Hidden WWII Hero: Filipina-American Florence Finch

Saboteur, Resistance Fighter, and POW in the Pacific Theater

Military medals of Florence Smith Finch
After the Japanese invaded the Philippines at the start of World War II, Florence Finch became a spy, resistance fighter, and finally, a prisoner of war. She also went on to become the first Asian- American woman to wear a U.S. Coast Guard uniform. Later still, in a quieter career as an office worker at Cornell University, she never mentioned her military exploits or medals to her co-workers.

If there’s one thing the coronavirus pandemic has taught us, it’s that unsung heroes are all around us — people doing great things or committing acts of bravery or self-sacrifice quietly, without celebration or recognition, sacrificing their time and energy for the good of others. So it’s understandable that neither a small community in Ithaca, NY, nor people working at Cornell University knew they had been, for years, in the presence of a true, unsung, World War II hometown hero, Florence Finch.

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Mapping a Road Though Gender Barriers to Scientific Greatness: Marie Tharp

Deep Sea Cartographer who Proved Theory of Plate Tectonics Was True

Marie Tharp with her global map of the ocean floors.
A giant in the field of oceanographic cartography, Marie Tharp’s work changed earth science and our understanding of how ocean floors cracked as moving continents pulled them apart.

A map of the career of Marie Tharp would look something like a long zig-zag through the male-only barriers of geologic and catographic science until the 1950s when she broke through with a unique new map of the ocean floor and proof that the long-debated theory of “plate tectonics” was true.

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The 1905 Fastest Girl on Earth: Dorothy Levitt

First British Woman to Compete in an Auto Race

Pioneering female race car driver Dorothy Levitt wowed the British public with her winning skills.
At the turn of the 20th century, Dorothy Levitt was the first British woman to compete in automobile races, setting and holding several records. A media darling, she audaciously carved out a female role in the rapidly growing and previously male-only sport that was central to the emerging car sales industry.

If you saw the 1986 movie Top Gun, you’ll remember the tag line: “I feel the need … the need for speed.” But 81 years before Maverick and Goose uttered those words, Dorothy Levitt, self-styled “motoriste,” became the first English woman to compete in automobile racing, setting the Ladies World Land speed record and earning the nickname The Fastest Girl on Earth, driving an 80-horsepower Napier at the lightning speed of 79.75 miles an hour.

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Theda Bara – First Creation of Hollywood’s Sultans of Spin

Bookish Daughter of a Tailor Turned Into One of Filmdom’s First Sex Vamps

Silent screen actress Theda Bara in the first Cleopatra movie
Starring as the first Cleopatra, Theda Bara is viewed by historians as one of the best actresses of the silent film era and one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols. The entire collection of her films was lost in a 1937 studio fire.

If you’ve ever wondered how a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati who was named after Aaron Burr’s daughter became what one newspaper described as “the most fascinating though revolting female character ever created,” have I got a story for you about Theda Bara.

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Biddy Mason – From Enslaved to One of Los Angeles’ Wealthiest Women

A mural celebrates Biddy Mason's contributions to the development of early Los Angeles.
In 1949, for its new headquarters building in Los Angeles, the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company commissioned artist Charles Alston to create this mural memorializing the African American contributions to the creation of Los Angeles and the State of California. The overlay in the lower right is the only known photo of Biddy Mason. The red arrow points her out in the mural. Click image for larger color version of mural.

Born into slavery in 1818 and sold away from her parents as a child, Bridget “Biddy” Mason went from being a slave owner’s wedding present to his new bride to one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest women, and one of the first African American women to buy and own property in the United States.

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Code Cracker Extraordinaire Elizebeth Smith Friedman

A Cryptographic Sleuth Who Took Down Mobsters, Spies, and Nazis

Top secret Cryptoanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman cracked the Nazi military's Enigma code systems.
A driving force in the creation of the modern craft and science of cryptography, or code cracking, Elizebeth Smith Friedman spent a top secret career bringing down mobsters, spies and Nazi enemies.

Most people can’t name anyone whose career took them from searching for hidden messages in Shakespeare’s works to Nazi code busting to foiling Prohibition rum runners and sending mobsters to the slam. But that’s exactly how Elizebeth Smith Friedman liked it. She was perfectly happy working in the shadows as a complete unknown.

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