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March 5, 2024 10 mins

In the past, secrecy often offered women a unique chance at making a difference. Here are two great examples.

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Let me paint a picture for you. It was nineteen
forty four in German occupied France, east of Paris, in
the country's more mountainous region. A woman furiously pedaled her
bicycle up a rocky hill. She'd been traveling for hours
to complete a special mission. She was hungry and exhausted,
and her legs felt like lead. But then she came

upon a Nazi checkpoint. They were scattered throughout for so
she knew this moment was inevitable. Despite the butterflies in
her stomach and the knowledge that if she was caught
she would surely be killed, she rolled to a stop
beside two German officers. They looked her over. She forced
her breathing to steady, then flashed them a friendly smile.
In her experience, this was the best way to put

German soldiers at ease. To convince them that she was
a local villager, a young housewife, a supporter of the
Nazi occupation. Of course, this was all a careful ruse,
but it worked. The men grinned back without even looking
at her passport. They waved her through the checkpoint. She
thanked them and rode away at a leisurely pace. However,

the minute she was out of their sight, she began
peddling harder. She forced her way through the mountains, barely
stopping to rest, to eat, or even to use the
bathroom for thirty six hours. By the time she finally
reached her destination, she had traveled nearly one hundred and
twenty five miles on her bicycle. She made it to
the French city of Chateauroux, where she could access a

private radio transmission. She sent a message to her contact
in London with a set of new codes so that
they could re establish a safe line of communication. This
was crucial to an upcoming military operation, one that was
called the Invasion of Normandy, better known as D Day.
You see, this woman was a spy for the British government, and,

unbeknownst to those two German soldiers who had led her
through their checkpoint. She was also one of the Nazis'
most wanted people. The year before, in nineteen thirty four,
the Gestapo had put a five million franc bounty on
her head. The problem was no one in the German
army actually knew who she was or what she looked like.
They just knew that she was impossible to catch, which

is why they called her the White Mouse. As for
the woman's friends, well, they just called her Nancy. Her
full name was Nancy Wake. She was born in New
Zealand in nineteen twelve and raised in Australia. She moved
to Paris as a young adult, where she met and
married a wealthy businesiness man. The two often traveled throughout Europe,
which is how during the nineteen thirties Nancy watched the

rise of the Nazis' first hand. She promised herself that
if she ever got the chance, she would do whatever
she could to fight back. When the Nazi army invaded
France in nineteen forty, she got that chance. She volunteered
as a member of the French Resistance. Her wealth and
status gave her the ability to cross international borders with ease,
so she primarily worked as a transporter helping vulnerable people

get out of Nazi occupied France. She actually bought an
ambulance and used it to help refugees get across the
Spanish border. She continued doing this until nineteen forty three,
when the German Army caught wind of what she was
up to. The Gestapo put her on their most wanted
list and offered a huge reward in exchange for her capture.
This put Nancy in a really tough spot. Her husband

was a high profile businessman. He couldn't just up and
leave the country without arousing suspicion. That meant that either
she had to stay and risk capture, or leave her
husband and flee to safety, and she chose the second option.
Nancy traveled to England, where she was trained by the
British Special Operations Executive. In nineteen forty four, she parachuted

back into France to help Allied forces prepare for the
upcoming D Day invasion. She organized ammunition drops, set up
supply lines, and biked hundreds of miles to make sure
Allied communications were secure. When France was liberated in late
nineteen forty four, Nancy went back to Paris in the
hopes of finding her husband, but all she found was

bad news. He had been captured, interrogated, and killed by
the Gestapo over a year earlier. He was heartbreaking, as
was the case for most people, The war changed Nancy's
life forever. She fought for freedom and lost her marriage
and became a new person. Nancy received military honors from France,
Great Britain, and the United States. She also eventually remarried

and moved back to Australia, where she lived for over
forty years. After her second husband's death in the late
nineteen nineties, she returned to England. She died in London
in twenty eleven, just one month shy of her ninety
ninth birthday. According to her wishes, Nancy was not buried
in one place. Instead, her ashes were scattered throughout France.

To me, it's a poetic ending to a truly incredible
story in death, as she had been in life. Nancy
Wake the White Mouse could never be pinned down. In

nineteen fifteen, US President Woodrow Wilson was sitting in his
office in the White House, holding his head in his hands.
He was in a difficult position, after all, as World
War One raged across Europe, he had two contradictory goals
to support the Allied war effort and to simultaneously keep
America out of conflict. This geopolitical dance was exhausting, and

it wasn't the only problem on Wilson's mind. Just months earlier,
his wife Ellen had passed away from a kidney disorder.
The loss was crushing. Ellen was his closest confidant, the
mother of his two children, and the first Lady of
the United States. Ever since she died, Wilson had been
depressed and lonely. He couldn't focus, He couldn't bring himself

to care about anything. But that was all about to
change that day. The doors of the White House elevator
opened to reveal a tall woman with a mess of dark,
curly hair. She was wearing walking clothes and mud stained boots.
Right away, she struck Wilson as a unique kind of woman,
one who wasn't afraid to get her shoes dirty. She
introduced herself as Edith Bowling, and she certainly was unique.

At forty two years old, she was a widow with
no children. She'd been born into a prominent Virginia family,
so she was wealthy and well educated. When her husband
passed away seven years earlier. He left her a jewelry
store in Washington, which she ran by herself. The circumstances
of her life made her fiercely independent, quick witted, and adventurous.

She was also friends with one of Wilson's cousins who
happened to work as a hostess at the White House,
and that's how Edith wound up inside. The President was smitten.
He and Edith were married that December, and just like that,
the United States had a new First Lady. Edith was
known to be smart, fashionable, and gracious, but she tried
to stay out of politics. She was afraid of being

seen as a quote unquote too authoritative person. It wasn't
until nineteen seventeen, when the US officially entered World War One,
that she stepped into a more leadership kind of role.
She worked to support the war effort and fostered trust
with the public. For example, during World War One, the
US Food Administration had to ration certain items like flour

and meat. In an attempt to set a positive example
for the American people, Edith had the White House follow
these same rationing rules as the company flock went on.
Though Edith did much more than choose the presidential menu.
She had a gift for puzzles and languages, and she
actually helped decode some secret messages during the war. On
top of this, in nineteen eighteen, she accompanied her husband

to Europe to visit American troops. This made her the
first first lady to travel to Europe on political business.
In June of nineteen nineteen, she went again to attend
the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended
World War One. Back in Washington, with a newly international
peace established, things were going well for the first couple.
But then in October of nineteen nineteen, Woodrow Wilson's life

changed once again. He suffered a major stroke that left
him partially paralyzed and completely incapacitated. But here's the thing.
Throughout history, US presidents have gone to great lengths to
hide their health problems. Wilson was no different. He hid
the severity of a stroke from almost everyone, including the
American people, the US Congress, and members of his own cabinet.

The war had just ended, and Wilson didn't want to
introduce any sense of panic or instability back into politics.
The only people who knew how sick Wilson was, were
his doctor and his wife, and suddenly Edith found herself
in a very unique position. She was the president steward
between October of nineteen nineteen and January of nineteen twenty one.

Every bit of correspondence with Wilson went through Edith first,
and every decision the president made was filtered through and
finalized by her. Now, Like I said, Edith was always
afraid of being seen as too authoritative. She insisted that
she never made decisions without her husband's input, but many
historians believe that she was far too modest. Edith is

considered by some to have been America's first unofficial female president,
a decision maker who worked behind the scenes when the
real president no longer could. After his term ended, Woodrow
and Edith Wilson retired to a townhouse in Washington. D. C.
Wilson died three years later, but Edith lived on for
another four decades. The Wilson House is a National Historic

Landmark and is open to the public for tours. Inside
you'll find multiple portraits of Edith Wilson looking fashionable, gracious,
and authoritative, which, despite her own reservations, is certainly not
a bad thing. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour
of the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,

or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Mankey
in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show, and you can learn all about it
over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until next time,

stay curious.

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