History has always been an important part of society. While some may complain that it’s just a boring collection of names and dates, it provides us with a way to study the past and, in doing so, learn more about ourselves today.
One of my favorite history eras to learn about is the 1940s, when World War II happened. It was a very eventful time period, but it also made me think about how societies and human behavior were influenced by the set of circumstances that set everything into motion. And while it does highlight some of humankind’s worst capabilities with the actions of the Nazis and of the Japanese, it was also a time where some of the bravest people in history were called into action in response to the horrors being committed at the time.
As all of this is recounted in textbooks, however, a lot is left out. Yes, to be fair, a lot happened in WWII and it may not be possible to include everything, but, as is the case with a lot of history discussions, the second world war is often centered on the actions of men. While the heroic actions of Oskar Schindler and Douglas MacArthur are celebrated, the women of the era often aren’t even mentioned.
Part of this seems to be because women were barred from contributing to the war effort in all the ways that men could. While women were enlisted to fill the labor gap left by men overseas and were permitted to join uniformed auxiliaries such as the Women’s Army Corps in the United States, they were not allowed in combat and were often criticized and discouraged even from joining uniformed programs and participating in activities that were considered “too masculine”. It was especially difficult for women of color, who faced even worse discrimination and were sometimes even denied access to aid programs entirely.
Even today, while people are often tempted to say that discrimination of this sort is a thing of the past because women now have more rights, gender inequality is still an issue. Beyond problems such as wage gaps and sexual harassment, women are still considered to have specific “roles” in our today’s society. Last month, for example, I watched a blogger attempt to defend the exclusion of women from selective service by stating that a woman’s role is to “maintain the homeland”.
The fact that these stereotypes still exist even after women have been proven time and time again to be more than capable of going far beyond their expected “roles” in society can be contributed in part to an incomplete knowledge of history. Women’s history is still not given nearly enough attention in schools. Despite their frequent omission from current historical accounts, women have had instrumental roles in not only determining the outcome of the war, but also in saving lives.
Here are just a few women who went above and beyond their expected roles and made noteworthy contributions to this period in history.
Sophie Scholl was a biology and philosophy student at the University of Munich in Nazi Germany when she began working with the White Rose, a non-violent resistance group. The group created and distributed pamphlets denouncing the Nazis and urging Germans to resist them. Sophie proved valuable to the group because, as a woman, she was less likely to be randomly stopped by the SS.
Eventually, she and the rest of the group were arrested while distributing pamphlets and Sophie, her brother Hans, and one other group member were convicted of high treason and executed less than a few hours after the trial. At the execution, Sophie is recorded saying, in her last words, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Even after her death, the courage with which she and the White Rose resisted the Nazi regime continues to serve as an inspiration today.
During World War I, when women were prohibited from serving on the front lines in Poland as well as in many other countries, Wanda Gertz cut her hair short and disguised herself as a man to join the Polish military, where she served in an artillery unit. She also went on to serve in the Polish-Soviet War and in 1919, she became commander of the Second Women’s Volunteer League. The League mostly handled guard duties, but had a key role in defending the Lithuanian city of Vilnius from Soviet forces, for which Gertz was awarded a military decoration.
After the war ended, she continued to participate in military activities in her free time until the outbreak of WWII, when she joined a resistance movement and, operating under the code name “Lena”, worked to organize communications. She created and commanded the Women’s Diversion and Sabotage unit, which attacked German military personnel. After the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, she was taken prisoner and held in German prisoner-of-war camps until her liberation in 1945.
Mariana Drăgescu was a Romanian aviator who, at 23 years old, became one of the few women to hold a pilot’s license in 1935. Amid rising tensions in Europe, she was invited to join the all-female White Squadron, which conducted medical missions, in 1938. During the war, Romania was the only country in the world at the time to allow women to pilot medical missions.
In the post-war communist era that followed the war, the contributions of Drăgescu and of the White Squadron were largely ignored by history, but were more recently brought to recognition when Drăgescu, shortly before her death at the age of 100, was promoted to the rank of captain.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, or “Lady Death”, as she became known, was a Soviet sniper who joined the Soviet Red Army in 1941 after Germany began its invasion of the country. Unlike most countries, the Red Army mobilized women at the time, though most served as medics. Lyudmila became one of 2000 female Soviet snipers and is credited with 309 kills during the war. In 1943, she was commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. To this day, she is still considered one of the top snipers in history.
Margaret Utinsky was an American woman who lived with her husband in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, when the Japanese invaded. She refused to leave the Philippines when ordered to by the American military and created a false identity as a Lithuanian nurse before securing a position with the Red Cross and going to Bataan to search for her husband. After seeing the state of the survivors of the Bataan Death March, she resolved to do everything she could to help them and, under the code name “Miss U”, built a resistance network that provided food, money, and medicine to prisoners-of-war.
Utinsky was eventually captured by the Japanese and tortured brutally before her release, after which she spent six weeks in a hospital. When she returned to American lines, she wrote a report providing the names of the soldiers who had been tortured, the names of their torturers, and the names of collaborators. Her autobiography, Miss U, was published in 1948.
6. Lucie Aubrac
Lucie Aubrac joined the French Resistance with her husband in 1940. Her resistance group carried out sabotages on train stations, distributed propaganda flyers, and later began working on an underground newspaper known as the Libération. After her husband was arrested and sentenced to execution, she led a group of resistors on a successful rescue mission that saved the lives of 15 other prisoners as well as that of her husband. She recounts the rescue in her book, Outwitting the Gestapo, which was published in 1993.
Claire Phillips was an American living in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded. After her husband was sent to a prison camp, where he later died, Claire began helping the resistance. She collaborated with a young Filipino dancer to open a gentlemen’s club, which she used as a cover to obtain information from the Japanese officers who patronized the club. She was a part of the “Miss U spy ring” and helped provide information and supplies to prisoners-of-war. She became known as “high pockets” to the prisoners because she smuggled messages by hiding them in her brassiere. After being apprehended in 1944, she was sent to prison, where she remained until her liberation in 1945 by American forces.