“Nancy Wake, “the White Mouse” and the most decorated woman of the 1939-45 war, disliked people messing around with her life story. Small wonder. It was an extraordinary story and an extraordinary life.”
So wrote John Litchfeld in his tribute to Ms. Wake in The Independent, Resistance heroine who led 7,000 men against the Nazis:
Ms. Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia. She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne, just before the D-Day landings in 1944. On one occasion, she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another, she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes. In June 1944, she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon in central France.
Atop the “Gestapo’s French “wanted” list,” Nancy and her husband “ran a resistance network which helped to smuggle Jews and allied airmen out of the country.” According to Litchfield, “the Germans could not believe that one of their chief opponents was a slender, pretty, dark-haired woman.” It seems those who made a 1987 TV movie of her life couldn’t believe it either, since they depicted her as frying eggs for the troops during combat missions, “feminizing” her actual behavior. Wake’s reaction was telling:
“For goodness’ sake, did the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men? There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money. Even if there had been why would I be frying it? I had men to do that sort of thing.”
Ms. Wake was also furious that the program suggested she had had a love affair with a [fellow fighter.] She was too busy killing Nazis for amorous entanglements, she said.
Cannot we make a story about a woman interesting unless she is domestically inclined or winds up in the sack with one of the guys? The real story was removed from filmmakers efforts to “prettify” her actions. There is a new film planned about Ms. Wake which, I hope, will trust her fascinating story to carry the day without the need to stereotype her character or behavior.
Nancy Wake broke many conventions and it is paramount that we not distract from her accomplishments by pigeonholing her in a way that comports with the comfort levels of others. To suggest she had an affair when she did not cheapens and distracts from her dedication to the vital missions in which she participated.
Litchfield’s article includes a number of Wake’s frank statements, showing that she never gave a hoot about expressing herself in a dainty fashion. Role models such as Ms. Wake give young girls permission to have their own expression that doesn’t come out of a magazine. Moreover, Wake’s actions exemplify courage and determination that to this day we see depicted all too seldom in the body of a woman.
The current coverage given to teenaged Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai is the exception, not the rule.
In today’s world, we see objectification and hypersexualization in the behaviors of Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian. They are not the norm, yet judging by the volume of coverage in today’s media, you would think they represent 90% of young women.
Another story of amazing courage that has likewise gotten little coverage is that of Irina Sendler, the woman who saved 2,500 Jewish children in WWII. A play and movie of Ms. Sendler’s life are little known. The UK’s Daily Mail commemorated her recent passing:
By any measure, Irena Sendler was one of the most remarkable and noble figures to have emerged from the horrors of World War II. But, until recently, her extraordinary compassion and heroism went largely unrecorded.
When the Germans finally caught her, the Roman Catholic social worker had managed to save 2,500 Jewish babies and toddlers from deportation to the concentration camps.
She had spirited them out of the heavily-guarded Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and hidden their identities in two glass jars buried under an apple tree in her neighbour’s garden.
She was beaten, tortured and sentenced to death by the Gestapo – who even announced her execution. But Irena survived, her spirit unbroken, her secrets untold.
As their article points out, Ms. Sendler rescued far more children than her more celebrated male counterpart, Oskar Schindler, who was immortalized not only by a book but by Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film, “Schindler’s List.” While this is not a contest of numbers, it is telling to note that not even a fraction of the public know of either Wake or Sendler as compared with Schindler or other male heroes.
Research has shown that even women tend not to celebrate their own accomplishments and stories, opting instead to tell the stories of men. We also have men telling the stories of women, as with the film on Nancy Wake. If we want to see a woman president and women taking the reins of leadership in their own way (not as an imitation of men), then the value of role models cannot be underestimated. You cannot celebrate what you’ve never heard of. In the words of female historian Gerda Lerner:
“When I started working on women’s history about thirty years ago, the field did not exist. People didn’t think that women had a history worth knowing.”
We still do not have a national women’s history museum. This is not about women versus men, but reporting, teaching and emulating what we each bring to the equation. The more we share a unique story without worrying about gender stereotypes, the more we teach those still afflicted with bias that their fears or outworn ideas are neither accurate nor necessary.
Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking exposé deconstructing the biased media narrative plaguing women who dare to lead.
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