1939: Kitty O'Brien Joyner is NASA's first woman engineer
Kitty O'Brien Joyner broke ground twice in 1939. After suing to be admitted into the University of Virginia's engineering program, she was the first woman to graduate from the program that year. The electrical engineering knowledge she gained let her blaze a new trail several months later when NACA, the predecessor to NASA, hired her. She worked there for decades, eventually becoming branch head, before retiring in 1971.
1940: First African American woman wins an Oscar
It took 12 years for the Academy Awards to acknowledge a nonwhite performer. Even when Hattie McDaniel won for her supporting role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”—making her the first Black person to win any Oscar—she was seated at a separate table from her costars, and the show's organizers had to fight for her to be allowed inside the venue. Though later audiences would take issue with McDaniel's stereotypical character, her win was still historic; another Black actor would not win an Oscar until 1964, and diversity in the Academy remains an issue.
1941: Wonder Woman debuts
Wonder Woman wasn't the first female superhero to grace the racks of comic book shops across America, but her appearance in 1941 sparked an obsession that's lasted just as long as Batman and Superman. Created by a psychologist, the Amazon woman was heavily influenced by feminism. In 2017, her enduring popularity made her the first female superhero to earn her own movie, which smashed records and gender barriers alike.
[Pictured: One of many iterations of Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter, portraying Wonder Woman in the television series in 1975.]
1942: First woman is awarded Purple Heart medal
On Dec. 7, 1941, Annie G. Fox found herself organizing the response to the chaos and numerous injuries caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first lieutenant and head nurse of Hickam Field Hospital was awarded the Purple Heart for her work on Oct. 26, 1942, alongside several other army nurses. When the criteria of the award later changed to apply only to those injured in the line of duty, Fox was awarded the equally prestigious Bronze Star in place of the Purple Heart in 1944.
1943: Women's Army Corps is created
The U.S. entered World War II at the end of 1941, and quickly found itself in need of soldiers. Women, who had served as nurses and in other unofficial military roles in prior wars, were formally recruited for behind-the-scenes roles through the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. By 1943, Congress decided to drop Auxiliary from the name, and female non-combatants finally received the same benefits as their male counterparts. Men and women would remain in separate military units long after World War II, though, before finally integrating in 1978.
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1944: French women win the right to vote
France fell behind many of its European counterparts in granting women the right to vote. Sixteen years after Britain finally enshrined equal rights at the ballot box, the newly liberated French government signed a law allowing women to cast votes. French women still struggle to see themselves represented in the federal government, though numbers have started trending up after recent elections.
1945: Ireland's laundry workers go on strike
After years of mistreatment, Ireland's laundry workers (who were almost entirely women) decided they were done putting up with the long hours and harsh conditions. The Irish Women's Worker Union went on strike, and after 14 weeks, they won the right to a second week of holidays every year for all Irish workers.
1946: UN establishes the Commission on the Status of Women
Soon after the United Nations was founded, it established the Commission on the Status of Women, the first intergovernmental body with the sole purpose of promoting the rights of women around the world. The Commission's 15 female representatives first met in New York, and until 1962, they focused on setting global standards for women's rights, changing discriminatory language in different documents, and bringing awareness to women's issues to a worldwide audience.
1947: First woman wins a Nobel Prize in medicine
Alongside her husband, Gerty Cori became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine, and only the third woman in history to win the award in any category. The couple won for developing the Cori cycle, which explained how energy moves through different parts of the body. Though colleagues warned her she could hold back her husband's career, Cori and her husband continued working together and went on to make further important biological discoveries.
1948: UN Declaration of Human Rights debuts
The United Nation's historic Declaration of Human Rights was the first international document to explicitly state that both men and women should have their “dignity and worth of [their] human person” protected. The Commission on the Status of Women was integral in the fight to make sure gender-neutral language was inserted into the document, which was adopted by the General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.
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