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Trailblazing Women

By Kristen J. Nyitray, Contributing Editor
Photos courtesy of Special Collections

In this Rare Treasures we highlight the collections of three trailblazing women from Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). This library division stewards the university’s vast trove of rare books, manuscripts, antique maps, and archival materials. The largest repository of its type east of New York City, each year thousands of students, scholars, and community members engage with these invaluable collections. For more information, visit:

Edith Gentile
Portrait of Edith Gentile, ca. 1945 and items from the Edith Gentile Collection.

Edith Gentile Collection
One of the first female stainless steel welders to work for Republic Aviation Corporation in Farmingdale, New York, Edith Gentile (1924-2011) was born in her Italian immigrant parents home in Cedarhurst, New York. Her birth name Ida was Anglicized and it was only at the age of 18 when she applied for a social security number that she learned of her legal name. A respected welder, Edith worked on Republic P-47 Thunderbolt airplanes in the 1940s in support of the war effort and was awarded the Army-Navy Production emblem, a much sought after award for excellence in stainless steel welding. The Edith Gentile Collection comprises World War II era papers and artifacts about the production of the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt airplane and document Edith’s contributions to the manufacturing of them. The collection was generously donated by her nephew, Richard Gentile, a graduate of Stony Brook University (Class of 1965).

Diane Chang
Writer and artist Diana Chang in her New York City apartment, undated photograph.

Diana Chang Collection
The papers of Diana Chang (1924-2009), Chinese American novelist, poet, educator, and artist, are open for research. Her first novel, The Frontiers of Love, was also the first novel to be published by an American born, Chinese American, in the United States (Random House, 1956). Chang stated, “I have said elsewhere that I feel I’m an American writer whose background is mostly Chinese…my novels and short stories seem to be preoccupied with being and identity, and arise out of my abiding passion for exploring character and emotion to create the psychological realities of particular situations.” Chang was a recipient of a John Hay Whitney Opportunity Fellowship, which made it possible for her to start writing The Frontiers of Love. For over six years, she edited The American Pen, the quarterly of the American Center of P.E.N., the international writers organization. Her awards included a Fulbright Scholarship and Mademoiselle Magazine Woman-of-the-Year Award. The collection includes manuscripts and published poems, correspondence, subject files, clippings, and photographs dating from the 1950s to the 2000s.

Helen Hull Jacobs
Scrapbook page with photographs from the Helen Hull Jacobs Collection.

Helen Hull Jacobs Collection
Helen Hull Jacobs (1908-1997) served as a commander in the U.S. Navy intelligence during World War II, one of only five women to achieve that rank in the Navy. Prior to her military career, Jacobs was a highly accomplished tennis player winning four U.S. Open titles and the 1936 Wimbledon singles championship. She was ranked in the world’s top 10 from 1928 to 1940. In 1933, she became the first woman to break with tradition by wearing man-tailored shorts at Wimbledon. In 1975, Jacobs donated four scrapbooks to Special Collections. The contents document the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), better known as WAVES: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, between 1943-1945. WAVES was the World War II women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve. It was established on July 21, 1942 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30, 1942. Enlisted recruits received training at the Bronx, NY campus of Hunter College. Jacobs’ autobiography, Beyond the Game, was published in 1936. In 1947, she retired from tennis and embarked on a career as an author, a farmer and a clothing designer.

Kristen J. Nyitray is Associate Librarian, Director of Special Collections and University Archives, and University Archivist at Stony Brook University. A Certified Archivist (Academy of Certified Archivists), she is recipient of the Chancellor’s Award (SUNY) and the President’s Award (SBU) for Excellence in Librarianship. Her current research and writing focuses on Long Island Indigenous history, local and public history, and cultural heritage. Among her publications are the books Stony Brook: State University of New York and Long Island Beaches.