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Sybil Ludington: Female Paul Revere
Paul Revere is one of America’s most beloved folk heroes. Songs, poems, and even beer bottles commemorate his midnight ride, but few people know that a 16-year-old girl performed a similarly heroic feat.
In 1777, Sybil Ludington rode nearly 40 miles—more than twice Revere’s distance—to warn her father’s militiamen that the British were coming. Late one the evening, a messenger warned the Ludingtons that the British were looting Danbury, Connecticut. Young Sybil volunteered to rouse the scattered militia, and rode from 9 p.m. until dawn on a man’s saddle with nothing but a stick to ward off bandits—just think of that next time your quads are burning at SoulCycle.
While the militia was too late to save Danbury, they eventually drove the British back to their ships. Locals and General George Washington thanked Sybil for her role, but it wasn’t until 1935 that a statue was erected in her honor in Carmel, New York.
Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer
Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, one of England’s most famous poets. Her parents separated shortly after Ada’s birth, and Byron left England. He died in Greece a few years later. Although she never knew her father, Byron's legacy greatly influenced Ada’s upbringing. Her mother was paranoid that she would inherit her poet father's erratic temperament, and made sure that she was tutored in mathematics and science.
When Ada was 17, her mentor Charles Babbage showed her the prototype for his ‘Difference Engine,’ the world’s first computer. In 1842, Babbage asked Lovelace to help translate an article about the plans for his newest machine, the ‘Analytical Engine.’ She appended a lengthy set of notes to her translation, in which she wrote an algorithm that the engine could use to compute Bernoulli numbers.
While the extent of her original contribution is disputed, her code is now considered the world’s first computer program. Lovelace theorized that the machine might eventually do far more than calculating numbers. Babbage’s engine was never built and her code was never tested, but many of her insights about the future of computing proved to be true.
Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Woman
Polio. Cancer. Cloning. Scientists researching these and many other areas have one thing in common: the human cells they use in their tests all come from a young African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a 30-year-old farmer and mother of five who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. While she was being treated at John's Hopkins, a sample of cancerous cells was taken form her cervix without her consent. A researcher soon discovered something remarkable about them: they wouldn’t die.
It’s incredibly difficult to grow human cells in a lab. Most die quickly or multiply only a few times once removed from the body. For reasons unknown, Lacks’ cells could be multiplied perpetually. Although Lacks passed away in 1951, her ‘immortal’ line of cells (known as HeLa) became integral to some of the most important medical research of our time, including the development of vaccines, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. Lacks’ children and grandchildren were not made aware of HeLa until the 1970s; raising important ethical questions about genetic research.
In 2013, the National Institute of Health signed an agreement to protect the family’s privacy and acknowledge them in future publications. 62 years after her death, the scientific community finally recognized Lacks’ invaluable contribution to biomedical research.
Lois Jenson: Seeking Justice for Sexual Harassment
Lois Jenson came from a family of miners in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In 1975, she and three other women became the first female employees of Eveleth Mines, deep in one of the richest iron ore deposits in the world.
The hostility was immediately palpable. The women were groped, threatened, stalked, and called ‘sluts’ and ‘bitches.’ They would sometimes find semen on the clothes left in their lockers. "You fucking women don’t belong here," they were told. Outnumbered 600 to four, they had little recourse and needed the income and benefits that the mine offered. After 9 years of this treatment, Jenson filed a complaint with the state, never imagining it would turn into a 14-year legal battle.
In 1991, on behalf of all the mine’s female employees, Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. became the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the country. Seven years later, the company settled with the women for millions. Jenson struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress and regretted not seeing the case through to trial. Nevertheless, it led to widespread changes: mining companies implemented sexual harassment policies, and Jenson herself became an inspiration and source of support for working women all over the country.
Amelia Bloomer: Activist and Trendsetter
Amelia Bloomer was a 19th-century woman’s right’s activist responsible for transforming the way American women dressed. Born in upstate New York, Amelia was working as a governess when she met her future husband, Dexter Bloomer. After they married, she began writing for his newspaper. Dissatisfied with the lack of dedicated material for women, she established The Lily, one of the first newspapers written, edited, and published by women.
The Lily supported women’s suffrage and the temperance movement; according to Bloomer, the consumption of alcohol was a women’s issue because: "Intemperance is the great foe to her peace and happiness." Though this attitude may be hard to process today, Bloomer lived at a time when temperance was touted as the solution to many social ills, from poverty to spousal abuse.
Bloomer also advocated for women’s clothing reform, and said that women should abandon corsets and petticoats for looser tops and shorter skirts with pants underneath. While she didn’t invent the undergarments, she popularized them and they came to be known as "bloomers." Throughout her life, she worked tirelessly to support women’s right to vote. And it paid off: her activism helped secure Ohio women the right to vote in 1873.