It is difficult
to imagine or to underestimate the price many of these women paid
in the currency of loneliness, self-doubt, ridicule, and insult.
They were often considered to be in flagrant violation of the laws,
written and unwritten, of God and man. Many were jailed for their
beliefs and activities. They were seen to be violating the natural
order, the way everyone knew things were supposed to
be. They persevered against odds that should have been seen to be
overwhelmingand they triumphed (Read & Witlieb, p. 11).
What do a female pilot, a Chief Justice, a basketball player, and
a Fortune 500 CEO have in common? Recognized as being the first
to achieve or accomplish a particular honor, position, or skill
in their various roles, these women are all members of a special
group known as groundbreakers. In this article, we share
the eleven common characteristics or traits of twenty-one women
who, in addition to making significant contributions to their individual
fields, inspired others to pursue goals previously unattained by
women. Descriptions of each of these traits are enhanced by examples
from the stories of eleven of the twenty-one womensome whom
you will know and some whom you probably will not.
Why Study Groundbreaking Women?
As researchers, the authors were intrigued with the idea that within
the many lists of women who are recognized for their achievements,
there was a special group of women whose character and actions led
them to venture into unknown waters alone, with no previous role
models or paths for success. By studying these female groundbreakers,
the authors hoped to gain insights into what attributes these particular
women possessed that might distinguish them from other people, thereby
enhancing or changing the current leadership programs to include
the development of these characteristics. Several questions surfaced
during this inquiry. In this article, we address three of them:
(a) Are there common characteristics or traits among women groundbreakers?
(b) If so, what are they? (c) How can knowing the characteristics
and achievements of these groundbreaking women, along with their
stories, facilitate other women to reach their goals and become
As women leaders, the significance of studying female groundbreakers
became important to us when we reviewed the literature on females
in school administration and determined that there was much work
to be done in terms of facilitating women to obtain and sustain
top leadership roles. Research in this area indicates that the playing
field for females in educational administration is still not level;
14% of superintendents are female and 86% are male (Brunner, 2001).
For many policy experts, the persistent shortage of women
at the highest levels of a field otherwise dominated by womenas
teachers, principals, and central office administratorsis
one of the most troubling leadership issues in public education
(Keller, 1999, p. 1). Helgesen (1990) further supported the need
for more women in leadership roles in her description of female
values related to leadership:
As women's leadership qualities come to play a more dominant role
in the public sphere, their particular aptitudes for long-term negotiating,
analytic listening, and creating an ambiance in which people work
with zest and spirit will help reconcile the split between the ideals
of being efficient and being humane. This integration of female
values is already producing a more collaborative kind of leadership,
and changing the very ideal of what strong leadership actually is.
(Helgesen, 1990, p. 249)
The current under-representation of women in top leadership positions
is reflected in several research studies conducted on women in educational
administration, which reveal many critical problems facing women
when they try to enter or advance in administrative careers (Brunner,
1999; Gardiner, Enomoto, & Grogan, 2000; Gupton & Slick,
1996; Hill & Ragland, 1995; Konek & Kitch, 1994; Shakeshaft,
1989). In spite of these difficulties regarding entry into leadership
in education, the continuing discrimination in hiring and promotion,
and other external and internal barriers, these women persistently
pursue roles in leadership (Edson, 1988). According to Edson (1988),
women who enter the field of school leadership do so because they
wish to meet the challenges inherent in leadership roles and believe
that they can provide children with more positive education experiences
than they see currently provided in the nation's public schools.
Although the literature regarding female leaders in education revealed
that more women than ever are entering administrative roles in education,
"There is still much we do not know about sex discrimination,
about female career patterns, about women leaders, and about inclusive
conceptualizations of managerial and administrative theory
(Dunlap & Schmuck, 1995, p. xi).
As noted by Irby and Brown (1998), it is important that we recognize
women's current poor representation in formal school
leadership is not necessarily an inherent condition of the institution
of schooling but rather is the result of social interactions that
have unfolded in specific historical contexts (p. 8). This
statement shows the sociological nature of some of the problems
embedded within our culture that need to be changed in order to
reduce the barriers to equity. In a similar vein, Shakeshaft (1989)
explained that only a handful of models have been developed to explain
the theoretical underpinnings of the barriers allowing women into
leadership positions in the educational profession. She also stated
that barriers for aspiring women in education are internal as well
as external barriers that could originate from psychological factors
such as motivation and self-efficacy. A quick review of the literature
on women in leadership in education makes it is clear that female
leaders need to be further researched to assist women in attaining
and sustaining positions of leadership. Given this need to study
women leaders, this inquiry focused on those women who had made
significant progress in their lives and because of their actions,
opened doors for many other women.
The Study of Groundbreaking Women
To address the needs of more women in top leadership roles, we began
the study of female groundbreakers. In this article, the authors
share the results of a study of twenty-one female groundbreakers.
In selecting these women for this inquiry, we constructed a purposeful
sample of groundbreakers who represented a cross-section of cultures,
ages, and time periods in history and who came from a variety of
professions (business, politics, medicine, science, sports, education,
and sociology). Women who had been previously recognized by organizations,
institutions, professions and/or cultural groups for having achieved
or attained a particular honor or position of national significance
served as one source for the study. One such organization, the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), featured groundbreaking
women from a variety of careers, spanning one hundred years, from
the 1890s through the 1990s. Nationally recognized publications
such as The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time (Felder,
2001) and 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Womens
History (Jones, 1998), along with several websites, such as
http://www.distinguishedwomen.com, also served as valuable resources.
From these lists, the authors constructed a purposeful sample of
twenty-one groundbreaking women to study. Table One includes the
names of these women, their areas of recognition and the decades
in which their contributions were made.
Focused group discussions were utilized to glean traits or characteristics
of the women selected for study (N=21). Examined holistically, the
stories of these women provided a rich context for studying specific
traits attributed to them as female groundbreakers. A content analysis
of the descriptions of their lives and contributions resulted in
the emergence of eleven common traits. These traits fell into the
following categories: personal intelligences or talents; attitudes
or beliefs about themselves and what they wanted to accomplish;
and past experiences and people that influenced the success of the
women. Included below are descriptions of each of the eleven traits
as they emerged from the stories of these groundbreaking women.
Results of the Inquiry
The women in this inquiry were already recognized by some outside
entity for making an outstanding contribution to their field. Additionally,
the researchers selected them as being the first in their field
to do so, thus identifying them as groundbreakers. The
following eleven traits emerged from the study of these twenty-one
women: (a) resilient or courageous, (b) visionary (c) self-efficacious
(d) making a difference (e) persistent (f) valuing education (g)
passionate about their work (h) believing in family first (i) advocating
for the underrepresented (j) intellectually advanced, (k) and recognized
by society as role models. Examples from the lives of eleven of
the twenty-one women are included in each of these eleven traits
and their descriptions to illustrate how the traits emerged from
Resilient or Courageous
The women we researched demonstrated either courage in the face
of threatening situations or resilience when confronted with hardships.
These groundbreakers took the situations they found themselves in
and used them as lessons to better themselves and make them stronger.
Amelia Earhart, the first female to fly across the Atlantic Ocean
solo, believed that courage is the price life exacts for granting
peace (CMG, 2004, quote 7). Her resilience was noted by long-time
friend and navigator, Fred Noonan, when he described her as a
great companion and pilot.... who could take hardship as well as
a man and worked like one, too (CMG, 2004, quote 19).
Women groundbreakers described themselves as having a vision or
dream of what they wanted to do, often for others. Able to see beyond
the present circumstances, these women saw what was possible for
themselves and others and drove themselves to achieve goals that
would see their vision become reality. Marie Curie was a true visionary
who believed in the potential of radiations curative power
(Jones, 1998). Directing her efforts toward accomplishing a specific
goal, she relentlessly pursued the scientific principles and discovered
radium, created the study of radioactivity and opened a new field
in physics. She was the first female to win a Nobel Prize and the
only person to ever win two.
Women who were firsts demonstrated a sense of self-efficacy, a belief
in their own power and ability to accomplish something, even when
told they were not capable. Ruth Simmons, President of Smith College,
is the first female to head a major university. As the last of twelve
children, she came from a family of tenant farmers that barely made
enough to live on by raising cotton. But Ruth believed in herself
and her own abilities to accomplish great things. "The fact
that there was definitely a really low ceiling for me didn't enter
my mind," (NASA, 2004, para. 3).
Had a mission to make a difference
While accomplishing amazing feats individually, these groundbreaking
women were on a mission to make a difference for their profession
and the lives of the people affected by their work. Toni Morrison,
the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature,
is recognized as a visionary poet who used the language of African
American slaves to articulate the reality of American life for black
people. Morrison proclaimed that her cause was about the restoration
of the language that black people spoke to its original power, which
was lost in the oral traditions of black slaves. Morrisons
novels include an ongoing exploration of color, gender and identity,
earning her worldwide acclaim as one of the greatest living writers
in the world (Felder, 2001). Her achievements are remarkable, not
only for their contribution to American literature, but also for
the author herself, because Morrison did not publish her first novel
until she was thirty-nine years old.
Our female groundbreakers exhibited a persistence to accomplish
their missions even when facing obstacles such as physical illness,
financial struggles, or prejudice with respect to gender and/or
race. Cheryl Miller was the first female analyst to call a nationally
televised National Basketball Association (NBA) game on Turner Broadcasting
System (TBS). As a modern-day athlete and sports commentator, she
ercame many gender and racial obstacles to become a prominent black
woman athlete. She was thirteen years old when she tried out for
an all-male basketball team. After beating her coachs son
in a one-on-one game as a condition for playing on the team, she
asked the coach when she should report to practice. According to
her story, the coach looked her straight in the eye and said, "Miller,
the only court I'll see you in will be a court of law. No girl will
ever play on my team (Miller, 1995, p.162). She then ran home
crying and told her dad that she was quitting and that she never
wanted to play basketball again. He sat her straight up and said:
"I didn't raise any quitters. Tomorrow you will try out for
the girls team and become the best who ever played" (Miller,
1995, p. 162).
The groundbreaking women we studied were referenced as seeing education
as a way to better themselves and help others succeed. Education
was the vehicle to either transform their circumstances or to propel
them towards their goals. This value was either implied through
their advanced degrees or directly spoken of in their stories. Mary
McLeod Bethune, the first African American to serve as a special
advisor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is closely identified with
education. She is primarily known as a prominent educator who greatly
enhanced educational opportunities for African-American girls. Her
outstanding efforts on behalf of the black community at the national
and governmental level further enhance her status as one of Americas
most influential leaders and the most important African-American
woman of her time (Felder, 2001, p. 145).
Passionate about their work
Women groundbreakers from our study spoke of a passion for what
they were doing, either as a career or as their lifes work.
Generally speaking, they loved their work. Juanita Morris Kreps,
the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and member
of the Board of Directors of the U.S. Stock Exchange, loved her
work. As an economist, teacher, dean of the womens college
at Duke University, and negotiator for the U.S.-Chinese trade agreement,
her true passion was her research on the changing role of women
in the labor force and its effect on the overall structure of society
Believed in family first
While maintaining a drive to accomplish their goals, these women
would often pass up opportunities that may have put their families
in jeopardy, thus delaying the accomplishment of their goals. It
should be noted, however, that the families were often also the
support upon which the individuals depended in order to make their
great achievements. We saw this family-first philosophy
when we studied Sandra Day OConnor, the first female Supreme
Court Justice, who set aside her career for four years to raise
her three sons (Felder, 2001).
Advocated for the underrepresented
It was surprising that so many of the women groundbreakers were
strong advocates for the rights of the underrepresented. Across
generations, women voiced their concern for the status and treatment
of women and other underrepresented populations, such as children
and ethnic minorities. One of the strongest advocates from our study
was Frances Perkins who founded the Social Security Act of 1935
and the Fair Labor Standards Act. These were two of the most powerful
acts of legislation to ever come from any Secretary of Labor. Frances
was described as being pragmatic with strong beliefs in the social
welfare of others and a leader who demonstrated high moral convictions
and commitment to the principles of law and morality (Pasachoff,
1999). Her advocacy for the underrepresented can be captured in
this conversation with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Do you want
these things done? [unemployment relief, public works, minimum wage,
child labor laws, etc.] Because you dont want me for Secretary
of Labor if you dont (Pasachoff, 1999, p. 3).
The women exhibiting this characteristic often graduated from high
school and college far ahead of their peers. Linda Wachner was one
of the first women to lead a Fortune 500 firm (Pearson, 2004). She
was described as a diligent student, graduating from high school
at 16, after which she moved to State University of New York in
Buffalo and studied economics and business administration. She started
out as a buyer working in a variety of apparel industry jobs. Within
one year she became the first woman vice-president in the firms
100-year history (Pearson, 2004).
Recognized by society as role models
As we researched these female groundbreakers, we often found statements
that recognized these women as role models for other women. Clearly
accepted as the best in their field, these women were held up as
what other women should work toward. Sally Ride, one of the most
inspiring female groundbreakers in our study, was the first American
woman to become an astronaut and travel into space. With a doctorate
in physics from Stanford, she also developed her talent as a writer,
publishing three childrens books describing her experiences
in space. Serving as a member of the Presidents Committee
of Advisors on Science and Technology and formerly Director of the
California Space Science Institute she has set the pace for generations
of women. She offers both challenges and hope to the many women
that will follow in her footsteps (NASA, 1999).
Summary and Conclusions
Our work with female groundbreakers to this point has led us to
believe that women who are the first in their fields to achieve
or accomplish a particular honor, position or task, do exhibit distinct
traits and characteristics that support and promote their success
as leaders in their fields. This inquiry resulted in the description
of eleven common traits, viewed here as cumulative for the set of
women groundbreakers in the study and described here through the
stories of eleven of the twenty-one women from the study. While
we were not able to find specific examples in the literature of
all eleven traits for each of the twenty-one women, we felt that
the lack of evidence may be a limitation of recorded historynot
the women or the characteristics themselves.
Through this inquiry, we were able to glean responses to the question
How can knowing the characteristics and achievements of these
groundbreaking women, along with their inspirational stories, facilitate
other women to become leaders? The set of characteristics
derived from this study of women groundbreakers has significant
curricular implications for promoting and developing the critical
leadership skills needed in educational leadership, especially for
aspiring future and practicing female educators from diverse populationsdoors,
heretofore, closed. Incorporating the stories of these great women
in leadership programs in education and other related fields can
both inspire current and future leaders to address the challenges
facing women in leadership and encourage women to pursue their dreams
and achieve their goals.
Studying a set of characteristics belonging to these female trailblazers
can be the basis for professional development for female aspirants
who wish to break the glass ceilings and enter uncharted territory
leading to leadership roles. Leadership courses and professional
development can facilitate the development of women as leaders through
(a) inspiration, (b) development of character traits, (c) connections
and networking, and (d) high expectations of achievement.
Knowing these women and hearing their stories can inspire other
women to greatness which, in turn, will inspire others to succeed.
For many women, just hearing the stories can inspire them to go
beyond what they see as limitations, regarding their ethnicity,
their financial situations, their educational background or their
family circumstances. Women, in general, have not been the focus
of historical, scientific, or cultural studies. They are not the
authors, the politicians, the doctors, the scientists that are named
among the great men studied in school. Nor have women
been brought to the forefront as major players in the cultural influences
of entertainers, artists, film producers or poets. Studying female
groundbreakers raises the level of awareness that there were and
are many women who were the first to achieve an honor or to make
a significant contribution, and in some cases, they were not just
the first woman, but the first person to do so. By sharing these
stories with other women, we can inspire them to think of themselves
as leaders of men and women. They can become the best in their field,
not just as good as the male heroes whom they have studied
most of their lives but better.
Development of the character traits and skills in professional development
There is a need for current leadership programs to include both
personal skill and character building in their programs. This may
be done in a variety of ways, but some of the more popular are through
professional development seminars, college and university coursework,
and training centers. Programs currently exist that build leadership
characteristics and skills in a variety of professions, such as
found in the business leadership training programs at Thunderbird,
the Garvin School of International Management, ranked Number One
in International Business by the Wall Street Journal. In
their program, they profess to develop Leaders equipped to
be creative, ethical, and visionary; Bold leaders, not afraid to
take well-calculated risks; and Leaders taught to shatter through
comfort zones, glass ceilings, and stereotypes; to be the stewards
of the twenty-first century (Thunderbird, 2004). Others who
developed leadership characteristics include Babson College of Business
whose Executive Education program is ranked by Financial Times
as being among the top nine in the world for overall executive education,
and by Business Week as being in the top ten for custom programs.
(Babson, 2004). With a Masters Degree in Business Administration,
a program that has been ranked Number One in Entrepreneurship by
U.S. News & World Report for eleven straight years, this
university focused on pertinent topics for the students own
personal and professional development. Educational institutions
for public school leadership development who follow this same trend
would go beyond teaching concepts and their application, to improving
areas of personal development of each student, individually, based
on their identified need and the characteristics identified as important
in female groundbreakers.
Connections and Networking
An advantage that many men have had over women can often be found
in the networking of top leaders with potential leaders. Linking
women with other women who are recognized as groundbreakers in their
field can be an avenue for success for many women who otherwise
may not achieve their potential. Once these groundbreaking women
are identified, networking links may occur through direct contact,
discourse at conferences, or with the exchange of written communication
in which ideas are shared and connections are made. Universities
and professional development institutions may facilitate this networking
by inviting these groundbreaking women to speak at conferences and
to publish in their journals. In addition, established leaders in
state and national organizations can facilitate networking through
special interest groups and conferences within conferences.
Setting high expectations for achievement
The study of women groundbreakers is like a circle that expands,
and as the circle expands, so does the influence of these women
to open doors for other women to be recognized for their work. The
more discourse there is around women groundbreakers and the paths
they chose to take, the greater the sense of normalcy regarding
their actionsan expectation that of course women
need to be: courageous, visionary, driven by a mission and intellectually
advanced, giving the message that is what great women are and do,
and that is what is expected of you.
Clearly all of eleven of the women we studied could be considered
role models for future female leaders in that they exhibited many
of the characteristics that we attribute with success. However,
it was not clear from all the descriptions of the women that we
were able to find, that they were recognized for such. A more in-depth
study of female groundbreakers is needed, one that accesses information
not currently available to the general public through popular reading
and viewing. Much of the information about these women may only
be found in specialized museums and private displays of writings
and other artifacts of their work. Follow-up interviews with those
women still living would no doubt provide first-hand data that would
link the above and maybe even more traits to each female groundbreaker.
Are you a female groundbreaker? Was your mother or grandmother one?
Do you know a woman who has the potential to be the first to achieve
an honor or make a significant contribution? We challenge everyone
who works with these future groundbreakers to read and share the
stories of: Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Ruth Simmons, Toni Morrison,
Cheryl Miller, Mary McLeod Bethune, Juanita Morris Kreps, Sandra
Day OConnor, Frances Perkins, Linda Wachner, and Sally K.
Ride, to name a few. Use their stories as inspiration for yourself
and for the young women in your family, classroom or business who
can and will some day be a groundbreaker. We encourage you
to explore the lives of many other women who are recognized as groundbreakers.
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Groundbreaking Women Area of Recognition Decade