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“Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done,” aviatrix Amelia Earhart once famously declared. Earhart and other pioneering 20th-century women defied the naysayers by demolishing gender barriers that had been in place for millennia. They also cleared the way for Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin to take good hard whacks at the highest, hardest glass ceilings in the land. Progress was swift: From having no vote, tenuous property rights and little education at the beginning of the century, women became a majority of the American electorate, most of the student population and the owners of 5 million businesses by 1999. These trailblazers not only broke through glass ceilings, but also out of isolation, onto the airwaves, into the national consciousness and, apparently, out of airplane engines.

Helen Keller: Deaf, blind and unable to speak, Keller broke through the most severe limitations when she discovered words at age 8, connecting the sign for “water” that her tutor Anne Sullivan was pressing into one hand with the cold liquid flowing over the other. It inspired her lifelong effort to empower others. “Never bend your head. Hold it high. Look the world in the eye,” she proclaimed. Keller is pictured in 1905, a year after she graduated from Radcliffe College, becoming the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Roosevelt shattered the mold for presidential wives, holding more than 300 press conferences, fighting for civil rights and acting as a constant spur to her husband, Franklin. Her greatest boost to all those lacking power came the year before this 1949 photo: her lead role in creating the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For that, President Harry Truman called her the First Lady of the World. “Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one,” Roosevelt urged.

Amelia Earhart: Earhart went where no woman had gone before when she flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, and reached an altitude of 18,415 feet in 1931. She became a national phenomenon, writing, touring, promoting air travel and cashing in on her celebrity with product endorsements, active-wear fashions and a line of “Modernaire Earhart” luggage. Her last adventure—an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in the Lockheed Electra seen unfinished here in 1936—ended when she disappeared over the South Pacific.

Pioneers Who Changed Traditional Notions of Women’s Work

While some pathfinders broke into fields from which women had been excluded, others made important advances
in areas to which women were relegated by tradition or biology, such as childbirth and family management.

Virginia Apgar: Apgar took up anesthesiology; a field traditionally disdained by male doctors, and became the first woman to land a full professorship at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1949 she developed the Apgar Newborn Scoring System, which allowed doctors to determine within minutes after birth whether a baby needed special medical care through a focus on five indicators: heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, color and reflexes. It dramatically lowered infant mortality rates around the world.

Margaret Sanger: Sanger sat for this portrait shortly after her 30-day imprisonment in 1917 for opening the nation’s first family planning clinic. She made it her life’s mission to help break the bonds of cruel chance after seeing her mother driven to exhaustion by 18 pregnancies. At a time when it was a criminal offense to send information on birth control—a term Sanger coined—through the mail because it was considered obscene material, she published her own newsletters and a pamphlet titled What Every Girl Should Know.

Madam C.J. Walker: Walker broke through the limits women and African Americans confronted in the world of business when she began marketing her own line of beauty and hair care products in 1905. Her business empire gave thousands of women the opportunity to earn decent commissions and engendered another generation of black entrepreneurs. Born in 1867 to two former slaves, she gave much of her vast fortune to black institutions and causes. This 1914 portrait by African-American photographer Addison N. Scurlock was featured on her products.

Julia Child: With a voice that could itself shatter glass ceilings, Child helped elevate domestic cooking in the United States to an art form. She moved to Paris in 1948 and always fondly recalled that her first meal there, oysters and sole meunière, opened up her “soul and spirit.” She studied at the renowned Cordon Bleu, started her own cooking school with two friends and collaborated on the cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, still a standard. The voice was not heard, though, until 1963 when she debuted The French Chef on American public television.

Creative Spirits Who Ventured Somewhere Over the Rainbow

As public arts opened for women in the 20th century, they had their widest influence on American culture, bringing feminine sensibilities to bear on modern experience and exploring new vistas in the world of arts and entertainment.

Judy Garland: Between the struggles of the Great Depression and the mayhem of World War II, Garland invited us to experience a transformed world in The Wizard of Oz where we could “wake up where clouds are far behind.” This photo was taken in 1954 on the set of A Star Is Born, another triumph. She was probably late for that day’s shoot as she increasingly tended to be; her troubled personal life became part of her legend and led to her death at 47 in 1969. She performed for 45 of those years, having first gone on stage as Frances Ethel Gumm at the age of 2.

Susan Sontag: With great panache Sontag attacked barriers between high art and fun, intellect and the media. Her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” became a manifesto for the aesthetic sensibility of the ’60s. A public intellectual, she appeared in films by Woody Allen and Andy Warhol, was profiled by People magazine and was featured in Absolut vodka ads, besides publishing her award-winning novels and essay collections.

Judith Jamison: The ballet Cry, in which Jamison is shown here in a 1976 photo, was “a hymn to the sufferings and triumphant endurance of generations of black matriarchs” choreographed for Jamison by American Dance Theater founder Alvin Ailey. It was not only a moving tribute to its subjects, but also launched Jamison to the top of the dance world. The artistic director of American Dance Theater since Ailey’s death in 1989, Jamison continues to work tirelessly to promote the importance of arts education for the full realization of individual potential.