“A Woman of No Importance” is my favorite kind of history book: a biography that teaches me about a person in history that I never heard of before. Sonia Purnell writes a gripping and detailed biography about Virginia Hall, the American spy who helped organize the French Resistance and win World War II.
Virginia Hall was born into an upper class Baltimore family in 1906. Her mother wanted her to marry well and help the family regain its fortune, but Virginia was an unconventional woman. She attended and dropped out of college many times. Eventually, to escape her mother’s interference and disapproval, Virginia moved as an expat to France. There she found the free society that engaged her and helped her feel alive.
When World War II broke out, Virginia volunteered as the only woman in the clandestine British Special Operations Executive. Pretending to be an American journalist covering the war in France, Virginia set up cells of French Resistance. Virginia supplied agents with money, weapons, and supplies; helped downed airmen to escape; and offered safe houses and medical assistance to wounded agents and pilots. When one of her cells was betrayed by a traitor to the Gestapo, Virginia fled France in November 1942 to avoid capture.
Having found her purpose as a undercover agent in France, Virginia soon returned as a radio operator. With a price on her head, she continued to funnel money and supplies to the French Resistance. The Gestapo labeled Virginia “the most dangerous of all allied spies.” Eventually she worked cooperatively with the American Office of Strategic Services. She organized several audacious prison breaks for those who had been arrested as resistance fighters.
After the War, Virginia had a hard time adjusting to civilian life. She was one of the first women hired by the CIA, but the men who were her bosses resented her experience in the field. They continually tried to relegate her to secretarial work or disparaged her contributions. She refused to talk about her service during the war and fell into obscurity after retirement from the CIA.
In recognition for her service during the war, Virginia Hall was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman to be so honored during World War II. She was also made a Member of the Order of the British Empire and received the Croix de Guerre in France. Posthumously she was honored by the CIA and inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
Virginia Hall was a fascinating woman who was at her best as a secret agent in France. It was very interesting to learn more about her life. She was much more than “a woman of no importance.”