Annette Kellerman

Famous firsts for women

In celebrating women’s month this August, Trivia SA has a look at some awe-inspiring women starting way back when in 1903 – just to remind you how amazing women are and have been throughout history. If you’re a woman and you simply want to bask in all the feminine glory – please go ahead. Because you’re courageous, beautiful, brilliant, sexy and amazing.

We salute you.


Marie Curie, radioactive ethicist

Marie Curie (1903)
Marie Curie’s 1903 Nobel Prize portrait

Marie Curie made history in 1903 when she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics, and the only woman to win the award in two different fields (physics and chemistry). Curie’s efforts, with her husband Pierre Curie, led to the discovery of polonium and radium and, after Pierre’s death, the development of X-rays.

A top student in her secondary school, Curie could not attend the men-only University of Warsaw. She instead continued her education in Warsaw’s “floating university,” a set of underground, informal classes held in secret.

“Be less curious about people, and more curious about ideas.” – Marie Curie

In late 1891 Curie left Poland for France, where she completed her masters degree in physics in 1893 and earned another degree in mathematics the following year.

All of her years of working with radioactive materials took a toll on Curie’s health. She was known to carry test tubes of radium around in the pocket of her lab coat.

Marie died on July 4, 1934 of aplastic anemia, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.


The ‘arresting’ Annette Kellerman

1907 - Annette Kellerman
Annette Kellerman in her famous one-piece bathing suit (1907)

Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston in 1907 for wearing a one-piece bathing suit which was considered in violation of the decency standards of the community.

“There are two kinds of bathing suits, those that are adapted for use in the water, and those that are unfit for use except on dry land. If you are going to swim, wear a water bathing suit. But if you are merely going to play on the beach and pose for your camera friends, you may safely wear the dry land variety.” – Annette Kellerman

Her life story was made into the 1952 film “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952) starring Esther Williams. An important scene in the film shows Annette being the scandal at a Boston beach for wearing a one-piece bathing suit in public. This act helped change the attitude of female beach-goers, who in the past wore billowy dress-like swimwear instead of more-revealing, less-dangerous swimsuits.

A scene of hers in A Daughter of the Gods (1916) is believed to be the first nude appearance in a major movie.

She was born with crippled legs, but overcame her handicap through swimming.

She made three attempts to swim the English Channel. They were unsuccessful but her determination added to her popularity.

Annette died on November 5, 1975 – only six days after her husband of 63 years, James R. Sullivan.


Maud Wagner, the tempting tattoo artist

Maud Wagner
Maud Wagner in 1911

A circus performer (aerialist and contortionist), Maud Wagner was the first  known female tattoo artist in the United States of America.

She exchanged a romantic date with her future husband Gus (a tattooist) for a lesson in tattooing, and several years later they were married. As an apprentice of her husband, Wagner learned how to give traditional “hand-poked” tattoos – despite the invention of the tattoo machine – and became a tattooist herself. Together, the Wagners were two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand, without the aid of modern tattoo machines.

Maud Wagner died on January 30, 1961.


The glamorous Gertrude Ederle

Gertrude Ederle
Gertrude Ederle gives Bebe Daniels a lesson between scenes of “Swim, Girl Swim” (1927)

American swimmer Gertrude Ederle achieved fame when she competed in the 1924 Olympics and became the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926.

“To me, the sea is like a person – like a child that I’ve known a long time. It sounds crazy, I know, but when I swim in the sea I talk to it. I never feel alone when I’m out there.” – Gertrude Ederle

In 1927, she starred in the silent movie “Swim Girl, Swim” as herself.

After suffering a severe back injury in 1933, she was never able to compete again.

In her private later life, she taught swimming at a school for deaf children. She died at the ripe old age of 98 on November 30, 2003.


Alluring aviator Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart’s daring round-the-world-flight was cut short when her Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on June 2, 1937. (Photo: Getty Images)

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and was the first pilot, man or woman, to fly unaccompanied across the Pacific. In Amelia’s attempt to be the first to fly around the world in an equatorial flight her life was tragically cut short when her Lockheed Electra disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on June 2, 1937.

“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.” – Amelia Earhart

Within hours, rescue workers began scouring the area for signs of the famed aviator and her navigator, Fred Noonan. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard launched the largest and most expensive air and sea search in American history. When their efforts failed, Earhart’s husband of six years, George Putnam, financed his own search but came up equally empty-handed. A living legend had vanished into thin air.

The movie “Amelia” (released in 2009) takes a look at the life of this legendary female American pilot. It starts Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, and Richard Gere as her husband George Putnam.

Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939. The question of why and where her plane went down, however, has never been put to rest. Various theories surrounding Amelia’s disappearance have been suggested.


Aviatrix Sabiha Gökçen

1937 - Sabiha Gokcen
Sabiha Gokcen, 1937

Sabiha Gökçen was the world’s first female fighter pilot, and the first Turkish female combat pilot, aged 23.

The second international airport of Istanbul, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, on the Asian side, is named after her.

Sabiha’s surname “Gökçen” means ‘belonging or relating to the sky’ in Turkish.

Gökçen died in Ankara on March 22, 2001 at the Gulhane Military Medical Academy where she had been undergoing treatment. Following the announcement of her death, flags were flown at half mast at the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport.


Kathrine Switzer, marathon woman

Kathrine Switzer
Kathrine Switzer in 2012

“Life is for participating, not for spectating.”

Kathrine Switzer is best known as the woman who challenged the all-male tradition of the 1967 Boston Marathon and became the first woman to officially enter and run the event despite being physically attacked by a race official.

Irate race official Jock Semple tried forcibly to remove Kathrine Switzer from the then all-male Boston Marathon simply because she was a woman.  Luckily for Switzer, her boyfriend bounced the official out of the race instead and she went on to finish.

Kathrine Switzer - 1967 Boston Marathon
Photo credit: AP Images

Switzer was inspired by the incident to create running events for women all over the world and was a leader in getting the women’s marathon into the Olympic Games. Photo on left is Semple pursuing Switzer, middle photo is Switzer’s boyfriend hitting Semple, right photo is Semple being bounced off the racecourse.

Read Kathrine’s “The Real Story of Kathrine Switzer’s
1967 Boston Marathon” here.

As a television commentator, she has covered the Olympics, world and national championships; the New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles marathons; and every televised edition of the Boston Marathon for 36 consecutive years. And, at age 67, she still runs marathons.


(Note: The first woman to run the Comrades Marathon was Frances Hayward in 1923, but her entry was refused, so she was an unofficial entrant. She completed the event in 11:35 and although she was not awarded a Comrades medal, the other runners and spectators presented her with a silver tea service and a rose bowl.)


Sally Ride, final frontier woman

Sally Ride
Sally Ride in 1984

“All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.” – Sally Ride

In 1983, astronaut and astrophysicist Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. As a mission specialist, she helped deploy satellites and worked on other projects. She returned to Earth on June 24.

Ride died on July 23, 2012 at the age of 61, following a battle with pancreatic cancer.


Anna Fisher – not your average mom

Anna Fisher

“When [the main rockets] go off you may not know where you’re going, but you know you’re going somewhere.” – Anna Fisher

In 1984, Anna Fisher became the first mother in space. She is currently the oldest active American astronaut.

Her training class, the first female astronauts recruited by NASA, included Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, and Judith Resnik, who died when the Challenger space shuttle was destroyed during launch in January 1986.

Fisher was so committed to the space program, that when she was assigned to her first flight two weeks before giving birth to her oldest child, she delivered Kristin on a Friday and was back in the office three days later for a Monday meeting.

Anna’s daughter Kristin is now a correspondent for WUSA Television News in Washington DC, and she had the rare opportunity to interview her famous mom on national television in April 2012.


Elspeth Beard, biker babe

Elspeth Beard
Elspeth Beard in 1984

In 1984, Elspeth Beard completed a trip around the world on a used 1974 BMW R 60/6 flat-twin motorcycle that had more than 48,000 kilometers on it even before the trip began.

The then twenty-four year old Elspeth began her journey in New York. She had several accidents, her belongings were stolen, and she got hepatitis and dysentery before her trip ended in London three years later. She lost 24 kilograms on the trip and added 77,000 kilometers to her R60’s odometer. The bike is – remarkably – still in running order.

During the trip, the whole of the Punjab region was sealed off and a special permit was required to get into it. Elspeth simply forged herself the necessary permit. Since no official permit even existed yet, the border guards did not know what a “proper” permit was meant to look like, and she finally made it across the border into Pakistan.

Elspeth is one of a very small number of women to have circled the globe on a motorcycle and was the first British woman to do so.

She currently heads her own architectural firm, Elspeth Beard Architects, based in a converted stable in the centre of Godalming, Surrey, England.


Maryam Mirzakhani, mathematician on a mission

Maryam Mirzakhani
Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014

In August 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian maths professor at Stanford University in California, was named the first female winner of the Fields Medal. The Fields Medal is often described as the Nobel prize for mathematics, and was established in 1936.

Maryam’s brilliance was noted in her teens when she won gold at both the 1994 and the 1995 International Mathematical Olympiad, and was the first Iranian to complete the competition with perfect results.

Just the mere existence of her accomplishment shatters so many stereotypes of women in the majority Muslim, currently war-torn region. Mirzakhani demonstrates how Iranian women, and their Middle Eastern peers, are not passive and unintellectual, but ground-breaking and brilliant.


(Note: The International Mathematical Olympiad was held in South Africa for the very first time during July 2014 in Cape Town. The first IMO was held in Romania in 1959.)


This article was also featured on News24 Voices. To see more News24 articles by Trivia SA, please click below:

  • KarlienvVollenhoven

    Sjoe, daar is so baie wonderlike en briljante vrouens, ek dink nie almal kan ‘n plekkie hier kry nie?
    Ek sou hou van ‘n artikel oor vrouens wat in suid afrika naam gemaak het wereld wyd? (As daar enige is?) Maar dis great om te sien!

    • Ek was juis nogal versigtig om ‘n lys van SA vroue te begin – want dit sal ‘n ellelange lys wees! Vroue soos Esmé Euvrard, Zola Budd en Charlize Theron – maar ek is baie bang ek los iemand uit. Ons sal maar sien – ek dink die terugvoer gaan baie interresant wees!