She was repeatedly rejected, belittled, patronized, and underestimated. Born in Baltimore on April 6, 1906, she spent her childhood summers milking goats.
She was expected to marry into privilege and settle into the role of wife and mother, according to A Mighty Girl.
But, she had other ideas.
She at first wanted to become a diplomat, but women accounted for only six of the 1,500 U.S. diplomats at the time and she was repeatedly rejected.
After an accident in Turkey, she lost her left leg below the knee,” according to Intel. “She was fitted with a wooden prosthetic leg, which she affectionately nicknamed ‘Cuthbert.’”
Because she was a woman, she was rejected by the United States Foreign Service. Because she had a disability, she was turned down by the Department of State.
So, she did what many women and people of color did during that time – she went to France, where she became an ambulance driver at the start of World War II.
After meeting a British Intelligence Officer, she joined the newly-created Special Operations Executive (SOE), becoming the second female agent to be sent to France.
“After limited training, this one-legged American woman was among the first British spies sent into Nazi-occupied France in 1941,” according to NPR. “She posed as a reporter for the New York Post.”
Her name was Hall, Virginia Hall.
She was the “real-life female James Bond,” wrote Dusica Sue Malesevic.
She “was the baddest broad in any room she walked into,” according to the Hartfield Book Company. “When the State Department proved to be a sexist boys’ club that wouldn’t allow her in, she gave the finger to society’s expectations of women and became a spy for the British.”
She is “one of the most important American spies most people have never heard of,” according to NPR.
This is part of a continuing series on the Peace Page for Women’s History Month.~~~~~“The odds of success, let alone survival, were not high for Virginia Hall when she was sent to spy behind enemy lines during World War II,” according to Sonia Purnell, author of Hall’s biography.“
No one in London gave Agent 3844 more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days,” wrote Purnell. “For all Virginia’s qualities, dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble.”
But, Hall “proved exceptionally adept at eluding the Gestapo,” according to A Mighty Girl.
“She learned how to change her appearance within minutes depending on whom she was meeting,” Purnell wrote. “Altering her hairstyle, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, putting on glasses, changing her makeup, wearing different gloves to hide her hands, or even inserting slivers of rubber into her mouth to puff out her cheeks: it all worked surprisingly well.”
She “emerged as a fearless guerrilla leader who helped liberate whole swathes of France,” according to Time.
“She armed and trained three battalions of French resistance fighters for sabotage missions that helped paved the way for the Allied invasion,” according to A Mighty Girl. “One of her many radio reports shows the breadth of her missions; in it, she states that her team has destroyed four bridges, derailed freight trains, severed a key rail line, and downed telephone lines. By the war’s end, Hall had spent over three full years operating undercover behind enemy lines and, in the words of an official British government report at the end of the war, she was ‘amazingly successful.’”
“There’s a saying that the actress Ginger Rogers did everything her on-screen dance partner Fred Astaire did except backwards and in heels,” according to writer Raquel Laneri. “Well, Virginia Hall . . . did everything that the fictional James Bond would do, except in real life and with one leg.”
She also “masterminded jailbreaks for captured agents, mapped drop zones, reported on German troop movements, set up safe houses, and rescued escaped POWs and downed Allied pilots.” “She was able to play on the chauvinism of the Gestapo at the time,” said Craig Gralley, a retired CIA officer who has written his own book about Hall — a novel, “Hall of Mirrors”. “None of the Germans early in the war necessarily thought that a woman was capable of being a spy.”
“When James Bond was still in diapers, Virginia Hall was behind enemy lines, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Hitler’s henchmen,” according to the Hartfield Book Company, which published “Code Name Badass: The True Story of Virginia Hall” by Heather Demetrios.“
The Nazis called her ‘La Dame Qui Boite,’ the lady who limps,” according to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. “Hunted by Gestapo Chief, Klaus Barbie (“The Butcher of Lyon”), [Hall] had to make a harrowing last-minute escape over the snow-capped Pyrenees, dragging her prosthetic limb, ‘Cuthbert’ behind her.”
“Barbie ordered ‘wanted’ posters of Hall that featured a drawing of her above the words ‘The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy — We Must Find And Destroy Her!’, wrote Greg Myre of NPR.~~~~~“Hall was rewarded by becoming the only civilian woman of the war to be decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism,” according to Time. She was also made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) and was nominated for the French Croix de Guerre, according to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
After the war, Hall “joined the newly formed CIA, which succeeded the OSS, and worked there for 15 years, mostly at headquarters.”
British author Sonia Purnell wrote Hall’s biography, titled, “A Woman of No Importance”.
Explaining the irony in the title, Purnell said, “Through a lot of her life, the early life, she was constantly rejected and belittled. She was constantly just being dismissed as someone not very important or of no importance.”
“I do think that she became America’s greatest spy of World War II,” Gralley said.
“Virginia Hall, of Baltimore, became our country’s first and arguably greatest spy of the Second World War,” according to the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. “During the course of her astounding career, and despite a significant physical disability, she served as an intelligence officer for the British Special Operations Executive, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, and the Central Intelligence Agency.”
“CIA officers have said that the techniques she developed 80 years ago to build up the French Resistance still inform the agency’s missions today, including Operation Jawbreaker in Afghanistan before and after 9/11,” according to Time.
“Her story is on display at the CIA Museum inside the spy agency headquarters in Langley, Va. — but this is off-limits to the public.” “She was the most highly decorated female civilian during World War II,” said Janelle Neises, the museum’s deputy director.
“She was a woman very much ahead of her time,” said Judith Pearson, author of “The Wolves at the Door,” about Hall’s World War II activities.
Years later, when admirers talked about her adventures, Hall would simply reply, “Not bad for a girl from Baltimore.”
Take that, James Bond.