From pilots to spies, welders to cryptographers, and The Andrews Sisters to Betty Crocker, author Virginia Wright-Peterson tells the stories of Minnesota women during World War II in her book "A Woman's War, Too."
With women in every branch of the military, surviving concentration camps, and experiencing the destruction of the atomic blast at Hiroshima firsthand, the stories Wright-Peterson tells are sometimes harrowing, but always speak to the importance of remembering our wartime women.
Wright-Peterson’s interest in Minnesota women in World War II was piqued as she completed her research about women at Mayo Clinic for her first book, "Women of Mayo Clinic: The Founding Generation," which was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in 2017.
A writing teacher for more than 15 years, including as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Algiers, Wright-Peterson is currently on the University of Minnesota Rochester’s administrative team, but she’s also spent time deployed to a military base in Iraq with the American Red Cross.
Between her university career and spending time with her family, Wright-Peterson researched and wrote during weekend trips around the state. State and county historical societies, newspaper clippings, oral histories, documents from institutions like Hormel, and even scrapbooks were essential to her research. She also visited libraries in Boston and Maryland, and she used a large piece of poster board plastered in sticky notes to plan her narrative.
"A Woman's War, Too" includes detailed accounts of many different women’s experiences.
“I was committed to being as inclusive as I could be from a number of perspectives,” said Wright-Peterson, mentioning race, religion, social and economic status as perspectives she considered. “I included many women who advocated for peace, including a socialist who was imprisoned during the war for her activism against the war. I also wanted to include women from every region of the state, and I was fairly successful.”
Through her research, Wright-Peterson met several women who lived through World War II, including Helen Friedline, who was part of Navy intelligence efforts, and Anna Tanaka Murakami, who was born in Minnesota, but was growing up in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb exploded.
“I was grateful and humbled to be talking with them,” she said. “I am grateful to all of the family members — often children of these women — who shared information with me.”
While Wright-Peterson faced challenges finding information because of name changes or moves, she said the hardest part of her process was reading accounts of cruelty. Mentioning the experiences of Gisela Pieper Konopka, a Jewish woman involved in the German resistance movement who was confined in Nazi concentration camps, Wright-Peterson said, “the emotional impact of researching the cruelty endured by some women was difficult, more difficult than any of the research frustrations.”
In part, the book shows how World War II opened doors for women at the time.
“I think every woman (and man) today is indebted to the courageous, nonconventional actions taken by women during World War II,” she said. “They proved that women could be competent in roles that were unheard of for women up until then.”
Despite that progress, Wright-Peterson is still frustrated by how the war’s aftermath “perpetuated many gender and racial divides.” For instance, she cites the small percent of female commercial pilots today despite women’s excellent service as World War II pilots.
“For an inclusive, accurate history, we need all stories,” she said. “I don't want the stories to be lost.”
To learn more about Virginia Wright-Peterson and her books, visit www.wrightpeterson.com.