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"Unsung Heroes of WWII" Includes 3 Women in Resistance

In "Unsung Heroes of World War II" (The Great Courses Plus), Lynne Olson introduces us to three women who played pivotal roles in the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. Olson, a bestselling author of eight books, is the historian whom former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "our era's foremost chronicler of World War II politics and diplomacy."

 

Here are three women who made Professor Olson's list:

 

Andree de Jongh

Known as Dedee, Andree de Jongh founded the Comet Line, the largest and most important escape line smuggling airman from behind enemy lines.

 

Dedee "worked as a nurse for British troops wounded in the fighting. Along with a group of friends and acquaintances, she began to smuggle injured British soldiers out of German-controlled hospitals and take them to nearby safe houses that she had set up. Not long afterward, she traveled secretly to Spain, which, during World War II, was a neutral country" and struck a deal to smuggle fighters through Spain to the coast where they would be flown back to England.

 

"The majority of Comet Line workers were women," Olson says. "Being part of an escape network was probably the most dangerous form of resistance work in Europe. German officials were keenly aware of the value of these airmen to the Allied bombing effort. If escaped line members were caught, they faced torture, the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, and/or execution. It was particularly dangerous for the couriers—most of them young women, many of them still in their teens—who escorted the servicemen hundreds of miles across enemy territory.

 

"The Comet Line would be the largest and most important escape line in occupied Europe. It would be credited with rescuing more than 800 British and American servicemen, getting them out of enemy territory and back to freedom.

 

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Babies Buried Under the Threshold

I swear sometimes I can read a 400-page book and discover only one visual or a single trivial oddity that captures my imagination and makes its way into a new novel. I won't tell you which of these fascinating facts is the one but here's what I gleaned from The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by Robert Fossier, (Princeton University Press, 2010)

 

Best facts first:

  • The fire or hearth went from outside the house to inside sometime between 900-1100 AD.
  • Last rites could be given by laypeople, even criminals, during the Black Death and early Middle Ages.
  • Children who died without baptism or were stillborn were buried under the threshold of the home to prevent demons from seizing it and turning it into a changeling.
  • Women worked salt marshes and salt pans in fishing villages, hard physical work to produce the salt required to preserve food.
  • Churchman San Bernardino of Sienna maintained that a fetus less than 40 days old could be aborted for reasons of health or poverty. Herbal abortion recipes were well known.
  • Wine was not kept from one season to the next. It was either consumed or destroyed.
  • Houses of prostitution were kept by the Church, noted here and detailed in my first book, A Herstory of Prostitution in Western Europe.  

Here are other gems:

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Fascinating New Look at Our Kindred Neanderthals

I'm heartened by the fact that we have been Homo sapiens for 200,000 years and that new evidence suggests that for 190,000 of those years we lived in communal, cooperative and egalitarian groups. No rulers, no class structure or private property, no gender disparities.

 

And I've mentioned before that there's great work being done to unravel the bias against/invisibility of women in the archaeological and anthropological records. 

 

Now there's fresh, startling evidence that Neanderthal culture was far more advanced that previously thought.

 

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

 

This book is written in a lively and entertaining style, is very serious about its scholarship while being entirely assessable and, as it was just released, contains all the very latest discoveries and some musings about Covid-19. (Also, thank you Ms. Sykes for including female scientists among your sources.)

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The Last Pandemic was Deadly Because of Press Censorship

The Chinese doctor who first identified the coronavirus was arrested for speaking out, eventually dying of the disease. And just in case you're still not a huge champion of a free press in America, here's an incredible example of what happened when the U.S. dabbled in its own version of 'just print good news': it contributed to the death of 50 million people in what was called The Spanish Flu.

 

Though the Spanish Flu started in Haskell, Kansas on an Army base, it was named after Spain because Spanish journalists "had more freedom and more courage to report the truth, and they were neutral during World War I." They were the first to report on the rapidly rising death rate, according to Jennifer Wright, in her breezy but graphic book on global pandemics, Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them. "A morale law had been passed in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It stated you could receive 20 years in jail if you chose to 'utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.' This law seems unconstitutional,  Read More 

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Mystery of the Venus de Milo: She was Spinning

History books often described women as being "relegated" to spinning or embroidery, and one thinks of a woman in a fussy dress wasting time with an embroidery hoop. Elizabeth Wayland Barber in her book Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years, however, describes in great detail a world where the work of women – and trading skills of women -- ran the world economy, producing the world's most coveted, sold, and plundered product.

 

Cloth Drove the Global Economy

You have to remember that until recently, with the invention of plastic and the availability of metals, everything was made of either fabric or wood. Objects were wrapped in cloth, carried in a sack, and even wooden boxes were frequently lined with fabric.  Read More 

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Gems from Ulrich's Not-Well-Behaved Women

Self-Portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi

The phrase "well-behaved women never make history" was actually coined (as 'seldom make history') by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich  and can now be seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons all over the world. Here are some of the gems on unwed mothers, fighting women, unsung authors of the 1600s and other women you'll want to know from her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (Alfred Knopf, 2007). 

 

Unwed Mothers and Women in Court

"Although a quarter of English brides were pregnant at marriage, very few babies – roughly 2 – 3% – were born to unwed mothers. In most cases, a combination of social pressure and the threat of legal action forced people to marry. When they didn't, the law insisted  Read More 

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Christine de Pizan Honored by GCP

I'm always very excited to find in history courses references to Christine de Pizan, a woman in the 1300s who was the world's first feminist and first professional writer. IMHO, she is under-heralded and too frequently overlooked. My novel A Slender Tether (Fireship Press, 2013), dramatizes her difficult early years that were filled with grief, poverty, and thwarted ambition.

 

I'm drawn to her because of her hunger to write (which I feel in my gut), her struggle with ambition (a love-hate relationship I know well) and her feeling that she is a "raptor among bluebirds", socially unacceptable for her ferocity (a more autobiographical idea than anything I've ever written before.)

 

So when The Great Courses Plus included her in their (excellent) course  Read More 

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Female Agency and a Diversified Sperm Pool

While I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality as it wends its way through the libraries in San Francisco, I wanted to get down what I know and think about this topic before I read the book, then follow up with new findings.

 

While streaming The Great Courses Plus lecture series on "What Darwin Knew and Why it Still Matters" the lecturer suggested that Darwin's book on sexual selection had far more difficulties being taken seriously or adopted in any way because the Victorians were unwilling to acknowledge the extent of female agency (or the ability of women to make and carry out important decisions on their own).  ("Wait, it's all the choice of a ...female?? Preposterous! Women are too fickle!")  Read More 

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Writing Women into HistFict: How-to Book Has Great Advice

Writing Historical Fiction: a Writers and Artists Companion by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott, (Bloomsbury) 2014 is an interesting book: part how-to manual, part history of the genre, part fascinating opinions by best-selling and best-known authors of the historical fiction genre, with a reasonable amount of space spent on the unique challenges of writing about women in the past. Here's what struck me about the book:

 

How Women Are Written and How to Correct That

The headless woman (shown from the neck down) "is a visual cliché on the covers of historical novels…" (pg. 50) but the trivialization and downright erasure of women in history goes much further.

 

"Women, especially women not from a ruling class, are the largest group to have been marginalized, or even deleted from the record, in historical terms.  Read More 

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Pamela Colman Smith: Tarot Illustrator and Bohemian

The illustrations for the classic Rider-Waite Tarot Deck were painted by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) who also designed and painted theater sets for the likes of William Butler Yeats; she was a writer/publisher of "ballads, pictures, folktales and verses" via her own broadsheet, and designated an "elderly female companion who shared her flat" as her heir.

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