Role models

A kind of obvious study, but then 9 women to know (most of whom, you probably don't). Also, 7 other things worth your time.

When I became a dad, I read and wrote about a lot of parenting studies, especially things about raising daughters to be happy, healthy and successful.

Basically, I didn’t want to screw this up.

Along the way, I read a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that "exposing women to highly successful female role models" helped them overcome gender-negative stereotypes related to their own performance.

I grant you, this is not the world’s most surprising finding, but it stuck with me. And with it in mind, here are nine fearless women role models—from the worlds of war, science, and business—that many people probably don't know about.

March is Women’s History Month, so I’ve wanted to find an opportunity to share these. It's pretty amazing to realize how daring some of these women's exploits were.

Nadezhda Popova (WW2)

Popova was a Soviet combat pilot in World War II, part of Russia's 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the first all-women combat unit in history. Fighting against the Nazis, she flew a staggering 852 combat missions.

Nicknamed the Night Witches, the 558th flew obsolete crop dusters made of wood and canvas, and always attacked the advancing German army in darkness. Popova, who died in 2013 and was profiled in the New York Times, is a sort of proxy for the several hundred women pilots in the unit.

Nancy Wake (WW2)

Wake ran away from home at age 16 in Australia and became a journalist, working in New York, London and eventually Paris before the outbreak of World War II. When Germany invaded France, she remained in the country, working as a courier for the Resistance.

At one point, she was apparently the most-wanted person in France, with a 5 million franc Gestapo bounty on her head. She escaped to Spain and England, joined the British secret service and parachuted back into occupied France.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko (WW2)

Pavlichenko was another member of the World War II Soviet military, a sniper who was credited with killing hundreds of German soldiers before being wounded herself.

The Soviets then sent her on a PR tour of the U.S. and Canada where she met with President Roosevelt and encouraged American to open a second front in Europe (a/k/a, to invade France):

"I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist invaders by now," she said in one speech. "Don't you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?"

Sarah Breedlove

Born in 1867, Breedlove was a African-American woman, and the first child born into her family after the end of slavery in the United States. (Her parents and older siblings had all been slaves.) She worked in sales and in the 19th century beauty industry before launching her own company.

Known professionally as Madam C. J. Walker, she ultimately employed thousands of people, and became both the most successful female entrepreneur of her time, and the first African-American millionaire.

Geraldine Hoff Doyle (WW2)

Doyle is famous more for what she represents than what she actually did. At the age of 17, during World War II, she was working for just a few weeks in a factory, when a photographer snapped her photo for a feature on women supporting the war effort.

The result became the basis for one of the most iconic home front images of World War II: Rosie the Riveter. However, it was only 40 years later that Doyle saw the image that her picture inspired, recognizing her own face.

(Note: After this story was posted, a reader pointed out that Naomi Parker Fraley, another factory worker, was revealed during 2018 academic research to be the more likely source for the poster.)

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (Civil War)

A Civil War-era surgeon (a big deal in itself for a woman during the 19th century), Walker volunteered for duty with the Union Army, got captured and imprisoned by the Confederates as a spy, and was ultimately released and awarded the Medal of Honor. She's still the only woman to have received it.

Walker was controversial in her time for two anachronistic reason: First, she wore men's clothes, and second, she had a bitter but legalistic dispute with other women's advocates about how the best way to achieve universal voting rights for women.

Valentina Tereshkova, cosmonaut

A former factory worker and amateur skydiver, Tereshkova was the first woman in space. What's perhaps most surprising is how early in the history of human spaceflight that she flew.

Her June 1963 mission made her the 12th human in space, and her three day, 48-orbit journey was longer than the combined length of all previous American space travel. Her mission also came a full 20 years before the first American woman to go into space, Sally Ride.

Cecilia Payne, astronomer and academic

Payne was the first woman to be promoted to full professor at Harvard University, and the first person to become a department head there.

Her rise stemmed from that fact that she was a groundbreaking astronomer who came up with the then-shocking theory that the sun and other stars were made of different elements than the planets (namely hydrogen and helium). Payne’s highly controversial doctoral thesis on this subject was later called "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy."

Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, landed her first newspaper job in the 1880s after writing an incisive letter to the editor, objecting to a wildly sexist article that ran under the headline, "What Girls Are Good For.")

She’s probably best known for an expose in which she went undercover in an insane asylum, and another in which she traveled around the world in 72 days to break the fictional record in the book by Jules Verne. She later became the executive of a manufacturing company and was awarded several patents, including for the 55-gallon oil drum barrel that is still used today.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Big progress on freeing the Ever Given from the Suez Canal. I’m writing this at midnight ET; by the time you get it in the morning it seems the ship might even be freed and the canal reopened. Lots better than the “weeks” that people were predicting just days ago. (WSJ)

  • A group of Dutch scientists have a new Covid-related study I might not have thought of: trying to figure out the degree to which wildlife are being endangered by the millions of used face masks and other protective equipment we’re leaving around everywhere now. (Naturalis)

  • The players union for Major League Baseball says it’s open to discussing the idea of moving the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta, in the wake of the restrictive new voting laws the state of Georgia just passed. (CBS Sports)

  • How a $25 million donation to help students get online got all caught up in politics in San Francisco. (Vox)

  • The world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Aramco, is no longer the world’s most profitable company. The oil giant brought in $49 billion profit during the pandemic year, but was outpaced by Apple, which brought in $57.4 billion. (Quartz)

  • How did a small town of 16,000 in upstate New York wind up giving out 50,000 vaccines? (Short version: New York City residents making the trek, since appointments open up there more often than in the city). Also: Want to get your Covid-19 vaccination card laminated? Staples and Office Max say they’ll do it for free. (USA Today, CNN)

  • Prince William was named 'World's Sexiest Bald Man’ according to … well, some kind of survey. I hardly feel qualified to comment on several counts, but I just don’t see this. (People)


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