UROP in History: Women Spies during World War II

Fri, 04/28/23
Danielle and two students at undergraduate research presentation

Danielle Wirsansky, PhD candidate in History, is directing an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program project on women spies during World War II. The aim of the project is to bring together information on women agents in a giant spreadsheet that will eventually become a publicly available data base.

This is the third time that Danielle is directing a UROP project on the theme of women spies. She has three students working with her. Courtney is a senior History major who transferred to FSU with an AA degree. Courtney came specifically for the History program at FSU. Lucie is a first-year student majoring in Literature, Media and Culture in the English department with a minor in Women’s Studies. Lucie came to FSU as a presidential scholar. And Emi, a second-year Psychology student, who wants to join the FBI after graduation.

Danielle was a UROP student herself as an undergraduate – back in 2013/ 14. Although she was a Theater major, she opted to work with Dr. Nathan Stoltzfus on the Rosenstrasse protests in Berlin during WW II. She enjoyed the research aspect so much, that she continued to work for the Rosenstrasse project. That led her to do her master’s degree with Dr. Stoltzfus; her thesis was on the experience of women spies who worked for the British, connecting their experience to that of British women more generally during WW II.  Her PhD dissertation – also with Dr. Stoltzfus - will be a gender analysis of the experience of the Special Operations Executive’s agents, both men and women, focusing on each step of their experience from recruitment to execution.

How did you find out about UROP and what made you want to apply?

Courtney: I kept getting emails from UROP, and eventually I thought that I might take a shot at it. This is the only project I applied to as it fits all the interests that I have: women’s studies and the history of World War II. I am glad I applied. I am having so much fun.

Lucie: Applying to UROP projects is a requirement for Presidential Scholars in their freshmen year. My UROP leader told me to apply to five different projects, and I interviewed for two. This project was the one that had caught my eye immediately and that I wanted to join. I was so happy when I got accepted into it.

Emi: I too got so many emails about UROP, in the end my roommate and I were so curious about the program that we decided to apply. My UROP leader too said I needed to apply for five projects, and I did - but really, I only wanted to join this one.

What is your project about?

Emi: We are researching female spies in the SOE, specifically the French section during WW II. Our research spotlights some women of the past who were not well known during their lifetime. Our research also sheds light on women in the workplace in the past and brings out similarities to the present day.

Lucie: What caught my eyes, our eyes, is that no one has heard of these women. Not many people really know anything about the SOE, but no one really knows the women who were part of this organization. We can shed light on them – and that was why I joined the project.

Courtney: It is so important to educate people about the past that is often overlooked, and this project is doing just that.

What research do you do specifically?

Lucie: We began the project with a literature review, because we did not have much prior knowledge. First, we read about the SOE in general, then we looked at material on the women in the SOE written by both men and women. That gave us an insight into how the women were treated and viewed. Then we moved on to the individual stories of the women. Each one of us is transcribing interviews with different women. We come together in our weekly meetings to discuss them.

Emi: The interviews are housed in the Imperial War Museum in London. The women were interviewed long past World War II, anywhere from the 1980s to the 2000s. In the interviews the women are recounting their experiences.

Courtney: Some of the transcripts I am doing are of interviews of people who interacted with the women of the SOE, providing a bit of an outsider’s perspective.

What aspect of the project have you enjoyed most?

Emi: My favorite part was the progression of the type of research that we have done. The first book we read was general information on the SOE. That was our introduction to the topic. That book had basically little to no mention of any women. The next book had more of a negative view on the women who worked during that time. The third book had a more positive view.

Courtney: The first book, we divided into two sections, and then read a section a week. We would discuss our findings, what we found interesting, during our weekly meeting. The second book, we divided into sets of seven chapters, each chapter covered a different woman spy. That week we looked at themes that we found, and based on those we formulated our reading questions. The third book consisted of three parts, and we read a part a week and then discussed the part. After that we moved on to transcribing the interviews.

Lucie: As an English major, for me it was the literature review, the first three books we read. I made the spreadsheet into which we entered all the descriptive words about the women that we used for our poster board for the research symposium. I really enjoyed making something substantial out of the things we were reading, to lay out visually what we had been reading.

Emi: After reading the books, we started on the actual firsthand accounts by the women. This structure from the more general to the very specific allowed for a very smooth flow of information. We could compare and analyze the primary source material against a stable timeline. Danielle did a great job organizing the material this way.

What sort of challenges did you encounter?

Courtney: I think doing the transcriptions. It is so much information to take in and then write down. It is time consuming even though the stories themselves are super interesting.

Lucie: Agreed. The transcriptions have so far work-wise been the most difficult. Emotionally, the most challenging aspect for me was reading texts about the experiences of some of the women who had been put into concentration camps. The material went quite into depth, and that was a hard thing for me to learn about.

Emi: The transcriptions have been challenging. But it is also great to hear the first-person perspective of the women, and to hear what they want to talk about and what not. It is a first-person narration that provides a very clear emotional gauge – the hard part is that we don’t see their body language we can just hear the nuances in their voices.

How many transcripts are you doing?

Emi: Each of us has about ten interviews to transcribe. They can be between 30 min and several hours long.

Lucie: All the transcripts are in English, but it is British English, and the women are using language and acronyms that are not necessarily familiar to me. Additionally, one of my women was French; she spoke in English but with a French accent. The accent has been a bit of a problem. We are working from audio files, and I can’t lipread which is what I would have done normally.

What advice would you give students interested in UROP?

Emi: Do it. It is a time commitment though, so if you are really busy with other things, then maybe not. The project has to be important to you because the research will demand some time. Looking specifically at students in STEM-based majors, it is really helpful as a first step in learning how to conduct research. So if research, experimentation, or psychological studies are going to be a part of your future plans, you should definitely do it.

Lucie: You have to be passionate about your project. You need to choose a project that you care about rather than one that might look good for your major. I came in as a political science major, and this project has nothing to do with it, but this is the project I wanted to do. I would be struggling ten-fold if I had picked a project connected to my original major, only because it was linked to my major.

Courtney: I agree with both Emi and Lucie. I want to educate people about the women we are working on. As a senior, I had done research projects before. But not something like we are doing. Crafting our own questions to analyze texts, that is not something I had done previously. So, even if you are a transfer student, I would strongly recommend applying for UROP.

Will you want to continue with research?

Emi: I just got recruited into working in a psychology study. While I had done some research before, being part of this project that is outside of my major has solidified my research ability and given me confidence to apply for this new psych project. So, yes, I will continue to be involved in research projects.

Lucie: I am definitely looking to continue with research – but in group settings. As part of my IB high school experience, I had to do a lot of individual research projects. While this research background helped me get into this project – I discussed with Danielle my women studies-based work, I did not like working on projects alone. Having this group setting in which we can discuss our thoughts and findings has really changed my mind about research. Having a mentor to help guide my work is good, but having a group of peers to work with is even better.

Courtney: This project has made me see that I would like to continue with research. I am actually thinking about doing an MA.

Any concluding words?

Emi, Lucie, Courtney: We want to thank Danielle for being a really good mentor. Having a doctoral candidate as a UROP mentor is nice because she is a bit closer to us in age. She sees things more from our perspective. Having a mentor who is very understanding in their guidance and encourages independence and self-growth has been very important. Thank you.