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Hidden History: Virginia Hall and the Often-Lost Histories of Women

This blog post is part of a series exploring the surprising places that we discover history. We often think of museums, historical societies, and libraries as the sole repositories of our past. Yet hidden histories are everywhere! Stories are often buried away in the least likely of places, and we at HistoryIT love unearthing and saving them.

In today’s post, we look at the story of a woman whose incredible accomplishments were almost lost due to a variety of reasons ranging from secrecy, to a fire, to the inability/reluctance of others to acknowledge the importance of what she was doing. I’m talking about Virginia Hall, a disabled American woman who stopped at nothing to help the French Resistance and played a pivotal, and mostly unrecognized (until now), role in the Second World War.

Disappearing Evidence of Women

Virginia Hall has been on my mind lately, not only because of Women’s History Month, but also because in January my book club we read Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, published in 2019. Not only is her story so compelling and incredible, but it is also a reminder of how many people’s histories – particularly those of women and minorities – gets lost. Sometimes, if not often times, this loss is intentional, but more often than not it is the result of the evidence disappearing.

One of the key questions HistoryIT clients ask us is how to determine what’s “important.” What matters enough that it should be preserved for posterity? Getting the answer to this question correctly is often the difference between a story surviving or disappearing forever. And my answer is, who are we to judge? The greater question must be: how can we do all that we can to make sure that our stories are preserved and accessible, whether or not we believe them to be valuable today?

The Transformative Impact of Women and Their Histories

Throughout her life and career, Virginia Hall was treated as unimportant, dismissed in favor of her male colleagues, and unrecognized for her achievements until very late in the game.

Eventually, through the hard work and dedication of a few of her biggest supporters, enough evidence emerged to convince people that her work was not only important but in fact transformative. Purnell’s meticulously researched book is an absolute page-turner and an inspirational account of how one persistent individual truly can make a difference.

One of the most impressive things about the book is that Purnell was able to write it at all. As she noted in the book’s prologue:

“Of course, the best guerrilla leaders do not intend to keep future historians happy by keeping perfect records at five in the morning about their overnight missions, and those that do exist are often patchy or contradictory.”

Many of the records that do exist are classified, and others were destroyed in a fire at the French National Archives in 1973.

Her Story Changed Today’s Story

Purnell’s determination to unearth Hall’s story and share it with the world is evocative of the determination with which Hall executed her missions. Hall faced numerous obstacles, each of which on their own could easily have led to her getting caught and persecuted by the Nazis. She walked with a limp due to an artificial leg, she had red hair and was unusually tall for a female, she spoke atrocious French, and, of course, she was a female in the overwhelmingly male profession of espionage.

Despite it all, through adventures that had my book club sitting on the edge of our seats cheering her on as we read the details, Hall persevered and is now recognized as having paved the way for the Allied recapture of Paris. As Purnell noted in the epilogue, the CIA “acknowledges that the Jawbreaker team it sent into Afghanistan before and after 9/11 in 2001 was a direct descendant of her secret operations with the French Resistance,” and in 2016 they even named a building after her.

I’m not going to say any more because I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading Purnell’s magnificent account for yourself.

How many stories like Hall’s remain hidden? We’ll never know for certain, but I am encouraged by Purnell and reassured that our work to unearth and share hidden histories is vital to having a more accurate understanding of the past.

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