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20 times women made history in 2021

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Lee Kiefer holds an American flag after winning a gold medal in fencing at the Tokyo Olympics
American fencer Lee Kiefer won a historic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Alexander Safonov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • 2021 has been groundbreaking for women, with historic firsts in politics, sports, and entertainment.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman to hold the role in January.

  • Olympian Lee Kiefer became the first-ever American fencer to win gold in individual foil.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States in January.

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Kamala Harris is sworn as vice president in January 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Vice President Harris is the first Black and South Asian-American woman to serve as vice president in American history. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, is also the first-ever second gentleman.

When she was elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris became the second African-American woman and first South Asian-American senator in history. Since she left her role in the Senate to serve as vice president, there are currently no Black women serving as senators.

Two other women have run for vice president on a major party ticket: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008.

Amanda Gorman also made history as the youngest known inaugural poet.

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Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden. Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP

Gorman, then 22, stole the show at Biden and Harris' inauguration with her poem, "The Hill We Climb."

Biden, only the fourth American president to have a poet read at his inauguration, and Gorman both have speech impediments. Gorman said poetry helped her overcome hers.

Sarah McBride was sworn in as the first openly transgender state senator.

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Delaware state senator Sarah McBride. Business Insider

Upon taking office, Delaware state senator Sarah McBride became the highest-ranking transgender elected official in the US.

"As I reflect on the journey till today I am reminded of the change that it reflects: that we are a community and a country that has continuously opened our hearts and changed our minds and increasingly judged people on their skills and talents not on their identities," she said at her swearing-in ceremony in Claymont, Delaware.

Avril Haines became the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 14: Avril Haines, former deputy national security advisor and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee January 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Haines testified before the committee on the topic of “From Sanctions to the Soleimani Strike to Escalation: Evaluating the Administration's Iran Policy." (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Avril Haines testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2020. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Haines was nominated to serve as director of national intelligence by President Biden and became his first Cabinet member when she was confirmed by the Senate on Inauguration Day in 2021.

She previously served as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and deputy national security advisor during the Obama administration, and she was the first woman to hold both of those roles.

Economist Janet Yellen became the first woman to head the Treasury Department since it was founded in 1789.

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Former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden chose Janet Yellen to head the Treasury Department, and she was sworn in by Vice President Harris in January.

Yellen was also the first woman to serve as chair of the Federal Reserve. In addition to being the first woman to serve as treasury secretary, Yellen would also be the first person of any gender to have led the Federal Reserve, the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and the Treasury Department.

At Super Bowl LV in February, Sarah Thomas was the NFL's first-ever female referee to officiate a Super Bowl.

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Sarah Thomas points down field during an NFL game in 2019. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Thomas is the first full-time female referee in the NFL's 100-year history. She was also the first woman to referee at an NFL playoff game in 2019, and the first woman to work a major college football game.

"I've always said that if you do something because you love it and not try to prove somebody wrong or get recognition for it, the recognition probably just is going to happen," Thomas told CBS News in 2019.

Chloé Zhao became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for best director.

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Director Chloé Zhao in 2018. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

Zhao won the best director award for "Nomadland," a film starring Frances McDormand about a widow who decides to live out of her van. She is the second woman ever to win a Golden Globe for directing — the first was Barbra Streisand for "Yentl" in 1983 — and the first Asian woman to win.

Also a first: More than one woman was nominated in the best director category at the 2021 awards. Regina King was nominated for the period drama "One Night in Miami" and Emerald Fennell for "Promising Young Woman."

Zhao made history again when she and Emerald Fennell were nominated for best director at the Oscars, marking the first time two women have been nominated.

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Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell directed "Nomadland" and "Promising Young Woman," respectively. Arnold Turner/Getty Images for Freedom Road Productions/Colomba Giacomini via Getty Images

Fennell directed "Promising Young Woman," which centers around a medical school drop-out dedicated to catching predatory men.

Zhao ended up taking home the Oscar, becoming only the second woman ever and the first Asian woman to win the directing award.

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Chloé Zhao, winner of the best director for "Nomadland," poses with her Oscars. Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman ever to win best director in 2010 for "The Hurt Locker."

In her acceptance speech, Zhao spoke about growing up in China and memorizing Chinese poems with her father.

"There's one that I remember so dearly, it's called the Three Character Classics," she said. "The first phrase goes ... 'People at birth are inherently good.' Those six letters had such a great impact on me when I was a kid, and I still truly believe them today.

"Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.

"So this is for anyone who had the faith, and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult is to do that."

In March, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and first African to lead the World Trade Organization since it was founded in 1995.

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Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in July 2020. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American economist, previously served as Nigeria's finance minister and foreign minister, and she was the first woman to hold both of those positions.

Taylor Swift became the first woman in Grammys history to win album of the year three times.

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Taylor Swift won album of the year for the third time in 2021. Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

"Folklore," Swift's eighth studio album, was written and produced entirely during quarantine. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, received rave reviews from critics, and became the best-selling album of 2020.

She previously won album of the year in 2010 for "Fearless" — at that time, the youngest artist ever to do so — and in 2016 for "1989."

The only other artists who have won album of the year three times are Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Simon.

Beyoncé picked up her 28th award at the 2021 Grammys, giving her more Grammy wins than any woman in history.

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Beyoncé accepts the award for best R&B performance at the 2021 Grammy Awards. Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Beyoncé won best music video for "Brown Skin Girl" and best R&B performance for "Black Parade." She also received two trophies — best rap performance and best rap song— for her feature on Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage."

She was the most-nominated artist at the 63rd annual ceremony and won four of her nine nominations, bringing her lifetime total to 28. Country singer Alison Krauss previously held the record with 27 wins.

Youn Yuh-Jung broke records when she won acting awards for her role in "Minari" at the SAG Awards and the Oscars in April.

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Youn Yuh-Jung. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Youn became the first Asian woman to win any individual motion picture category at the SAG Awards when she won best supporting actress for her performance in "Minari" on April 4. The film is about a Korean grandmother who visits her family in Arkansas in the 1980s.

Sandra Oh, who has won SAG Awards for her roles in the TV shows "Killing Eve" and "Grey's Anatomy," is the only other Asian woman to win a individual SAG Award in a television category.

Then on April 25, Youn accepted the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in "Minari," becoming the first South Korean actor to do so. She is the second Asian woman to win best supporting actress at the Oscars: The first was Japanese-born Miyoshi Umeki, who won for "Sayonara" at the 1958 ceremony.

Viola Davis became the most-nominated Black actress in Oscars history and the only Black woman to be nominated twice for best actress, with a total of four nominations.

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Viola Davis attends the 93rd Annual Academy Awards. Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images

Davis was nominated for best actress for her role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Frances McDormand won the award for "Nomadland."

Davis had previously been nominated for best supporting actress in "Doubt" in 2008 and best actress in "The Help" in 2011, and won best supporting actress for "Fences" in 2016.

"For me, it's a reflection of the lack of opportunities and access to opportunities people of color have had in this business. If me, going back to the Oscars four times in 2021, makes me the most nominated Black actress in history, that's a testament to the sheer lack of material there has been out there for artists of color," said Davis in a February 2021 interview with Variety.

Jamika Wilson and Mia Neal became the first Black women to win the Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling for their work on "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson Sergio Lopez-Rivera oscars
Mia Neal, Jamika Wilson, and Sergio Lopez-Rivera, winners of makeup and hairstyling for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images

Wilson and Neal won the Oscar along with Sergio Lopez-Rivera.

"I stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future," Neal said in her acceptance speech. "Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, our Asian sisters, our Latina sisters and Indigenous women. And I know one day it won't be unusual or groundbreaking — it will just be normal."

In May, Simone Biles became the only woman to ever attempt - and complete - a Yurchenko double pike vault in competition at the US Classic.

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Simone Biles lands the Yurchenko double pike. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Regarded as one of the most dominant athletes in the world, Biles raised the bar again with a move so complex and dangerous that no woman had ever attempted it in competition before.

The Yurchenko double pike, which Biles has spent months mastering in training, requires a gymnast to complete a roundoff-back-handspring entry into the vaulting table and then execute two full backward rotations with legs extended before, ideally, sticking the landing.

"It's very, very challenging," one of Biles' coaches, Laurent Landi, said during a "60 Minutes" segment that aired in February. "And what's scary, it's that people can get hurt. You do a short landing, you can hurt your ankles ... it's a very dangerous vault."

Biles successfully stuck the landing and took home the gold medal at the US Classic. She will compete in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

At 38 years old, Carli Lloyd became the oldest player to score for the United States women's national team when they defeated Jamaica 4-0 in June.

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Carli Lloyd. Pedro Vilela/Getty

Kristine Lilly previously held the record at 38 years and 264 days old. Lloyd is 38 years and 332 days old.

Lloyd also scored the goal just 23 seconds into the game, making it the second-fastest goal in USWNT history, according to The Athletic.

In July, Mj Rodriguez made history as the first trans person nominated for a major acting Emmy.

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Mj Rodriguez. Jordan Strauss/ AP

Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca Evangelista on the FX drama "Pose," became the first transgender woman ever nominated for best lead actress in a drama at the Emmys and the first trans performer ever nominated for any major acting category at the awards show, Variety reported.

"Pose" follows the stories of Black and brown gay and trans New Yorkers living during the ballroom era and through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early '90s. The third season was the show's last, and its series finale aired in June.

At 82 years old, Wally Funk became the oldest person to fly to space when she joined Jeff Bezos on his Blue Origin rocket on July 20.

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Wally Funk. Blue Origin

Funk was part of NASA's Mercury 13 program that trained female astronauts in the 1960s, but the program was shut down and none of them ever went to space.

Funk finally got her chance to blast into orbit with Bezos on his New Shepard rocket's first passenger flight, which launched to the edge of space and successfully landed back on Earth on July 20.

She broke the record for oldest person to fly to space, overtaking NASA astronaut John Glenn, who was 77 years old on his last mission.

Olympian Lee Kiefer became the first-ever American fencer to win gold in individual foil.

Lee Kiefer holds an American flag after winning a gold medal in fencing at the Tokyo Olympics
Lee Kiefer. Alexander Safonov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Kiefer became the first American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world in fencing in 2017. She made history again at the Tokyo Olympics when she won a gold medal in individual foil — the first US fencer of any gender to do so.

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