By Mary Kathryn Barbier, Mississippi State University
In early December 2020, after a Second World War Research Group, North America meeting, Douglas Bristol sent me an email to remind me that I had agreed to write a blog for the Dale Center’s Reflections on War and Society, and I admit to a moment of panic because, while I have written books, articles, and book chapters, I have never written a blog. After an email exchange, Douglas and I decided that I would write about the source of inspiration for a future book project. We all come to our projects in different ways. Sometimes, an advisor suggests a topic that becomes the seed of a dissertation. On other occasions, you might read an article and are curious to learn more, and a research project is born. Hopefully, my path to a project will demonstrate why you should always be open to the possibilities of an idea.
Who was my source of inspiration?
Today, as I look outside on a beautiful, sunny day and anticipate the Saints vs Buccaneers playoff game, I should be reading Paul Kennedy’s Grand Strategies in War and Peace for my grad class. While I was doing laps in my house in an effort to complete my daily 10,000 steps, I started thinking about what I would write in this blog instead of focusing on the Kennedy book. What was my source of inspiration? Perhaps a better question is this. Who was my source of inspiration? I could just give you the short answer – Dennis Showalter – but then what would be the point of the blog? To get to the long answer, however, some background to Dennis’s role in the project is useful.
Six months after earning my PhD, I first met Dennis at a conference. He approached me after I had given my paper, and from that moment on, in typical Dennis fashion, he became my mentor for the rest of his life. I benefited from that relationship in more ways than I could say. Several years ago, Dennis called me with the suggestion for a book project. Although it was totally outside of my wheelhouse, I accepted the challenge, and the result was my last book, Spies, Lies, and Citizenship: The Hunt for Nazi Criminals. After the book was finished and I had submitted my application for promotion, I turned my attention to a project that had been on the back burner since 2014 – a short biography of Lily Sergueiew, who was a double agent for the British for about 7 months during World War II. I had already completed most of the research, and, because I wanted to see if there was any interest in the project, I focused on a formal proposal.
They followed their hearts
When crafting a book proposal for A Candle in the Wind: The Life of Lily Sergueiew, Double Agent, I wrote an introduction to the book in which I set her in the context of other women in the early to mid-twentieth century who did something that set them apart. They were women who broke society’s stereotypes about the role of women. I included pilots, journalists, and a governess, among others. When I finished writing the introduction, I sent it to Dennis for his feedback. The result of my email was a phone call from Dennis. After saying that he liked the introduction, he then, also in typical Dennis fashion, said that I had another book in the introduction. If I expanded the women, whom I included, I could write a book that focused on women who led amazing lives because they followed their hearts, not society’s rules about how women should behave. Dennis went a step farther and suggested other women, including some fictional ones, whom I might consider.
I will admit that I was surprised by Dennis’s suggestion because he knew that I was not a gender/women’s historian and that I would not take a gendered approach to a project such as the one that he was suggesting. Our minds, however, can work in mysterious ways. As I thought about what Dennis proposed, for some reason, a Frank Sinatra Song – “My Way” – came to mind. The verses end with “And more, much more than this, I did it my way.” Because I couldn’t get the song out of my head, I decided to incorporate it into the title of my future book project – Following Sinatra’s Lead: Determined Women Who Did It Their Way.
Women who were trailblazers
For different reasons, I find each of the women, whom I intend to include, inspiring. Some of them reached for the skies and became pilots, while others joined the military and went to war when few armies accepted women. I’m inspired by a war correspondent, who experienced the Spanish Civil War firsthand. One woman self-educated herself, became an expert on the Middle East, and disseminated propaganda in the region for the British during World War II, and another journalist, who published prolifically, became the concubine of a Chinese poet and an opium addict before supporting a British intelligence officer who was imprisoned by the Japanese. Each of these women, whether they considered themselves feminists or not, were trailblazers and deserve to be recognized as such.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Douglas Bristol. Writing this blog has allowed me to think about a project that has been on the shelf for too long and to become excited about it again. Like Frank Sinatra and the women who will grace the pages of this future book, they did it their way, and I will do it “my way” when I write about them. For any graduate students, who might read this blog, I will offer this advice. Don’t shut the door on a topic just because it might not fit neatly into your wheelhouse. While you won’t find Lucy’s Narnia, you never know what will happen if you walk through the door. You might find a project that will change your life or establish your career as a historian.
Mary Kathryn Barbier received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi in December 1998. She received a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from International Security Studies at Yale University. While at Yale, Barbier worked on two popular books. The first, Kursk: the Greatest Tank Battle Ever Fought 1943, has also been published in five other languages. The second, Strategy and Tactics: Infantry Warfare: The Theory and Practice of Infantry Combat in the 20th Century, was a collaborative effort with Andrew Wiest. In the summer of 2002, she attended a three-week seminar at West Point before starting an appointment at the University of Guelph, where she taught the US history survey and a War & Society course. Since accepting the position as an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University, she has published numerous books and articles, including a brief history of the US Army for fifth graders and D-Day Deception: Operation Fortitude and the Normandy Invasion (2007). Barbier is currently engaged in several research projects, including A Candle in the Wind: The Life of World War II Double Agent Lily Sergueiew, which is related to a recent publication, I Worked Alone: Diary of a Double Agent in World War II Europe (2014). Prior to her promotion to professor, she published Spies, Lies, and Citizenship: The Hunt for Nazi Criminals (2014). In January 2014, she assumed co-editor duties at War in History. She is also co-director of the recently established Second World War Research Group – North America (SWWRG-NA) and co-series editor of a six-volume cultural history of war.