Film Quarterly, Vol. 2017, Issue 1

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Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane

Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane

As I did last year, I’m breaking my annual film viewing down into quarterly posts. While the first quarter of any year is generally devoted to my Oscar Blitz and other critical darlings of the previous year, I’ve also seen a few good 2017 selections so far. Oddly enough, when I sat down to write this post, I felt like my theater-going for the first quarter was low, but when I checked against last year I saw that it is actually up (from six films to ten), while my overall viewing remained the same (thirty-nine films total). In any case, here is my ranking of the films I have seen in the theater so far this year:

Films Seen in a Theater Ranked
I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street)(1958)
Lion (2016)
Miss Sloane (2016)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Get Out (2017)
La città si difende (Four Ways Out) (1951)
The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Jackie (2016)
Table 19 (2017)

Best Film Seen in a Theater: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street)
I saw this along with La città si difende (Four Ways Out) at a Noir City double feature at the Castro Theater on the night of the Women’s March. Aside from being rather wet from the rainy march, it was great fun—as you might imagine a comic caper film starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Totò would be. However, I remember trying to watch this at home at some point when I couldn’t really get into it, so maybe the lively Castro crowd helped more than I realize.

Best Theater Experience: Get Out
If you haven’t seen this yet, what are you waiting for? While not a perfect film (it fell for me somewhat towards the end), Get Out represents an incredible directorial debut for Jordan Peele. Not only is it a well-paced horror/thriller with great moments of comic relief and interesting visuals, it contains a richly layered social and political subtext that I imagine rewards repeat viewings. I guess others agree, since it recently became the highest-grossing U.S. writer-director film debut (earning $160 million to date on a $4.5 million budget). [Side note: I recommend learning as little as possible about the film before seeing it.]

Most Underrated: Miss Sloane
My sister insisted I see this film, claiming that it was right up my alley and that if it had been called Mr. Sloane it would have gotten far more attention. I agree on both counts. If you like well-made political thrillers and/or Jessica Chastain, I highly recommend it.

Speaking of Jessica Chastain…

Best Movie by a Female Director: The Zookeeper’s Wife
Although I am not doing #52FilmsByWomen this year, I am still trying to see the work of female directors when I can, so I was thrilled to get a chance to see a critic screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife by Niki Caro (Whale Rider and McFarland, USA). While I saw a number of great films based on true stories this quarter (Lion and Hidden Figures among them), this really stood out because, while I thought I had a decent knowledge of Warsaw during World War II, I had never heard this incredible story before. As with Hidden Figures, the film made me immediately check my library for the book it was based on.

Most Deceptively Ranked: John Wick: Chapter 2
I suppose its placement so far down on the list above might seem to imply that I didn’t like John Wick: Chapter 2, but no, I just happened to see really great films in the theater this quarter. Sure, this follow-up to the surprise hit John Wick could have been tighter, but I loved all the new elements they added—the Italian, art jokes, Orson Welles shout-outs, and more. While the final chase is probably what stands out most in people’s minds, I adored the Roman bath scene, which set the tone of this film early on.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2

As many of the above films are not currently at your local theater, you may be asking yourself, “What should I be renting to watch at home?” Good question! Let’s take a final look at 2016, shall we?

If you read my year-end post, you may recall that I thought it was a pretty good year and that it was fairly easy to come up with a solid Top Ten, but I hesitated somewhat over filling the last slot and thought it was likely that my first quarter viewing would dethrone The Light Between Oceans. In fact, I’ve had to rethink much of the list. What’s more, I’ve added the next fifteen because there are some brilliant films in there, any of which I might recommend depending on your mood and what you are looking for (for more specific recommendations, see lists below).

Updated Top Ten Films of 2016
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Arrival
Hell or High Water
20th Century Women
Love & Friendship
American Honey
Maggie’s Plan
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Green Room
Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The Next Fifteen
Lion
The Edge of Seventeen
Captain Fantastic
The Light Between Oceans
The Lobster
The Love Witch
Moonlight
La La Land
Miss Sloane
Sunset Song
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Hidden Figures
The Dressmaker
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street

For more of my thoughts on the films of 2016, see my “Film Quarterly” posts (Vol. 2016, Issue 1, Vol. 2016, Issue 2, Vol. 2016, Issue 3, Vol. 2016, Issue 4) and my year-end wrap-up (The End of Innocence: The Year in Films).

For an incredible edit of some of the best visual moments of 2016, along with a countdown of his own top twenty-five, watch this glorious video by David Ehrlich of the Fighting in the War Room podcast.


If that didn’t give you enough ideas for what looks good, here are some more specific suggestions…

If You Have a Cinematographer’s Eye:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Hell or High Water
The Light Between Oceans
The Love Witch
Sunset Song

If You Know That a Good Editor is Hard to Find:
Arrival
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Green Room
Hell or High Water
Miss Sloane

If You Want a Film that Crushes the Bechdel-Wallace Test:
Ghostbusters
Hidden Figures
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Tallulah
20th Century Women

The incredible, and incredibly complex, women of 20th Century Women

If You Want to Laugh:
The Edge of Seventeen
Love & Friendship
Maggie’s Plan

If You Want Something to Warm Your Heart:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street

If You Think Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
The Dressmaker
Hell or High Water

If You Don’t Mind Something Disturbing:
Elle
Green Room
Tickled

If You Want to See Things That Go Bump in the Night:
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Witch

If You Want a Science Fiction Double Feature:
Arrival and The Lobster

The Lobster takes an unblinking look at modern dystopian love

If You Want a Movie That Keeps You Guessing:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Miss Sloane
10 Cloverfield Lane

If You Think You Can Handle the Truth:
O.J.: Made in America
13th
Zero Days

If You Want to See America’s Gritty Underbelly:
American Honey
Green Room
Hell or High Water

If You Want to See La La Land not La La Land:
City of Gold
The Nice Guys
Rules Don’t Apply

If You Want to Travel Vicariously:
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
A Bigger Splash
Lion

The most adorable travel companion you could ever wish for in Lion

If You Want to Travel in Time:
Love & Friendship
Sunset Song
The Witch

If You Want to Relive World War II:
Allied
Denial
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)

If You Want to Relive the 1950s:
The Dressmaker
Hail, Caesar!
Rules Don’t Apply

If You Want to Relive the 1960s:
Hidden Figures
Jackie
Loving

Spheres are in commotion and elements in harmony in Hidden Figures

If You Want to Take a Walk on the Wild Side:
Captain Fantastic
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Lobster

If You Want to See Cats:
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
Elle
Keanu

If You Want to See Dogs:
Green Room
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Lobster

If You Want to See Horses:
Hell of High Water
Love & Friendship
The Magnificent Seven

If You Want to See Sheep:
Captain Fantastic
Sunset Song
Zootopia

Bumping into one another in town, as you do, in Sunset Song

If You Dig Math:
The Accountant
Hidden Figures
The Man Who Knew Infinity

If You Dig Books:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
Captain Fantastic

If You Think Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
La La Land
The Light Between Oceans
Loving
Sing Street

If You Think It’s Complicated:
Allied
The Lobster
The Love Witch
Maggie’s Plan
Moonlight

Looking for love in all the wrong places in The Love Witch

If You Want to See Friends in Need or in Deed:
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
The Fits
Green Room
Sing Street

If You Want to Keep It in the Family:
The Dressmaker
Hell or High Water
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Light Between Oceans
The Witch

If You Want to Reflect on Your Parenting Skills:
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Captain Fantastic
Queen of Katwe
Sunset Song
20th Century Women

The Kids Are Alright (Teenage Star Power Performances):
American Honey
Captain Fantastic
The Edge of Seventeen
The Fits
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Moonlight
The Nice Guys
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street
The Witch



A big thanks to some of my favorite film podcasts (Fighting in the War Room, Movie Geeks United, Movies Now and Then, and Top 5 Film) for calling my attention to many of these films, especially American Honey, Busanhaeng (Train to Busan), The Fits, The Lobster, and Sunset Song.

Top Five 2016 Movies I Haven’t Yet Seen But Want To
Cameraperson
Certain Women
Krisha
Paterson
Tower

Top Five Films I Have Seen But Can’t Recommend
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
The Man with One Red Shoe (1985)
Milius (2013)
Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh) (1986)
Lost in America (1985)

Best Classic Rewatch: Groundhog Day (1993) on Groundhog Day

Best New-to-Me Classic: La città si difende (Four Ways Out) (1951)

Best Math Greek Selection: Some Came Running (1958). An unknown-to-me gem of 1950s CinemaScope weirdness and delight.

Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin, and Carmen Phillips in Some Came Running

The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): Hidden Figures (2016)

Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue) (1993)

Worst Abuse of Geography: the New York of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Best Use of a Major U.S. Tourist Attraction: the Space Needle in The Parallax View (1974)

Best Use of a Hat as Plot Point (tie): Phantom Lady (1944) and Some Came Running (1958)

Best Distributor of Vigilante Justice: Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)

Ewan McGregor “Please Put That Penis Away” Award: Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh) (1986)

Gloria Steinem “No Way Was This Film Made by a Man” Award: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Peter Cetera “They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To” Award: Iron Man (2008)

Most Oddly Relevant for Today (three-way tie): F for Fake (1974), The Parallax View (1974), and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

I suppose hucksters and con men have always been with us.

What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What did I miss in 2016 that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2017: Get Out, John Wick: Chapter 2, Table 19, The Zookeeper’s Wife

2016: American Honey, Bridget Jones’s Baby, Busanhaeng (Train to Busan), Captain Fantastic, City of Gold, Hidden Figures, Jackie, The Light Between Oceans, Lion, Loving, Miss Sloane, O.J.: Made in America, Sunset Song, 10 Cloverfield Lane, 20th Century Women

Released prior to 2016: La città si difende (Four Ways Out), Cloverfield, Coffy, Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh), Don’t Bother to Knock, F for Fake, Groundhog Day, I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Iron Man, Kindergarten Cop, Lost in America, The Man with One Red Shoe, Milius, The Parallax View, Phantom Lady, Some Came Running, Trois couleurs: Blanc (Three Colors: White), Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue), Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red), The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

Women 101—Adventurers and Explorers

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In my continuing series on women Hollywood should f*cking be making movies about,* we learn about some amazing adventurers and explorers. There is some overlap here with the spies category, as a number of these women worked in espionage and intelligence while they were gallivanting about the Middle East and the Arctic. But since spying is merely one item on their extensive curriculum vitae, I’ve included them with their fellow travelers.

Lady Hester Stanhope in a lithograph by Robert Jacob Hamerton (c. 1830)

Hester Stanhope (1776–1839)
Where to begin with Hester Stanhope? Or should I say, Lady Stanhope? For Hester Stanhope was a bad-ass lady adventurer and archaeologist who was in fact an actual lady with a capital L. More specifically, she was the eldest child of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and niece to Prime Minister William Pitt, serving as his official hostess and later as his private secretary when he was out of office. After the death of her brother in 1810, Stanhope left England to travel indefinitely, heading to Gibraltar, Malta, and Constantinople, where she lived for over a year. On her way to Cairo, a storm and shipwreck left her empty-handed on the island of Rhodes and Stanhope borrowed male clothing (billowy trousers, boots, and a turban) to continue her voyage. After Egypt, she traveled throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, all while continuing to refuse to wear a veil and often adopting male dress and carrying arms. To travel to the ruins of Palmyra in 1813, she dressed as a Bedouin and took a caravan of twenty-two camels to cross the dangerous stretch of desert, making a grand entrance into the city and calling herself “Queen of the Desert.” Stanhope was the first white woman to visit the ruins once ruled by the warrior queen Zenobia. After coming into the possession of an Italian manuscript describing a hidden treasure, Stanhope set out for the ruins of Ashkelon in 1815, establishing the first modern archaeological excavation in the Holy Land. Stanhope eventually settled permanently in Lebanon and over the years cultivated political friends and enemies by giving sanctuary to numerous Druze refugees. [Side note: Stanhope is apparently mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which I read almost two years ago, but I guess since the name meant nothing to me at the time I have no recollection of it.]

Gertrude Bell (third camel from the left), flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Egypt in 1921

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
Gertrude Bell is hard to summarize in one or two paragraphs, especially given that she is the most problematic woman on this list from an Orientalist perspective. In short, Bell was an energetic and intelligent girl from a wealthy, political family in the industrial North, who studied in London and then Oxford, becoming the first woman to graduate with a history degree from that university. Shortly after, in May 1892, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her uncle, who was serving as an ambassador in Tehran. She published a book about her travels in 1894 and spent the next decade or so mountaineering, traveling, and learning languages, eventually becoming fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian, as well as speaking some Italian and Turkish.

From 1900 to 1913, she traveled throughout the Middle East and, like Stanhope before her, refused to wear a veil as she did so. She was noted for establishing ties with local groups and tribes, particularly the Druze, as well as surveying and excavating ancient ruins. She wrote extensively about her travels and documented them with maps and photographs. With the arrival of the First World War, this knowledge of the area and its peoples was suddenly quite valuable and she was invited to join the intelligence men in Cairo, including T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. At the time, Bell was the only female political officer in the British forces and she would go on to become a key actor in British imperial policy-making and one of the people behind the creation and early administration of modern Iraq (and, yes, she foresaw that it would be a sh*tshow, describing the new nation as an “immense failure” and “an inchoate mess of tribes”). She founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum to preserve Iraqi culture and history and keep artifacts in their country of origin. Shortly after, she died in Baghdad in 1926 following an overdose of sleeping pills; it is not known whether the overdose was intentional.

I think there has seldom been such a series of hopeless blunders as the West has made about the East since the armistice.

—Gertrude Bell, Paris Peace Conference, 1919

Freya Stark (1893–1993)
Rounding out our English adventuresses is Freya Stark, an explorer and travel writer who explored the Middle East and beyond. The daughter of bohemian artist parents (her father was English and her mother Italian), Stark spent her childhood roaming Europe, in her father’s home in Devonshire, and then in Italy after her parents split up. She loved reading and became fascinated with the “Orient” after reading One Thousand and One Nights. An odd note to her biography is that when she was a teenager, she got her hair caught in a machine at the family rug and basket factory (I’ll spare you the details, but the accident required months of recovery in a hospital and multiple skin grafts), leading her to wear hats for most of her life to cover the scars.

Despite her early interest in the region, it wasn’t until 1927 that she began to travel the Middle East in earnest: First Lebanon to perfect her Arabic, then Syria and Iraq, and finally western Iran, including exploration of the fabled fortress of the Assassins. In 1935, she travelled to southern Arabia, little explored by Westerners. For many of these trips, she was acknowledged by the Royal Geographical Society though she never “discovered” anything per se. Instead, she became known for the personal, cultural details she recorded, particularly her descriptions of women’s lives. During the war, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information and worked to persuade Arabs to support the Allies. After the war, she travelled to Turkey and finally Afghanistan. All told, she published more than two dozen books on her travels. Her books sound utterly thrilling: I think I’m going to seek out The Valleys of the Assassins first, although The Southern Gates of Arabia, which tells of her attempt to locate the lost city of Shabwah, sounds pretty good too.

Louise Boyd (1887–1972)
Women didn’t explore only the Middle East. Louise Boyd was a gold heiress from California who logged numerous Arctic expeditions throughout the 1930s and 1940s—studying fjords and glaciers, measuring ocean depths, and photographing plant and animal life, particularly on the coast of Greenland. Boyd had traveled extensively with her parents after the early deaths of her two brothers (heart disease as teenagers!), and they encouraged her in a number of hobbies, including photography. As the sole heir to a fortune after both her mother and father died in quick succession in 1919 and 1920, she began traveling even more widely. In 1924, on a trip to Norway, Boyd made her first trip to the Arctic. By 1928, she was leading her own polar expeditions, including one to find legendary explorer Roald Amundsen who had himself disappeared trying to find and rescue Umberto Nobile. At first it seemed that the outbreak of WWII would halt her regular expeditions; however, in 1941, she undertook an expedition sponsored by the U.S. government, studying the effects of polar magnetics on radio communications. Boyd subsequently became an advisor on military strategy in the Arctic and continued to work on secret assignments for the U.S. Army throughout the duration of the war. In 1955, she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.

Louise Boyd photographs her rescue expedition in 1928.

And again, why did I not know of this woman who lived most of her life in the Bay Area (while not exploring) and part of whose home now serves as the Marin History Museum? I realize the fault lies with me for my ignorance, but, at the same time, I can name multiple polar explorers who happen to be male. You can see some of Boyd’s photographs in the Marin History Museum, which is located in the gatehouse of her former estate gatehouse in San Rafael, California.

Is this just me? Did you know of any of these women? Do you have a favorite female adventurer or explorer I should know about?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
  • Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
  • Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark
  • Elizabeth Fagg Olds, Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers
  • Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels

Podcast episodes:
Footnoting History: Desert Queens? Women at the Edges of Empire from Hester Stanhope to Gertrude Bell
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 1; Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Freya of Arabia
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Heiress Explorer: Louise Boyd and the Arctic

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II

*Apparently there is a project on Hester Stanhope in development by the people behind The King’s Speech and Werner Herzog has made a film about Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman, which is being released here in April (but unfortunately has already come out in Europe to horrible reviews).

Women 101—Soldiers and Spies in WWII

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Although it may have been a surprise to learn of the extent to which female soldiers and spies played a role in the Civil War, it is likely not a surprise to learn of their role in World War II. Oddly enough, however, none of my history podcasts have shown much interest in these spies, beyond brief mentions of the intelligence work of Josephine Baker. So we will begin with this French-American star of stage and screen.

Josephine Baker (1906–1975)
Josephine Baker has an incredible history as a performer and civil rights activist and I encourage you to seek out more information on her in general. Every phase of her life is utterly fascinating, from her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, to her time on Broadway, to her success on the Paris stage (sometimes including her pet cheetah), to her adoption of her “rainbow tribe” of twelve children, to her work with the NAACP and the civil rights movement.

Josephine Baker and her pet cheetah Chiquita grace the cover of more than one children’s book about this fascinating woman.

Less well known is the help she provided to the French government and the Resistance during World War II. To begin with, in the lead up to the conflict, she worked to assist refugees and entertain troops, including using her pilot’s license to fly into Belgium with Red Cross supplies. She was first recruited by French military intelligence in 1939 at the start of the war and tasked with collecting information from officials at embassy and ministry parties. After the invasion of France in 1940, she assisted the Free French and other Resistance efforts out of her home in the Dordogne. [Side note: If you are looking for a lesser-known region of France to explore, the Dordogne is a great choice—chock full of incredible food, outdoor activities, and castles and other historical sites.] As a popular performer, Baker was also able to travel internationally relatively easily, carrying vital information on troop movements and military support. In some cases this information was written in invisible ink on her sheet music, in others it was pinned to her underwear. Later during the war, she entertained Allied troops in North Africa. For these efforts, Baker was the first American-born woman to receive France’s Croix de Guerre and the first to receive military honors at her funeral. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1957.

Josephine Baker in London in 1945

And now we move on to a few women I had never heard of until the “Spies” episode of Drunk History introduced me to the tale of Virginia Hall and made me wonder how many stories like hers were out there. (This is the same episode that features Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman and Will Ferrell as Roald Dahl and is truly must-see TV.)

Virginia Hall (1906–1982)
Virginia Hall studied French, German, and Italian at university and long wanted to join the Foreign Service. However, after accidentally shooting herself in the leg during a hunting expedition in Turkey in 1932, an injury that eventually led to amputation of her left leg below the knee, her dreams of a life in the diplomatic corps seemed to be at an end. Also, she was woman, which may have been the bigger problem. [Side note: Hall’s nickname for her artificial limb was Cuthbert, a detail I feel compelled to mention.]

With the arrival of war in Europe, Hall saw a way to serve—as an ambulance driver in France. After France’s surrender, this on-the-ground experience eventually led to Hall’s recruitment by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hall then spent over a year undercover as a New York Post correspondent in and around Lyon, where she coordinated the passing of information, people, and supplies. The Germans apparently considered her the “most dangerous of all Allied spies” and gave her the nickname Artemis (goddess of the hunt). When the Germans took over the Zone Libre in 1942, Hall escaped to Spain on foot over the Pyrenees and continued her work from Madrid. She later joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and went back into France in advance of the D-Day invasion to monitor German intelligence, train Resistance forces, and help coordinate the sabotage of infrastructure used by the Germans. In September 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II. In 1951, she joined the Central Intelligence Agency.

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General William J. Donovan (OSS) in September 1945

Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944)
Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of Inayat Khan, teacher of Universal Sufism, and Ameena Begum, originally Ora Baker (cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science) of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Born in Moscow, Inayat Khan was brought up outside Paris and trained as a musician at the Paris Conservatory. She was also a published writer of fairy stories for children. After her family fled to London in 1940, Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a radio operator. She was eventually recruited as a spy and worked under the name of Nora Baker. Inayat Khan infiltrated occupied France where she spent months working as the only active SOE radio operator in the Paris area—changing addresses daily—until she was betrayed and arrested in October 1943. Despite being tortured repeatedly, she never revealed even her real name to her captors. Inayat Khan died on September 13, 1944, in the Dachau concentration camp after reportedly shouting “Liberté!” just before Nazis shot her in the head. She was awarded the French Croix de Guerre posthumously.

Noor Inayat Khan c. 1943

Nancy Wake (1912–1982)
Our next “European” spy comes from halfway around the world, from New Zealand in point of fact. Nancy Wake grew up in Sydney, Australia, but married a French industrialist and moved to Marseille just before the war. When Germany invaded, Wake immediately got involved and eventually served as a British agent in France, becoming a courier for the Resistance, working with the Maquis to coordinate over 7000 fighters, and joining the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. She was so successful and elusive that the Gestapo called her the “White Mouse” and put out a five-million-franc reward for her capture. One story about Wake killing an SS sentry with her bare hands called to mind Cary Grant’s stories of the Resistance in To Catch a Thief:

It’s wonderful. And the pastry is as light as air.
—Germaine has very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch.
—Yes, I can tell.
—She strangled a German general once… without a sound.

Following the war, Wake was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre. She continued to work for British Intelligence in Europe until the mid-1950s.

Nancy Wake died in August 2011, just a few weeks shy of her one hundredth birthday.

There was little she enjoyed better than ‘a bloody good drink’, and to fund her lifestyle she had sold her war medals. ‘There was no point in keeping them,’ she explained, ‘I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.’

—from Nancy Wake’s obituary in The Guardian

And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?

Thanks, Vanity Fair, I’m glad to see someone else also asking the important questions.

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart
  • Russell Braddon, Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine
  • Judith Pearson, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy
  • Ean Wood, The Josephine Baker Story

For children:

  • Patricia Hruby Powell, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
  • Jonah Winter, Jazz Age Josephine

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Josephine Baker, the Toast of Paris
The History Chicks: Josephine Baker, Part 2

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War

For the next post in this series, see Adventurers and Explorers.

Women 101—Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War

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Today we continue looking at wartime exploits, this time of an even stealthier nature than the Night Witches—spies!

In this first edition, we will take a look at some of the bad-ass women that could be found sneaking around the Civil War. Then, in our next outing we’ll head into the twentieth century. It makes me sad that I am only learning of some of these women now, but one of the problems with the topic is that the stealth nature of espionage work naturally means the historical record is sparse, a problem that is compounded when spies are women and gender dynamics and sexism affect the reporting of their contributions. Frankly, it’s sort of bullshit that something as over-studied (that’s right, I said it) as the Civil War still has such blatant gaps in the historical record, but there it is.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1822–1913)
If, like me, you learned about Harriet Tubman via childhood tales of the Underground Railroad, you may not have realized that in addition to her incredible work to free slaves, she was also a Union soldier and spy. And, if you want the most humorous take possible on this story, you must watch the Drunk History episode on spies, featuring Octavia Spencer as Tubman (Warning: NSFW).

Harriet Tubman, photographed by Harvey Lindsley c. 1871–1876

Essentially, once the war started, Tubman moved down to South Carolina to continue her humanitarian work in the Sea Islands. While there, she acted in an official capacity as a nurse, but also (in an unofficial capacity) developed a network of scouts and spies. Her work on the Underground Railroad meant that she was uniquely suited to such tasks and she provided valuable intelligence to the Union Army, mostly working with Colonel James Montgomery. She is best known for the Combahee River Raid in June 1863, when she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. During the raid, she used intelligence she had gathered on the placement of Confederate river mines to guide steamboats of Union troops safely to shore, where they set fire to plantations and seized valuable supplies and food. The boats were then used to transport escaping slaves to safety: Over 750 slaves were eventually rescued in the raid. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (aka Matthew Broderick) during the storming Fort Wagner, depicted in the movie Glory. Despite this service, she never received a government salary or pension until 1899. [Side note to Hollywood: Glory was great, but for the love of all that is holy, where is my Harriet Tubman movie?]

And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

—Harriet Tubman on the Second Battle of Fort Wagner

Mary-Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900)
Another former slave to work for the Union cause was Mary-Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser worked in the spy ring of Elizabeth Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. This network was incredibly elaborate and even included civil servants working in the Confederate military and government. Van Lew came from a wealthy Richmond family but had been educated in the North and held abolitionist sentiments. When the Civil War broke out, she became active in caring for Union prisoners in the Libby Prison. This allowed her cover to exchange information with them, including recently captured soldiers who passed her information on Confederate plans and troop movements, which she passed on to Union commanders through her network (via cypher systems, invisible ink, laundry codes, etc.). Van Lew also aided Union prisoners in escape attempts, sometimes even hiding prisoners in her home. In recognition, Ulysses S. Grant would later appoint Van Lew to be postmaster of Richmond, a position she held until 1877.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Bowser was likely born around 1840 as a slave in the Van Lew household, but had been granted her de facto freedom (they did live in Virginia after all) as a young girl. In addition to sending her to school in the North, Elizabeth Van Lew also arranged for her to participate in a missionary community in Liberia as a teenager. By early 1960, she had returned to work as a servant in the Van Lew household and soon Van Lew convinced Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to hire Bowser (under a false name) in the Confederate White House. Bowser was thus able to spy on the leader of the Confederacy at his own dinner table. Even though officials knew there was a leak somewhere, Bowser was not suspected and Varina Davis maintained that none of her black servants were educated. [Side note: Seriously, this is white privilege, patriarchy, and racist obliviousness at its finest when you consider that someone with Bowser’s status and access wouldn’t even have been suspected of passing information.] Because records on the Richmond spy ring were destroyed at the end of the war to protect its members, the historical record is still very cloudy on the biographical details of Bowser’s life and even her exact name is in question. An interesting conference panel discussing the question can be found here.

I’m sorry to report that there are no verified images of the spy known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Belle Boyd (1844–1900)
Also in Virginia, but working for the other side, was Isabella “Belle” Boyd. Boyd’s career in espionage began on the heels of her shooting a Union soldier in her own home when she was a teenager, a crime for which she was exonerated, but which led to Union troops closely watching her. The attractive Boyd took advantage of this interest to obtain information directly from Union officers. At first, she worked mostly as a courier in the Shenandoah Valley, an area where she could put her local knowledge and horsemanship to good use. On one occasion, she used her familiarity with a relative’s house to eavesdrop through a knothole whereby she gleaned important intelligence regarding Union troop movements. On May 23, 1862, Boyd learned that Union forces were planning to impede Confederate troops by burning the Front Royal bridges upon their withdrawal from the town. She tried to find someone to deliver the timely message to Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, and when she couldn’t, she rode behind enemy lines herself to deliver it. As a result, Jackson accelerated his attacked and saved the bridges. Boyd was caught numerous times, but always managed to avoid a death sentence, though she did end up in prison more than once. After the war, Boyd published an account of her wartime experiences called Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, became an actress, and toured the country speaking about her life as a Civil War spy.

Isabella Maria Boyd, “Cleopatra of the Secession”

Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841–1898)
Lastly, we come to Sarah Emma Edmonds. It is not verified that Sarah Edmonds was a spy, but she certainly served in the Civil War disguised as a man. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, she came to the United States in the late 1850s, eventually settling in Michigan. When the war broke out, she enlisted in the Union cause under the name Franklin Flint Thompson and serve as a field nurse and mail carrier for almost two years without anyone realizing she was a woman (physical examinations at enlistment were cursory at best). She participated in both the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and Fredericksburg, and was later referred to as a fearless soldier. In her autobiography, she claimed to have worked as a spy, but historians have not been able to confirm many of her claims, including that she disguised herself as a black man to infiltrate the Confederacy. Her military career ended when she contracted malaria—not wanting her secret to be discovered, she left to be treated in a private hospital and was mistakenly listed as a deserter. To avoid execution for desertion, instead of returning to her unit, she served out the war as a nurse in a hospital in Washington, DC. Over a decade later, Edmonds attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan Infantry where she was welcomed by her former comrades-in-arms (once they realized who she was), some of whom helped Edmonds clear “Thompson” of the desertion charges on record and receive a pension. In 1897, Edmonds was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans association.

It is estimated that 250 to 750 women disguised their sex to serve in the Civil War.

Sarah Emma Edmonds in her disguise as Private Franklin Flint Thompson

And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
  • Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison
  • Peggy Caravantes, Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War
  • Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
  • S. Emma Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields
  • Kate Clifford Larson, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
  • David D. Ryan, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew
  • Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Belle Boyd
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Harriet Tubman, Union Spy

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in World War II.

Women 101—Wasps and Witches

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Just a fly-by in a desperate attempt to keep to the twice-a-week schedule I’ve set myself for these Women’s History Month posts.

This post is basically a spin-off of my previous one on unsung female aviators. When I realized I had more pilots than I could discuss in one post and that a few of the women I was looking at took us well out of the pioneer days and into World War II, I decided to separate them out. Separate, but not exactly equal, as we will see.

One of the most impressive women I came across was Jacqueline Cochran, who, among other things, raced competitively against men in the 1930s, worked with Amelia Earhart to open the Bendix transcontinental race to women, and set multiple aviation records. In fact, at the time of her death, Cochran held more altitude, distance, and speed records than any other pilot (male or female) in history.

Vincent Bendix congratulates Jacqueline Cochran after she wins the Bendix Race in 1938.

Before the United States entered World War II, as part of the “Wings for Britain” organization, Cochran became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. While in Great Britain, she volunteered her services to the war effort, working for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Enlisting the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cochran was a key figure in establishing U.S. programs to train female pilots to undertake domestic aviation jobs and release more male pilots for combat, eventually leading to the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which she led beginning in August 1943. These women did all sorts of dangerous tasks, including towing targets for live ammunition target practice, delivering military aircraft to bases, and flying engineering test flights. Amazingly, more than 25,000 women applied for this short-lived program, but the requirements for women were fairly strict and only 1,800 or so were selected for training. With washout rates roughly on par with men, ultimately 1,102 women flew for the WASP and U.S. Army Air Forces. These women flew every aircraft in the USAAF inventory, with overall accident and fatality rates similar to those of male pilots.

Pilots at Lockbourne Army Air Field, members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots program. Pictured from left to right are Frances Green, Peg Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn.

Despite this service, and unlike the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the WASPs were not part of the military (although WASP pilots were retroactively granted service status in 1977). Still, Cochran received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948, retiring as a colonel in 1970. As such, she is likely the first female pilot in the USAF. Not one to be deterred in exploring new forms of aviation, she began flying jets after the war and was the first women to break the sound barrier. Other “female” firsts: Cochran was the first to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, the first to fly a jet on a transatlantic flight, the first to make a blind (instrument) landing, and the first (and only) woman to become president of the Fédération Aéronatique International. She even flew the Goodyear blimp in the early 1960s because why not.

I have found adventure in flying, in world travel, in business, and even close at hand… Adventure is a state of mind—and spirit.

—Jacqueline Cochran

As fascinating as Jacqueline Cochran is, she does represent the world of privilege in that she came to flying on the heels of meeting one of the richest men in the world, Floyd Odlum, who helped her found a cosmetics business in the mid-1930s and who she later married. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pilots accepted for WASP training were often women who had been able to afford to pay for their own flying lessons. (Additionally, due to segregation policies, no African Americans were accepted into the program, although there were two Chinese Americans who served). In the Soviet Union, the situation was somewhat different, although female pilots faced similar discrimination and disbelief from their countrymen.

During their bombing runs, the Night Witches used obsolete bi-planes without guns, radios, or parachutes.

And so we come to the Night Witches, an all-women Soviet bombing regiment and among the first women to ever fly in combat. While I didn’t know of their story prior to the excellent Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode on them, I feel like these women are better known than most of the other aviators I looked at (and maybe if I was more of a fan of military history I would have been familiar with them). Much like the WASP program, the creation of the Night Witches is primarily credited to a push by famed aviator and Soviet Air Force navigator Marina Raskova, who convinced Stalin to let her form and train three female aviation regiments, notably the 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which would gain fame under the name given to it by the Germans, die Nachthexen.

This regiment flew ridiculously obsolete biplanes made of canvas and wood that had open cockpits but neither radio nor guns. Because of this vulnerability, they only flew night missions, primarily to harass German troops although they also engaged in precision bombing of supply depots and other military targets. Pilots often made multiple bombing runs over the course of a night and each one would eventually fly over eight hundred missions before the war’s end. The most famous Night Witch, Nadia Popova, a Ukrainian who had been flying since the age of fifteen, made a record eighteen runs in one night. The nickname of die Nachthexen, or Night Witches, came from the rustling sound the canvas made as the planes swooped down low to drop their bombs (having previously cut their noisy engines for stealth purposes).

Are you f*cking kidding me? Hollywood, where is my movie of this?

Nadia Popova eyes the camera surrounded by some glorious bad-asses.

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II
  • Anne Noggle, For God, Country and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots During WWII
  • Bruce Myles, Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in WWII
  • Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Four Flights of Female Aviators
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 1
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Night Witches

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War.