Virginia Hall never spoke publicly about her remarkable life because she knew too many people who “were killed for talking too much.” So, until recently, her story was known only within the intelligence community, where documents were known to disappear and code names were so numerous it was hard to know who was who.
Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) is described as contrary, outspoken, feisty, radical, defiant and determined. But as the first woman to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, the second woman in America to become a licensed medical doctor, a lifelong women’s rights activist, prohibitionist, and a dress reformer who steadfastly refused to accept the stodgy Victorian confines of her gender, I suspect she earned — and needed — every single one of those attributes.
Philadelphia-born Anna Coleman Ladd is best known for her neoclassical portrait busts and bronze sculptures of sprites frolicking in public fountains. But her greatest work — and her most important legacy — was restoring the self-respect, honor and dignity to World War I veterans known by the French as “the men with the broken faces.”
Margaret Bourke-White, who entered college in the 1920s with the idea of becoming a Herpetologist, could have made a name for herself handling snakes. Instead, she picked up a camera and went on to become a groundbreaking female photojournalist, giving us some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.
Little did Julia Ward Howe know that in writing what became the anthem of the American Civil War in 1861, she emancipated herself from the narrow, 19th-century views that kept women in domestic confinement, and realized her long-held ambition to become a thinker, a writer and an individual on her own terms.
In 1917, twelve words opened the floodgates for women to serve in the military: “It does not say … anywhere that a Yeoman must be a man.” One year after the U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1916 allowed qualified “persons” to enlist, history was made when 20-year-old Loretta Perfectus Walsh (1896-1925) did just that, earning herself a whole series of “firsts” in the process.