For Women’s History Month, I have been educating myself on the local women from the past who set their legacy in stone.

When I discovered that the once richest woman in the world hailed from New Bedford, I was ecstatic.

Then, I came across a legendary woman from Somerset who captivated the hearts of two countries in 1949 when she attempted to swim the English Channel at just 16 years old.

Her name was Shirley May France, and she is a SouthCoast legend.

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Who Is Shirley May France?

In the post-war era, people were craving a feel-good story and hero to admire. Shirley May France was the “it” girl that tabloids couldn’t get enough of.

While her beauty was often touched upon in articles, the real story was how a 16-year-old from Somerset was attempting the impossible: a 21-mile English Channel swim.

France's father was an amateur swimming champion and knew his daughter was a good swimmer, too.

READ MORE: The Richest Woman in the World Hailed from New Bedford

“(He) engaged her in a series of aquatic conquests (and) in 1948, as the only woman among 100 contestants, she finished 10th in a race across New York’s Lake George,” The Washington Post noted.

Then, a press agent with a big idea stoked the fire of the media blaze that would soon follow France.

No Olympics? No Problem

To get the world’s attention, press agent Ted Worner planned a swim for France, totaling 14 miles from lower Manhattan to Coney Island in southern Brooklyn, taking her five hours and 40 minutes.

France had plans to compete in the 1948 Olympics, but when the Olympics canceled Endurance Swimming, France’s sights were set on the Channel.

Ultimately, France did not complete the swim after three attempts, but the United States and Europe had fallen in love with the beautiful swimmer from Somerset.

“She became, for a short time, probably one of the top five most famous people in the world,” Donald Setters Jr., one of France’s children, said. “It was the most public endurance swim in the world.”

Later in life, France married and became Shirley May Setters.

According to The Independent, the star taught swimming lessons at the YMCA in Fall River, became a hat model and actress in New York, and was also a disc jockey at a radio station in Somerset before working in the family restaurant.

Although she was unsuccessful in swimming the entirety of the Channel, she became world-famous for her courage and relentless pursuit of greatness.

BBC Reporter Therese Denny said it best: "Although you may not actually succeed, the fight can be so grand the result is unimportant."

Here's to you, Shirley. You're still an icon, decades later.

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