5 Amazing Firsts In Women's History (That Were Total Accidents)

This year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment, awarding women the right to vote in the United States. It's a lesson that every gain for equality and justice is a hard-fought, brutal struggle to reach a victorious tipping point ... Except when it's not.

Sometimes progress comes from nothing but a freak accident, resulting in the established social order being shattered before anyone knows what happened ...

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5
The First American Woman To Win An Olympic Medal Never Knew That She Was In The Olympics

In Paris, the 1900 Olympic Games marked the second outing for the modern games and the first for female athletes. Margaret Abbott, an amateur golfer, seized victory, the first woman to win a gold medal for the United States, and one of the few women permitted to compete in events. It was an amazing accomplishment; the kind an athlete could spend the rest of their life being proud of ... Except for the fact that Abbott had no idea that she had won an Olympic event. 

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No one did; it took decades for historians to sort it out. To Abbott, it was just another excursion to Paris to sight-see, study, and visit the World's Fair. On that day, walking around with her mom outside of Paris, she volunteered to enter the day's sporting events. No hoopla, no pomp, no Wheaties box, no book deal, nothing.  

Via Wikimedia Commons
Not even a straw hat endorsement deal.
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You see, the French had kind of half-assed the whole thing. They didn't even refer to the event as "The Olympic Games" but Prix de la ville de Compiegne, which means exactly as much to you as it did to Abbott. In the French planners' defense, the Olympics were a sideshow to the World's Fair, so they had their hands full with that massive undertaking instead of correctly-branded Olympic merch. In fact, Abbott didn't even get a medal. In those days, all athletes got handed shitty porcelain bowls for trophies. But, hey, first-place is still first place. At least she could use it as a toilet. 

But, hey, at least she inspired an entire generation of Olympian woman golfers, right? Nope! The International Olympic Committee immediately dropped women's golf from the competitions for a hundred and sixteen years. So for over a century, Abbott was also the only woman gold-medal golfer and went from putting green to cemetery green without ever knowing her place in history.

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4
The Earliest Published Book by A Female Author In The English Language Was Never Supposed To Be Seen By Another Human Being

Now known as Julian of Norwich, the writer of the misleadingly sexy-sounding Revelations of Divine Love established women's role in English literature. Though that'd be news to her, as she set her hopes on peacefully dying in obscurity. 

As an "anchoress," she elected to be bricked up in a tiny room to pray for the rest of her life, deemed dead for all intents and purposes. Priests would formally hold a mass for her as the cramped room was sealed shut, contact limited only those loitering about the tiny window -- a surprisingly popular practice back then. That's one way to get out of never having to deal with in-laws and landlords.

Gallftree008/Wikimedia Commons
Now would be a good time to stop complaining about how hard social distancing is.
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Around the time she hit 30, she reportedly began experiencing ecstatic visions as she laid on her deathbed. Miraculously recovering, she began to jot her thoughts down. Because she couldn't write in Latin or deliberately chose not to -- Latin being the language of religious and scholarly literature -- she likely didn't intend for her book to be read. Let alone for it to survive seven centuries, being translated into hundreds of languages. Her book even influenced T.S. Elliot, making her indirectly responsible for this:

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The idea of being a published author would have been nonsensical to her in a time when 90% of the population was illiterate and more preoccupied with plague buboes and scurvy. The printing press was a century away; the book was just written to pass the time in her cell until she died for real. By luck, a monk in the 17th century dug up the dusty work and tossed it on the presses leading to Revelations of Divine Love becoming wildly popular. We only know she is a woman by a notation made by a later editor as Julian (we have no idea if that is a real name or not) did not include any personal information whatsoever. 

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3
The Pioneering Female Film Director Got Her Big Break Only After Her Boss Almost Dropped Dead Two Days Before Filming

Stepping foot on the set of 1949's Not Wanted, no one on the crew could have anticipated it being the most pivotal film in women's cinematic history. Written Ida Lupino, the modestly-budgeted, social message flick should have been a quick and forgettable footnote.

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Days from filming, the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack. Bound to a tight schedule, Lupino took charge, desperate to recoup the investment and save her reputation as a producer. Sexist as they might have been, film execs were businessmen first and foremost, and no one interfered. Journalists on set would look on in confusion as Lupino performed all the tasks of a director while refusing to take on the title. Under union regulations, she couldn't. 

A woman, and not a member of the Director's Guild, she pretended to merely be relaying messages from the director so no one would hassle her. Clifton was so debilitated he couldn't stand up, and would be propped up against a wall or in a chair as he slowly died -- devolving into Weekend at Bernie's but with a megaphone and old-timey, puffy director pants. Despite challenging circumstances, Lupino got the job done. 

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Based on her skill, she was able to find a gap in the all-male Hollywood directing community, directing a slew of films and later TV productions while keeping budgets in the black. All the more remarkable as the stuff she made dealt with bigamy, psychopathic hitchhikersrape, single mothers, and PTSD, the first and only woman to direct a film noir in Hollywood's "Golden Era" and the only woman to direct a Twilight Zone episode.

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2
Millions of Women's Lives Were Improved Overnight By A Single, Slimy, Philandering Huckster

Issac Singer is the most unlikely ally the women's rights movement ever had. Just disregard the part where he fathered over 20 kids with multiple women while simultaneously married to three of them.

Edward Harrison May
Singer sure did.
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Before the introduction of the sewing machine, sewing a single shirt took 14 hours. Back then the typical woman's was an unending procession of jabbing your fingers with needles and miserably mending underwear. It amounted to "nothing but a dull round of everlasting toil," one early feminist groaned. Burnt out housewives got a much needed tool of relief when the Singer-brand sewing machine reduced their workload, and Singer got rich. 

Despite having to fend off competitors' constant lawsuits due to his frequent habit of copyright violations, Singer succeeded where his predecessors had failed. Women's lib was a convenient byproduct. To sell the machine to a cautious public, that didn't believe women were mentally capable of running such a complex contraption, Singer used live, traveling demos, showcasing how easily unschooled girls could operate it like the most condescending infomercial ever.

Vincent de Groot
"Gentlemen, order in the next 30 minutes, and I'll throw in a free gag for when the missus gets too mouthy!"
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In the process, he inadvertently helped quash the stereotype that women were mechanically disinclined. In a few decades, women were out of the house, running millions of his machines in factories across the globe, entering the industrialized workforce for the first time.

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1
The Soviets Sent The First Women Into Space Because The Guy In Charge Didn't Understand How Capitalism Worked

With the Soviets and the United States locked in an abstract proxy war of sorts, the intellectual prowess of each nation (or their kidnapped Nazi scientists) stood in for military shows of might. 

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Learning that the US space program was performing medical tests on women, Nikolai Kamanin, the administrator of cosmonaut operations, sounded the alarm. Citing the "patriotic feelings of Soviet women in his journal" (and not at all to protect his career), Kamanin freaked out and rushed a class of women into training. Immediately a plan was drafted to recruit females to beat the Americans' lady-astronaut initiative. On June 16, 1963, sky-diver Valentina Tereshkova became the first female in space, and presumably, the first woman to pee on the sacred Russian bus tire.

Soviet Union
The stamp memorializing the look on her face when she squatted next to the bus.
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None of the reports of an American woman astronaut program was true. Kamanin had misinterpreted a story that a doctor that worked for NASA offered the tests to some women. These tests were entirely privately funded and just so happened to be conducted by a part-time NASA doctor who served on an advisory board. Westerners grasped the distinction. However, Kamanin evidently didn't understand the concept of privately-owned business. 

Records show NASA had zero interest in female astronauts. Neither did the USSR, that is, until they got embarrassed that the US might overshadow them. Afterward, they continued not caring as no female cosmonauts were selected for two decades after Tereshkova's flight. 

Top image: Alexander Mokletsov/RIA Novosti Archive

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