Introduction

Throughout American history, espionage has played a major role in how this country evolved into the international power it is today. While a critical contributor to the creation and growth of the nation, spying and related intelligence gathering efforts have often gone unacknowledged.

George Washington, by some accounts the man who could not tell a lie, is credited with introducing America to the innumerable ways covert activities can be employed to defeat an enemy. During his time as commander of the Continental Army, Washington routinely relied on spies, codes, and tradecraft such as invisible ink (called sympathetic stain back then), to help him beat the numerically superior and better equipped British army. An untold number of the General’s valued field agents were “of the fairer sex."  

belle boyd, confederate spy during civil war
Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
LC-DIG-cwpbh-01988
Click on image to see larger view

 

 

Women have traditionally and in great numbers volunteered to help protect the nation. Besides enlisting in the military, women have effectively served in the shadowy world of espionage as couriers, guides, code breakers, intelligence analysts, even as covert agents—spies.

While spies and their stories naturally fade into obscurity, women operatives in particular have been largely overlooked by writers and historians. At least part of this reality can be traced to the secret nature of espionage work. Clandestine agents, both male and female, try
to “maintain a low profile” by blending in and
not standing out. Given the inherent dangers associated with a spy’s life, many—including women—died undercover, their true identities still a mystery.

Marlene Deitch
Marlene Dietrich's WWII record cover - During the war, she volunteered with the Office of Strategic Service’s Morale Operations unit, recording songs to lower German morale and to spread American propaganda.
Photo Credit: Linda McCarthy

As with other female professionals, women intelligence officers have risen above the conventional notion of gender-defined roles. They broke glass ceilings, many times by dynamiting them during undercover raiding parties.

Researchers are finding long forgotten records, attesting to the heroism and patriotism of these “shadow warriors." With this exhibit, the National Women’s History Museum honors the contributions of female intelligence officers throughout American history and the spirit and dedication characterizing their service.

nora slatkin
Nora Slatkin, first female
Executive Director of the CIA

Photo Credit: 64 Baker Street

To view the exhibit, click the next button on the bottom of each page, or jump ahead to a specific section (American Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Cold War, and Post Script) at any time by clicking on the buttons at the top.

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