Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Review: A Woman of No Importance

One sign that I've been completely sucked into a story is when the plot starts to influence my IRL mood. This is where I found myself while listening to A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II.

A double agent had infiltrate Virginia Hall's spy ring and now the authorities knew her identity and likeness. They were closing in and capture, torture and death were imminent. I was not pleased about this turn of events one bit and had a grumpy and sour mood to match. The fact that these events took place nearly 80 years ago as part of WWII was cold comfort.

These feelings are evidence of just how good the writing of A Woman of No Importance is, and how amazing Hall's life and accomplishments are.

My simplistic understanding of World War II is as American-centric as one would expect. To me, WWII is punctuated by Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hall's story greatly expanded this view by showing me the perspective of the war through a French person's eyes. From the toppling of France by Germany, to planting the seeds of a fragile resistance to--spoiler alert--an ultimate victory by the resistance and allied troops. Hall not just witnessed it all, but helped make it happen. This would be an impressive feat for anyone, but is even more remarkable when you consider her gender and status as an amputee would normally be an absolute deal-breakers for serving in an active war zone.

Hall's story is exactly why diversity is a feature to be nurtured, and not a bug to be endured. She demonstrated this not only by taking what appeared to be shortcomings, her gender and disability, and using them as strengths. But just as importantly, by showing that these were not her defining characteristics. Her street smarts, generosity of spirit, ability to be a quick study, thirst for making a difference and a boundless degree of fearlessness, all made her an ideal operator in the hazard filled world of spying and resistance building.

One difficult but poignant aspect of Virginia's story is how she keeps needing to prove herself over and over again. Her quality work for the State Department is consistently overlooked in favor of assuming her gender or disability should define and limit her. Perhaps the ultimate irony was when her request for promotion was brought to none other than FDR himself, a fellow citizen who had to overcome disability on a daily basis, and even he couldn't see her petition as worthy.

Perhaps that what makes Hall's story so compelling. She had to not only outwit and overcome the Vichy Police and Gestapo; she had to outwit and overcome her own employers and societal-expectations just to get into the fight. We should learn Virginia's story not just because she's a courageous and selfless role model, but because there are other 'Virginia Halls' out there that will thrive if just given the opportunity.

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