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Stella Walsh was an Olympian in the 1930s. She was also intersex.

Female athletes can have more than physical hurdles to jump over when competing in the Olympics.

Stella Walsh was an Olympian in the 1930s. She was also intersex.

Stella Walsh was one of the greatest female athletes in history, even though the world tried to strip her of her medals ... and her gender.

Photo via audiovis.nac.gov.pl.


"The Queen of Sprint," as Walsh was more commonly known, was an unequivocal champion of the 100-meter dash. She also happened to be intersex — a reality she kept secret in life because she feared what it might do to her career.

Unfortunately, her fear proved well-founded when her secret was discovered after her death, and people began questioning her natural abilities and record as a result.

Despite a rough childhood, Walsh sprinted ahead into an incredibly successful athletic career.

She was born Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna in Poland in 1911, but moved with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, later that year (although she wouldn't officially become an American citizen until 1947).

In high school, she was a superstar athlete, but her athletic prowess didn't stop her from being the target of bullies, who gave her the nickname "Bull Montana" after the wrestler/actor Lewis Montagna.

Photo via audiovis.nac.gov.pl.

Walsh went on to win numerous medals in both Poland and the United States for running and long jump and, in 1930, broke the world record for the 50-yard dash, which she completed in six seconds, at the Millrose Games.

Walsh competed in the Olympics for the first time at the age of 21 and for the last time in 1936 at the age of 25.

In 1932, she ran as a member of the Polish team, where she performed exceptionally, setting the world record for the 100-meter dash at 11.9 seconds, and she returned to Poland a gold medal champion.

Walsh continued to win medals and break records through 1935, but when she returned to defend her title at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, she was bested by a worthy adversary — 18-year-old American Helen Stephens.

Walsh shaking hands with Stephens. Photo via audiovis.nac.gov.pl.

Soon after their race, a rumor was leaked to the press that Stephens was actually a man, and Stephens was forced to undergo the first-ever gender inspection by the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

Stephens was confirmed to be female, but the controversy opened up new questions for the IOC, questions that would end up coming back around to hurt Stella Walsh, even after she was killed in 1980 at the age of 69.

Walsh's autopsy revealed something surprising — she had male genitalia.

It's called mosaicism — a cellular mutation that resulted in her having mostly male (XY) chromosomes and therefore making her intersex.

Photo via audiovis.nac.gov.pl.

Walsh's parents chose to raise her as a girl, mostly because back in the 1920s and '30s, terms like "intersex" and "transgender" were barely acknowledged, much less socially accepted.

When the results of Walsh's autopsy were leaked, the press went on a rampage. A new tasteless nickname, "Stella the Fella," began circulating, and articles popped up with titles like "Heroine or Hero?" all because a simple truth had finally been revealed.

Then, Walsh's critics went after her medals, arguing that the IOC should take them back, because, being intersex, Walsh had essentially cheated and hadn't truly earned them.

Ultimately, the IOC opted not to revoke her medals, but on a technicality: She had competed before the organization implemented routine gender verification tests.

The fact that Walsh was under scrutiny 45 years after she competed begs the question: Who determines this gender line and why?

Much like gender itself, it's a complex issue.

Unisex bathroom sign. Sara D. Davis/Getty Images.

Thankfully, the IOC recognized this complexity back in 1996, when it decided to discontinue the gender identification process via chromosomal testing. Now, the IOC examines intersex athletes on a case-by-case basis, and it even began allowing transgender athletes to compete back in 2004, though again, the process there is still discriminatory.

While all these tests were put in place to promote fairness, the qualifiers the IOC uses to define a person's gender are by no means perfect.

Yes, higher testosterone levels can cause "female hyperandrogenism" which may cause a woman to have more stereotypically masculine traits like increased muscle mass. But that isn't always the case.

And even if the IOC did go so far as to impose invasive chromosomal testing on female athletes, the results of those tests could be just as ambiguous, especially because we now know many women are born with a Y chromosome and don't even know it.

Olympian Caster Semenya tested positive for "Y" chromosome. That doesn't mean she's not a woman. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images.

Weirdly, the IOC doesn't have as many regulations and tests for trans male athletes because trans male athletes aren't perceived as having any sort of physical advantage over their competition.

This is both commendable, in that it shows the IOC's primary focus is on ensuring fair competition, but also disappointing because it reinforces the notion that people assigned male at birth are inherently stronger than those assigned female at birth.

Hopefully, now that more transgender and intersex athletes are coming out to compete in the Olympics, the qualifying system will catch up to them.

It will take time, but there has definitely been progress since Walsh's time, especially in the last 15 years. For example, in just the 2016 Olympics alone, the United States has seven LGBTQ athletes competing.

Megan Rapinoe, US Soccer. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

There may always be a separation between gender at the Olympics, but the spectrum of those genders is widening significantly.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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