If you want your kids to be successful, one of the first things is to expose them to positive role models. It turns out this might be especially true for girls.

Researchers writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that "exposing women to highly successful female role models" helped them overcome gender-negative stereotypes related to their own performance.

As one example, showing photographs of successful, popular female politicians to other women who were about to give a speech resulted in better speaking performances (according to subjective evaluations).

With this in mind, here are a dozen fearless women role models--from the worlds of war, science, sports, and business--that you probably don't know about. It's stunning to realize how dangerous some of these forgotten women's exploits were--exactly the kinds of inspirational stories that inspired me to pull together my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids.

Nadezhda Popova, Fighter Pilot

Popova was a Soviet combat pilot in World War II, and one of the initial volunteers to join 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. Popva, 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, British Spy

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

Ultimately, she was the most-wanted person in France, with a 5 million franc Gestapo price on her head. She escaped to Spain and England, but then joined the British secret service and parachuted back into occupied France, and led a force of 7,000 resistance fighters against the Nazis.

Edith Cavell, Nurse and Spy

British-born Cavell ran nursing schools in Belgium, and after World War I broke out, was responsible for helping hundreds of captured soldiers escape the Germans into then-neutral Holland. She was captured and executed for treason; her death became the subject of wartime propaganda in Great Britain.

Many years after her death, it was revealed that she had actually been a British spy.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, World War II Sniper

Pavlichenko was another Soviet military hero--a sniper who joined the infantry right after the Germans invaded Russia. (Women in the infantry was an unusual idea, but not strictly prohibited.) She 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 (in other words, 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, Self-Made Millionaire

Born in 1867, Breedlove was African-American 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, "Rosie the Riveter"

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 a short time in a factory when a photographer snapped her photo for a feature on women supporting the war effort.

The result was one of the most iconic home front images of World War II: Rosie the Riveter. However, Doyle never saw the image that her picture formed the basis for until nearly 40 years later, when she happened to see it in a magazine and recognized her own face!

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, Medal of Honor Recepient

A Civil War-era surgeon (a big deal in itself 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 awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award the United States offers. (She's still the only woman to receive it.)

Walker was controversial in her own time for two anachronistic reasons, too: 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, First Woman in Space

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 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 female astronaut, 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, World-Renowned Journalist

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

Bly was 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 with only a small travel bag and a few changes of underwear. 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.

Victoria Woodhull, Stock Broker and Presidential Candidate

The first woman stock broker in America, Woodhull advised Andrew Carnegie on investments, and personally made and lost a fortune on Wall Street twice.

She was also the first woman to run for president, in 1872. However, since she was only 34 and the Constitution requires that the president be 35, there's a bit of a dispute on that point.

Dorothy Lawrence, Author and Journalist in World War I

The trenches of World War I were horrific, but Lawrence, an orphan and 19-year-old aspiring journalist, managed to smuggle herself to the British front lines in the hope of writing an article. Her plan involved getting a uniform, cutting her hair, and intentionally developing a rash on her face to look like shaving irritation.

She managed to stay undercover in France for two weeks, passing herself off as a British Army private, before she was caught. She wrote a book about her exploits--but the government banned it from publication until after the war. While it was ultimately printed, it received a quiet reception from a public that wanted to move on from the horrors of combat. Sadly, Lawrence wound up in an insane asylum and ultimately died penniless.

Published on: Feb 22, 2017
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