07/25/2013 03:25 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

Does Being 'The First Woman' Matter? You Bet it Does


It's been a big news week for the prepositional clause. You know -- that important aside where a noteworthy factoid is set off from the rest. In three very recent instances in the U.S., it's the fact that the individual was or would be the first woman to do this job:

  • Helen Thomas, the first woman to join the White House press corps
  • Caroline Kennedy, who would be first female U.S. Ambassador to Japan
  • And two firsts for Janet Napolitano, the first female head of Homeland Security, soon to be first woman president of the University of California

So, while society tells us to teach our children that winning (or coming in first) doesn't really matter, we know there are exceptions, like if you're the first African-American President or the first woman journalist to cover the White House.

Then it matters. A lot.

But why? After all, in business being "first" can have benefits, but it doesn't always guarantee the top spot. Just ask the Ford Motor Company about automotive pioneer Henry Ford or the folks at Bell South about the "Simon Personal," otherwise known as the first "smart phone."

The CEO of a consultancy firm called FirstsMatter, Watts Wacker, offered this perspective in a US News & World Report article, tracing the phenomenon to the U.S. and its "pioneering" image. "Every new breakthrough we achieve leads us directly to another new barrier to conquer, whether it's in the arena of politics or technology. As society advances, we're likely to see more firsts that push the envelope: first human clone, first person on Mars, first female U.S President."

For part of the responsibility of being first is the responsibility of clearing the way for others.

Except when it isn't.

Case in point: When the Augusta National Golf Club accepted its first woman member, South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore.

In Darla's appearance on the TODAY Show, the reporter asked if she would be pushing for more female members to which she said:

"I wouldn't think that would be something I would do. I'm very happy and honored to be one of the first members, but that wouldn't be my role there. I'm a member, I'm not an advocate.''

"I'm a member, not an advocate!" Upon hearing those words, I stopped mid-mascara.

In my blog at the time, I wondered what good it was being first if you don't use the position to advocate for those who wish to follow. The whole purpose of breaking barriers and glass ceilings is to make more room for others to pass through.

"Every time someone pulls off a first, people subconsciously realize that means there will be a better world for us," said Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize. "It gives us hope because our entire future is filled with firsts."

And to that point, if early predictions prove true, we may soon be looking at a presidential race to elect the first woman president in the U.S.

Is being a woman the only reason to support a candidate? Absolutely not. But could it be a factor amidst a myriad of others? Is it wrong to cast a vote to help break down a barrier?Shouldn't we always be looking for opportunities to make it easier for those who follow in our footsteps to have an easier path?

Frankly, I look forward to the end of that necessary prepositional clause -- a time when we don't need to define someone by the barrier they broke. But until that day, my commas are standing by, ready to remember those who helped tear away barriers for me.

As businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett once said, "someone's sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago."

If it's shady where you're sitting, you might want to thank that first person who made it so.

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