For Playboy to have a male on the cover is a huge deal for the LGBT community, for my brown people community, and it’s all so surreal,” Rock said.

+ Reuters global managing editor Alessandra Galloni was named the newest editor-in-chief of the agency on Monday, Apr. 12. She is the first women to lead the the 170-year-old major news outlet. Sally Buzbee was appointed the new executive editor of The Washington Post, becoming the first woman to run the publication. She previously held the same position at the Associated Press.

+ In coming out as gay at age 36, country artist T.J. Osborne became the first artist signed to a major country label to do so. Though the Brothers Osborne vocalist has been aware of his sexuality since childhood and is “very comfortable being gay,” the public announcement is a major milestone in the world of country music.

+ After becoming the first Black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie, writer and actor Michaela Coel dedicated her award to survivors of sexual assault.

“Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that isn’t comfortable,” Coel said. “I dare you.”

+ Rev. Megan Rohrer, 41, was elected the first openly transgender Christian bishop in the U.S., serving the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Their domain includes nearly 200 congregations in California and Nevada.

“I am humbled and honored, and aware that this call is bigger than me,” they said in a speech. “My hope is that your grandkids will call you, and your kids will call you, and your friends will call you, and ask you about your faith. And when they call, tell them how much you love Jesus and why Jesus’s faith in you meant why you could have faith in me.”

Athletic Achievements

+ Bianca Smith is the first Black woman to coach in professional baseball history: The Boston Red Sox announced Monday, Jan. 4, that they hired her as a Minor League coach.

+ Sarah Thomas was the first woman on a Super Bowl officiating crew as the down judge for Super Bowl LV on Sunday, Feb. 7, in Tampa, Fla. The same day, Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust and assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar became the first women to coach an NFL team to Super Bowl victory

+ The Tokyo Olympics marked the first time Team U.S.A. Paralympic athletes have been equally compensated for their accomplishments, having previously received just $7,500 for gold, $5,250 for silver and $3,750 for bronze medals. This year, they were be paid 400 percent more in order to match the rewards given to Olympic athletes.

+ An unprecedented number of openly LGBTQ+ athletes competed in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, including Canadian soccer player Quinn—the first trans person to win an Olympic medal. Their team took home gold after beating Sweden’s soccer team on Friday, Aug. 6.

Other history-making Olympians included Jasmine Camacho-Quinn—the first Puerto Rican gold medalist—and Team U.S.A.’s Allyson Felix, who boasts more track and field medals than any woman in history.

The U.S. Soccer Federation announced Tuesday, Sept. 14 that it finally offered its men’s and women’s teams identical contracts this year, after the teams collectively bargained for equal pay.

U.S. Soccer said in a statement that it “firmly believes that the best path forward for all involved, and for the future of the sport in the United States, is a single pay structure for both senior national teams.”

+ In a Major League Baseball game on Wednesday, Sept. 29, Melanie Newman and Jessica Mendoza made history as ESPN’s first all-woman team on an MLB, NBA or NFL broadcast.

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Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and community health. She is a Ms. contributing writer, and was formerly an editorial fellow, research fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.