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21 historic firsts for women in 2021

In honor of International Day of the Girl, we take a look at the women who’ve paved the way for the next generation this year.
/ Source: TODAY

Monday, Oct. 11, marks International Day of the Girl Child, a day that raises awareness about the needs of adolescent girls across the globe, highlights the challenges they face and encourages everyone to help empower the women of tomorrow.

It’s also the perfect occasion to take a closer look at the women of today — the ones opening doors, blazing new trails and breaking glass ceilings, as they help pave the way for the next generation.

And 2021 has seen a bounty of those groundbreakers!

Kamala Harris

Just 20 days into the year and moments after President Joe Biden took the oath of office, Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president of the United States — marking a first for any woman and one of many firsts for the former California senator.

Kamala Harris is sworn in as U.S. vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Jan. 20, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.Saul Loeb / AP

In addition to being the nation's first female vice president, the 56-year-old is also the first Black and first South Asian American to hold the position, distinctions that come on the heels of years of standing out from the crowd. In 2004, Harris became the first Black woman to hold the office of district attorney of San Francisco, and six years later, she followed that up by becoming the first Black woman elected attorney general of California.

Jill Biden

The very same day that Harris celebrated her own historic firsts, Jill Biden marked a female first of her own.

Jill Biden is both the first lady and a full-time educator.Jill Biden / Twitter

Though the position of first lady isn’t an elected one or one with clearly defined roles, it is a demanding one. Traditionally, that means taking on a number of ceremonial duties, hosting White House events and launching personal initiatives, as well as supporting the president’s own initiatives.

And Biden, who’s also a professor of writing at Northern Virginia Community College, is the first first lady to do all of that while retaining a full-time job outside of the White House.

Sarah Thomas

In 2015, Sarah Thomas became the NFL’s first permanent female game official, and in 2021, she followed that up with another football feat.

Line judge Sarah Thomas looks on before the 2021 Super Bowl between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs.Patrick Smith / Getty Images

On Feb. 7, Thomas, 48, made history as the first female referee to officiate a Super Bowl when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Tampa, Florida.

Maia Chaka

One month after Thomas staked her "first" claim on the field at Raymond James Stadium, fellow ref Maia Chaka celebrated her own as the first Black female official in the NFL.

Official Maia Chaka at the 2021 Reese's Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama on Jan. 30, 2021, in Mobile, Alabama.Don Juan Moore / Getty Images

"It didn't really hit me until just now," Chaka told TODAY right after the announcement was made. “When I saw the introduction, I'm like, 'This is really real,' because this is just something that we're just always taught to work hard for. Sometimes we just don't take time to stop and smell our own roses.”

Simone Biles

At just 24 years old, Simone Biles has long been considered the GOAT of women’s gymnastics. After all, she’s the most decorated female gymnast currently competing and regularly sets benchmarks for the sport. But earlier this year, she did something only a few male gymnasts had ever done before.

In May, Biles successfully executed the Yurchenko double pike on the vault in the U.S. Classic, a maneuver that features a roundoff onto the springboard followed by a back handspring onto the vault and then two backflips in the air.

Many expected to see Biles reprise the move in the individual vault competition at the Tokyo Olympics, but the legendary gymnast withdrew from that and other events after experiencing a lack of vital awareness in the air called “the twisties.”

Chloé Zhao

Oscar night was a barrier-breaking night, as more than one nominee marked firsts for women — and first up is Chloé Zhao.

Chloé Zhao accepts the Oscar for directing on April 25, 2021. Todd Wawrychuk / Reuters

The 39-year-old writer, editor, producer and director of “Nomadland” became the first Asian woman and the first woman of color — and only the second woman at all in 93 years — to ever take the top honor in the best director category. And it was a winning night all around for Zhao, who also accepted the Academy Award for best picture.

Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson

Next up is Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who shared a distinction of their own at the April awards ceremony.

Mia Neal, Sergio Lopez-Rivera, and Jamika Wilson, winners of the makeup and hairstyling award for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," are seen backstage during the Academy Awards in April 2021.Richard Harbaugh/ / A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

The duo worked together behind the scenes on the big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and together they became the first Black women to earn the Academy Award for best makeup and hairstyling.

Viola Davis

And before Oscar night even rolled around, the iconic Viola Davis had her own Oscar-first bragging rights.

Viola Davis received her fourth acting nomination at this year's Oscars for her title role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."David Lee / Netflix

The nominees were announced in March, and the “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” star received a best actress nod for her role in the film, which marked her fourth Oscar nomination. That made the 56-year-old the most nominated Black female actor in Academy Awards history.

Wally Funk

When Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched its New Shepard rocket in July, it did so with 82-year-old aviation veteran Wally Funk on board, officially making her not only the oldest woman but, at the time of takeoff, also the oldest person to reach the edge of space.

Wally Funk traveled to the edge of space with Blue Origin. REUTERS

But the space tourist had a list of No. 1s to her name long before that, having already been the first female Federal Aviation Administration inspector and the first female air safety investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board.

Sarah McBride

On Jan. 12, Sarah McBride was sworn into the Delaware state Senate, making her the first openly transgender state senator in the country.

In this July 28, 2016, photo, Sarah McBride takes the stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Paul Sancya / AP file

The 31-year-old, who’d already laid claim to being the first openly trans person to address a major political convention, said in a statement to NBC News in 2019, “I’ve spent my life fighting for people to have dignity, peace of mind, and a fair shot at staying afloat and getting ahead.”

Avril Haines

Former deputy national security adviser Avril Haines made national history of her own in January.

The president selected Haines to serve as the director of national intelligence, and the vice president swore the 52-year-old into the office Jan. 21, making Haines the first woman to ever fill the role.

Beyoncé

This year’s Grammys saw hit-maker Beyoncé walk away with four new shiny trophies — for best music video, best rap song, best rap performance and best R&B performance. And while winning is nothing new for her, there was something new for her to celebrate after the ceremony.

Beyonce accepts the best R&B performance award for "Black Parade" onstage during the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards on March 14, 2021.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Those accolades, added to her past honors, marked her 28th win from the Recording Academy, which means Beyoncé, 40, is now the most decorated female act in Grammy history.

Mj Rodriguez

“Pose” star Mj Rodriguez was nominated for a Primetime Emmy award for her work as Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista on the series in July, marking a big first for her and for the awards show.

Mj Rodriguez in October 2019.Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for InStyle

That nomination made her the first trans woman to be up for the lead acting Emmy.

Carli Lloyd

At the Tokyo Olympics, soccer star Carli Lloyd was, at the age of 39, the oldest woman to ever make the U.S. women's national team roster at the Olympics — and that was her second first in 2021 alone.

Carli Lloyd greets fans before a June 2021 game between the United States and Nigeria in Austin, Texas.Omar Vega / Getty Images

In June, Lloyd scored during a game against Jamaica, at which point she became the oldest woman to score for the women's national team at age 38. And those are likely to be her last firsts for Team USA. After the Olympics, the athlete announced she’s retiring from the team.

Laurel Hubbard

Another Olympic first went to weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand.

Laurel Hubbard won a silver medal at the 2017 world championships and gold at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa.Paul Childs / Reuters

While Hubbard didn’t medal at the games in Tokyo this summer, she was still a winner simply by becoming a trailblazer. Her inclusion made her the very first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics, and at the age of 43, she was also the oldest weightlifter at the games.

Janet Yellen

The Treasury Department was founded in 1789, but it wasn’t until 2021 that Janet Yellen made history there.

The president nominated Yellen to serve as secretary of the treasury, and after a 26-0 vote in her favor by the Senate Finance Committee, the 75-year-old economist became the first woman to hold the position in the department’s 232 years.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian economist and former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began serving as the director-general of the World Trade Organization in March.

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment made her both the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO.

Leyna Bloom

Model and actor Leyna Bloom staked her claim to a first right on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s popular swimsuit issue.

The magazine released three versions of its cover for 2021, each highlighting a different beautiful and powerful woman — one with rapper Megan Thee Stallion, one with tennis great Naomi Osaka and one with Bloom, who was the magazine’s first transgender cover girl and the first trans woman of color featured in its pages.

“This moment heals a lot of pain in the world,” Bloom tweeted after landing the coveted honor. “We deserve this moment; we have waited millions of years to show up as survivors and be seen as full humans filled with wonder.”

Amanda Gorman

Another first from Inauguration Day makes the list with Amanda Gorman, who was the youngest person to become an inaugural poet when she read her piece, “The Hill We Climb,” at the age of 22.

Amanda Gorman recites a poem during the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2021.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

And Gorman hopes to check off what might be another first for a woman in 2036, the year she becomes eligible to run for president of the United States.

"I remember being around 11 years old, and I was in class talking very passionately as I do about things I wanted to change in the world," Gorman told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb during a September visit to TODAY. "My teacher said to me quite jokingly, ‘Ha-ha, you should run for president,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I should.’"

JoJo Siwa

Every first counts, and on season 30 of “Dancing With the Stars,” 18-year-old dancing and singing sensation JoJo Siwa had one of her own to usher in.

JoJo Siwa and pro Jenna Johnson on the "Dancing With the Stars" season 30 premiere on Sept. 20, 2021.Eric McCandless / ABC

When the ballroom bash aired its season premiere in September, the “Boomerang” singer became the first contestant to dance with a same-sex pro partner on the long-running reality TV show.