This month, Champlain Library’s Non-Fiction Book Club read A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell. The title of this book reveals a lack of recognition of one woman’s considerable participation in the Allied war effort in WWII. It also brings to light the tendency to ignore women and their significant contributions to many fields of knowledge, innovation, research and service. Women’s significant achievements are often unknown and there is frequently little historical recognition which is reflected in the book’s title, “A Woman of No Importance.”
If asked for the name of a significant woman in history, most people would probably mention Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, or Madame Marie Currie. All but one of these has some sort of association to the politics of their times; Madame Currie is usually the one woman of science that comes to mind; however, she may be remembered more for carrying radioactive material around in her lab coat than for her actual scientific discoveries.
Recently, there seems to have been an awakening. The last few years have produced several books about women, bringing to light for the first time their exceedingly important contributions in their respective fields of work. The book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and the 2016 movie of the same name revealed to the public the significant contributions to the US space program in the 1960s of three African American women. Mary W. Jackson was the first African American female engineer at NASA, and her two coworkers, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Jackson, were brilliant, indispensable mathematicians. In 2020, the Washington Headquarters of NASA was named for Mary W. Jackson, a recognition well deserved.
Another woman the public may never have heard of until recently is Elizabeth Smith Freeman, a ground breaking US cryptanalyst in WWII. The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone and the PBS American Experience series have popularized her story.
A Woman of No Importance is a biography of Virginia Hall, one of the first women to become a frontline spy in WWII. She was sent to France first by the British in 1942 and then later by the Americans. As a young woman, Hall had accidentally shot herself in the foot during a hunt outing and had had one of her lower legs amputated. Regardless, she soldiered on, so to speak, with a wooden leg and saved many lives as part of the French Resistance. There is also a movie on Prime about her and two other women, Vera Atkins and Noor Inayat Khan, and their roles in British spy operations.
We still need a biography of Donna Strickland, the first Canadian woman to win the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for her pioneering work in pulse lasers. She is one of only three women in the sciences to have been so honoured. Perhaps, one will be in the works soon!
I hope you will take a look at the books mentioned here and others you may find about women who so deservedly warrant public recognition. These 5 women are but a few of the very accomplished women in many fields who still remain “hidden figures.”
This was written by Eva Levesque, member of the Champlain Library Non-Fiction Book Club.