Californian Nancy Pelosi did it in 2007 when she took the gavel from Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert’s hands. Sandra Day O’Connor did it more than three decades ago when she put on her black robe and took a seat on the Supreme Court. And in 1999, Carly Fiorina did it when she took the helm of Fortune 20 company Hewlett-Packard.
More recently, an ambassador, a conductor and a bishop, among others, have joined their ranks, shattering the glass ceilings in their respective industries and institutions. And last week, the Navy got its first female four-star admiral with Michelle Janine Howard’s promotion on Tuesday. What’s particularly notable about these trailblazing women is that they’ve not only achieved professional success, but they’ve done so in fields that men still dominate — overwhelmingly. Thanks to women like them, that may not be the case much longer.
Michelle Janine Howard, The Navy’s First Female Four-Star Admiral
Michelle Howard grew up in Aurora, Colo. Her 32-year naval career began after graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1982. She also received a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences degree from the Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1998.
“When men walk onto a ship, on board they have the luxury of being average,” Howard said in a January 2000 interview with Time magazine. “When you walk in as a woman, that assumption does not come with you — you need to prove yourself.” And prove herself she did.
Before her groundbreaking appointment to become the Navy’s first female four-star admiral earlier this month -- serving as vice chief of naval operations, a position one step below the chief of naval operations, the service’s top officer — she took command of USS Rushmore in 1999, becoming the first African-American woman to command a ship in the US Navy. Notable operations include tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia and, in 2009, commanding an expeditionary strike group, fighting pirates in the Arabian Sea (the first woman to do so).
“This is not for wimps,” Howard said in a talk at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “You have to keep a sense of humor. You have to develop stamina because there’s going to be tough days. Like the pioneering women of old, you have to let some things go.”
Photo: Monica A. King, US Navy
Caroline Kennedy, U.S. Ambassador to Japan
Caroline Kennedy could easily have stayed in the shadows, continuing to write articles, edit books and serve on foundations and nonprofit boards. But instead, the only surviving child of President John F. Kennedy boldly went where no woman had gone before — to Japan, as the U.S. Ambassador.
Her appointment certainly brought attention to Japan, a key focal point of the Obama administration as the president seeks to firm up ties with the Pacific Rim nation. Kennedy has a close relationship with the president — a fact that might bring newfound respect for women in a country where they’ve traditionally been restricted.
Caroline Kennedy also carries an important legacy with her; JFK wanted to be the first president to visit the land of the rising sun, a fact that still carries weight among the older Japanese crowd. A Harvard-educated attorney who also studied Japanese art and spent her honeymoon in Japan, Kennedy was greeted warmly by the Japanese public when she assumed her new post a few days shy of the 50th anniversary of her father’s assassination in Dallas.
Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Janet Yellen, Economist and Chair-Elect, Federal Reserve
When Janet Yellen was sworn in to be the chair of the Federal Reserve, she ended the all-male streak of chairs in the ultimate old boys’ club — the country’s central bank. Not only does the Fed regulate banking in the United States, but also our monetary policy, and to a large extent, the world’s.
At her confirmation hearings in November 2013, Yellen won the support of senators by pledging to keep a firm hand on the big bank practices that lead to the economic crisis of 2009 and to implement regulations designed to prevent further shenanigans. She replaced Ben Bernanke when she began her term on February 1, 2014.
Photo: Federal Reserve OPA
Julia A. Pierson, Director, U.S. Secret Service
When the agency charged with protecting the president, vice president and their families was reeling from a prostitution scandal, President Obama hand-picked a female agent to lead the male-dominated agency, the first in the agency’s 148-year history. Pierson’s immediate charge? Bring credibility and accountability back to the perceived straight-laced agency suffering from ridicule and the dismissal of agents on the president’s detail.
Pierson, a former cop from Orlando who worked a regular beat, joined the service some 30 years ago and has come up through the ranks. This presidential appointment heralded a rare thing: enthusiasm from the inside. Agents on the vice presidential detail, for one, are reportedly thrilled Pierson became their boss. The power the position carries is heady. As the president remarked at Pierson’s swearing-in ceremony on March 27, 2013 Pierson “now probably has more control over our lives than anyone else, except for our spouses.”
Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Though the Lutherans in America ordain women to be clergy, and 23 percent of their priests are women, they have never elected one to be their bishop — until now. In September 2013, the election of Rev. Elizabeth Eaton to head the ELCA, the largest governing body of American Lutherans, took many by surprise. The ELCA had recently lost some 600,000 of their more conservative members when they decided to allow openly gay clergy. Even though the ELCA remains four million+ members strong and the seventh largest church in the United States, many believed the Lutherans weren’t ready for this milestone.
But Eaton, 58, came from the Ohio Synod, where the decision to allow gay clergy divided many in her congregations, and recognizes the precariousness of abrupt social shifts. Eaton preaches a message of humility and inclusiveness as she begins her job as the Lutherans’ president and CEO.
Eaton joined another female first, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who, in 2006, became the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion — the Episcopal Church of the United States, another tradition that also arose from a break with the Catholic church in the 16th century.
Photo: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America // ELCA.org
Marin Alsop, Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra
As of December 2013, only one major orchestra in the United States had a female conductor. In 2007, Marin Alsop, a New York native, took up her baton in Baltimore. In 2013, she also took on another famous orchestra — this one in a separate hemisphere — in the Brazilian megalopolis of São Paolo.
In September 2013, the 56-year-old broke another all-male string; she made history by becoming the first female to conduct The Last Night of the BBC Proms at London’s grandiose Royal Albert Hall. The famous concert caps a season of music and events, which is considered the largest classical music festival in the world. It’s seen by 6,000 music fans who vie for the hall’s sought-after tickets, and is broadcast by television and radio to some 40 million worldwide.
The hall was draped with pink balloons and streamers, noting the huge first in the festival’s 119 season history. In the traditional last night speech given by the conductor, Alsop focused on up-and-coming females who might aspire to her position. “I want to say to the young women out there, and as I say to all young people out there, believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up because you will create a future filled with possibility.”
Pfcs. Katie Gorz, Julia Carroll and Christina Fuentes Montenegro, Marine Corps Infantry Training Graduates
In November 2013, three female marines passed the Marine Corps’ combat training course, the grueling test of physical and mental strength previously only offered to men. The test, opened to women for the first time in fall of 2013, included live ammunition exercises, sleeping outside in fighting positions and completing a grueling 12-and-a-half-mile hike while weighed down with a 90-pound combat load in less than five hours.
Their milestone is part of a test to help determine which ground combat jobs will be open to women by 2016. Allowing women into the course was the Marine Corps’ response to a historic decision made by the Defense Department earlier this year to repeal the 1994 Direct Combat Exclusion Rule. Some see the move as a step toward equal rights in the military; others think it could weaken military combat units.
Of the 12 women who entered, three completed the program along with 221 men. Throughout the course, their identity was kept secret to protect their privacy. Then, Harlee “Rambo” Bradford (a woman who was injured during training) posted their smiling faces online — and the news went viral.
Photo (clockwise): Katie Gorz, Christina Fuentes Montenegro, Julia Carroll; courtesy of Marines
Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors
In mid-December 2013, General Motors announced the retirement of Dan Akerson, the man responsible for achieving record profits, championing significant quality improvements and leading the 2010 IPO. But it wasn’t Akerson’s many accomplishments that garnered so much attention, but rather his successor: Mary Barra, GM’s executive vice president, global product development, purchasing and supply chain, who will become the first female CEO of GM in January 2013 (and the first to run a major automaker).
But Barra, then 51, was anything but green. At the time of her hire, Bara had been a GM employee for 33 years, starting at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) as a teenager and working her way up through manufacturing, engineering, human resources and other management positions, and her father worked for 39 years for Pontiac as a die maker. Talk about making your dad (and, you know, women everywhere) proud.
Photo: John F. Martin for General Motors
Inga Beale, CEO, Lloyd’s of London
On December 16, 2013, Lloyd’s of London announced that Inga Beale, then 50, would replace Richard Ward as CEO. She took the helm in January 2014, as the first woman in that role in the 325-year history of the world’s biggest insurance market.
Not only is Beale’s appointment monumental for Lloyd’s, but for London, where 80 percent of financial services workers were male, according to a diversity report from recruiting firm Astbury Marsden. Beale joins the ranks of other high-profile women appointed to leadership roles in London this year, including Fiona Woolf, the second-ever female Lord Mayor of London, and Charlotte Hogg, the Bank of England’s first chief operating officer.
Beale, whose 30 years of industry experience includes executive posts at Canopius Group, Zurich Insurance Company and Converium Ltd, says her focus at Lloyd’s will be “to deliver a strategy for profitable and sustainable growth.”