In A Woman of No Importance, one of our March picks, writer and journalist Sonia Purnell uncovers the full secret life of Virginia Hall, an American heiress with flaming red hair and a prosthetic leg who - defying the prejudice against her gender and disability - became the Gestapo's most feared allied spy and a hero of the French resistance.
The achievements of women are often forgotten and erased from history. Here Sonia Purnell celebrates four unsung heroines.
Virginia is finally emerging from the mists of history, where she has lain largely hidden for the past 75 years. She never sought fame or glory but merely respect for her astonishing deeds – and yet bar a short period towards the end of the Second World War – she was rarely granted it when still alive.
There are many tales of female heroism but I know of no other that compares with Virginia’s. A secretary from Baltimore who had lost her leg in a hunting accident, she entered wartime France on behalf of the British with virtually no training and what seemed like an impossible mission to help kickstart the Resistance.
Sheer grit saw her then become one of history’s greatest secret agents, who helped turn the course of the fighting in France through a combination of almost unimaginable courage, resolve and ingenuity. By outwitting the Gestapo and French police for three long years she became the Nazis’ most wanted Allied agent because of her astonishing successes in the field, triumphs that caused “stupefaction” amongst her male superiors in London.
She was tough, uncompromising and apparently fearless, but she never lost her humanity or pleasure in the better things in life.
Emma of Normandy
Emma of Normandy is now virtually unknown but she was a master of early England’s true life game of thrones. At the age of 16, in 1002 she was packed her off by her ambitious father Richard, Duke of Normandy, across the English Channel to marry Ethelred the Unready, one of the most derided kings of England. She had never met him, he was 20 years older than her and she could not speak his language but she was soon to wield enormous power in her new homeland.
The dynastic marriage was set on one side to consolidate the Norman dukedom for her father by marrying into a rising power of Europe. For the English, it was an attempt to stop the Normans (or Norsemen) from supporting the Vikings (their close kinsmen) by giving them shelter in Normandy during the winter so that they could continue to raid England every summer.
The English – England itself had only just come into existence - were reduced to paying billions in today’s money to try to bribe the Vikings to stop their annual raping and pillaging. The agrarian economy was being bled dry. The young Emma’s role in stopping the bloodshed was therefore pivotal.
As a foreigner with Viking links she was initially distrusted but through a combination of charisma and political nous she won round the people and also guided her husband to becoming a better king. With her help the Viking raids began to tail off.
When Ethelred died, however, she was seized into marriage by the conquering new Viking king, Canute, who literally threw her over his shoulder and marched her off to bed. He was a handsome warrior ten years her junior who first sought her by then renowned political genius and subsequently fell for her flaxen good looks.
Yet Canute was already in a pagan Scandinavian marriage and Emma battled against her female rival for the rest of her life. In the end she triumphed, managing in the process to reconcile the English to Canute by running meticulous PR campaigns on his behalf.
At a time when women were meant to be pious servants to their husbands, Emma retained her own powerbase after Canute’s death by ensuring that two of her sons went on to become king. Later William the Conqueror – her great nephew – used her revered status to claim a right to the English throne leading to his victory at the Battle of Hastings.
Germaine was a young brothel madam in Vichy France who became a pillar of the French Resistance and one of Virginia Hall’s chief lieutenants. From the earliest days of the Nazi occupation, she sheltered Resistance fighters on the run, and extracted rations, fuel and money off her German clients to feed them, keep them warm and help them escape.
Many of those she recruited as prostitutes – often driven into the trade by desperation as few other jobs existed for women during the war – helped her glean intelligence from the Nazi officers and senior French collaborators who visited the brothel for the Allied cause. They spiked their clients’ drinks so that they slept on while they searched their pockets and some even supplied them with drugs – or used other nefarious means – to ensure they were rendered unfit to fight.
All this and more was done in the knowledge that if they were caught there would be only torture and a barbaric, lonely death. Not classed as combatants like male soldiers they had no protection from international conventions on warfare. Many – whose names we will never know – did indeed pay with their lives.
At the end of the war, few understood the role played by these women. Many were simply denounced as traitors and executed by their compatriots. Some had indeed crossed the line into betrayal, but there were plenty who had fought the war heroically in the best way they could.
A towering figure in France, Simone Veil was a Jewish girl of sixteen when she was arrested by German troops in Nice and sent to Auschwitz. She survived but lost most of her family in the Holocaust, a tragedy that led to a life-long belief in European unity. Her dignity, humanity and courage have led to her being revered as an uncanonised saint by many French Christians and a heroic role model by French Jews.
On returning to France after being liberated from the death camps in 1945, she initially trained as a lawyer but then entered politics and once she became Minister for Health pushed through the legalisation of abortion in 1975 despite attacks on her and her family in what was then a conservative Catholic country.
Later she became the first elected president of the European Parliament, where her work on forging bonds across Europe to prevent future wars inspired many. In 1998, Tony Blair made her an honorary Dame.
In 2008, she was admitted to the list of forty “immortals” of the Académie Française, one of her country’s highest honours and one still rarely awarded to women. Each immortal is given an honorific sword – hers bears her Auschwitz prisoner number 78651 and the motto of the European Union, Unis dans la diversité (United in Diversity).
When she died in 2017, she was honoured with a national ceremony attended by President Macron, talked of how“you brought into our lives that light that burned within you and that nobody can ever take away.”