Women Who Risked Everything: Female Spies of World War II

Deborah Savage, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Collage of books about female spies during World War II
Women played a vital role in the success of the Allies during WWII, both officially and unofficially

World War II required an enormous number of troops and personnel throughout the world. The unrelenting demand for labor opened up new opportunities for women. For the first time, the United States military established separate branches for women. World War II also enabled women in the United States and abroad to formally work in a field previously reserved for men: espionage.

England led the way with female spies when they established the Special Operations Executive in 1940. The SOE built a resistance network in Europe to engage in espionage and sabotage. Many women were recruited and became spies. It was believed that women were less conspicuous and were less likely to be stopped and interrogated. Female SOE agents were successfully working in France as couriers and wireless operators.

In 1942, the United States established the Office of Strategic Services as the first independent American intelligence agency. The purpose of the OSS was to gather intelligence and engage in espionage. Based on the success of female intelligence employees in the SOE, women were discreetly recruited to process top-secret transmissions from the field and engage in other matters of classified intelligence. A small number of elite female agents were sent overseas to work in the field, and many of them were trained at SOE intelligence schools. Perhaps the most famous female OSS employee was Julia McWilliams, who worked her way up from secretary to senior intelligence officer. During an overseas post in Ceylon, she met fellow agent Paul Child. The two eventually married, and Julia later gained international fame as a chef.

Beyond these official espionage posts, numerous women around the world joined resistance movements. They bravely engaged in covert operations, such as spying, transporting weapons and supplies, and helping people escape. Women played a vital role in the success of the Allies, both officially and unofficially.

Recommended Reading

Code Name Madeleine: a Sufi Spy in Nazi-Occupied Paris
Magida, Arthur J.

Born in Moscow to an Indian father and an American mother, Noor Inayat Kahn was raised in Paris and London. She joined the SOE and worked as a wireless operator behind enemy lines in Paris. She refused offers of evacuation and remained on duty in the face of grave danger, providing the last link between Paris and London.

I Worked Alone: Diary of a Double Agent in World War II Europe
Sergueiew, Lily

Lily Serguiew convinced German intelligence to hire her. She then made herself available to British intelligence, working as a double agent for the MI5 under the code name “Treasure.”

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win WWII
Purnell, Sonia

American Virginia Hall became an agent for the SOE and was the first Allied woman to be deployed behind enemy lines in France. She worked very closely with the French Resistance. As the Germans hunted her, she escaped France over the Pyrenees mountains. She hiked fifty miles through heavy snow…with a wooden leg.

Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS
McIntosh, Elizabeth P.

The author, a veteran of the OSS and the CIA, tells the stories of 100 women who served in the OSS during World War II.

Cast No Shadow: The Life of the American Spy Who Changed the Course of World War II
Lovell, Mary S.

A glamorous American married to a British diplomat, Betty Pack was recruited by both the British Secret Intelligence and the OSS. Time magazine called her the Blonde Bond in her obituary.