Unheralded Herstories: From spies to artists, new books tell the stories of little-known women who made a difference


Barrie Olmstead

Women’s History Month is here, and readers have the opportunity to not only read about the accomplishments of women with whom many of us are familiar, but also to learn previously untold stories and histories.

Recently declassified information about espionage and codebreaking during World War II has led to the discovery of just how vital a role women played in helping to end the war. Books inspired by the new revelations include “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” by Liza Mundy, and “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies,” by Jason Fagone. Both stories highlight the excruciating complexity that characterized the work of deciphering and breaking codes, which was a field in its infancy at the outset of WWII. Enemy movements were ascertained and ships sunk based on information relayed over the wires, and the consequences were urgent and grave. The female code breakers were sworn to secrecy about the nature of their work and maintained discretion over a period of decades. Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the subject of “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” designed codes for the Office of Strategic Services, which evolved into the C.I.A. Her husband William Friedman, a fellow codebreaker, often was given credit for her work.

Another book highlighting a previously unheralded woman of note in African American history recounts the life of Pauli Murray, an activist and lawyer born in 1910 and orphaned at a young age. Rosalind Rosenberg gives Murray her due in the excellent “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray.” Murray’s own memoir, “Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage,” was recently reissued with a new introduction. Her mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after she was born and her father was brutally beaten to death at the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane, in Baltimore, Md. Raised by her Aunt Pauline in North Carolina, Murray actively resisted Jim Crow. Rather than sit in the back of the bus, she opted to walk. She was rejected from entering graduate studies at the University of North Carolina on the basis of race and from Harvard on the basis of gender. Living intersectionality before it became a buzzword, Murray dubbed the twin discriminations she endured as a black woman “Jane Crow.” She ultimately graduated from Howard Law School and went on to become prominent in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. Having been jailed for refusing to move from her seat on a bus in Virginia, she was instrumental in overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as well as Brown v. Board of Education. She co-founded the National Organization for Women and worked with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to end gender discrimination.

This year’s selections of unique women’s history titles also include “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” by Mary Gabriel. This captivating collective biography details the lives of the women painters at the heart of New York’s abstract-expressionism movement of the 1950s. The five artists highlighted endured poverty in tumbledown, unheated New York apartments and bartered their paintings for food. Both Krasner and de Kooning, married to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, respectively, saw their careers overshadowed by their larger-than-life husbands, who were granted more recognition from the art establishment. The book is not only a portrait of these women told in episodic chapters, but also of a unique bohemian era in Greenwich Village, when poets, painters, writers, dancers, musicians and art patrons commingled in cafes, underground bars and gallery openings. The women chronicled here carved out bodies of work and made their reputations in male-dominated spaces, helping to define the New York School of painters. Their talents were on full display in the groundbreaking “Ninth Street Show” in 1951. That monthlong exhibition helped cement New York’s newfound standing as the center of the art world; a position Paris could no longer claim post-WWII. One hopes there will be more such art histories in which women take center stage.

As exemplified in the narratives mentioned above, women have been making history for generations, but their stories have been overshadowed, unreported and even suppressed. Across America today, women seem to be demanding their rightful role in history-making events, both past, present and future. Hopefully, many more such revealing accounts of women’s contributions will be written and read in the coming years.

Olmstead is the Adult Services Librarian for Lewiston City Library. She worked for the Sacramento Public Library for 12 years as a branch librarian and as a book selector. She reads everything and also enjoys hiking, knitting and yoga. Send her some of your faves from the past year at bolmstead@cityoflewiston.org.

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