Despite the popularity of characters such as James Bond and Jason Bourne, the world of espionage isn’t limited to just men. Throughout history, in fact, countless women have risked life and limb to serve their countries and the greater good. Whether they parachuted behind enemy lines or fought with the strength of five men, these 20 female agents deserve to be remembered for their extraordinary deeds.
1. Virginia Hall
As an ambitious young American woman, Virginia Hall hoped to join the United States Foreign Service. But a tragic accident — and, some would argue, her gender — prevented Hall from ever achieving this goal. Instead, she joined the Special Operations Executive during World War Two, working with the resistance in France. Dubbed “la dame qui boite,” or the lady who limps, on account of her prosthetic leg, Hall established a spy ring, earning herself the wrath of the Germans in the process.
But even though she was once forced to escape on foot across the Pyrenees Mountains, she was never caught. After the war, Hall was given the Distinguished Service Cross — one of just two women to receive the medal during the conflict.
2. Anne Dawson
Born in England to a Dutch mom, Anne Dawson traveled to German-occupied Belgium during World War One to serve as a British agent. One of only two female operatives to serve behind enemy lines in the war for Britain, she gathered information on military movements and passed it to the Allies — risking her life in the process. At the time, Dawson’s dual nationality and language skills made her a valuable asset to the British, but those talents would’ve made her a target as well.
Thankfully, she survived the war, receiving an MBE in 1920. In her later years, she went on to work for the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission, though the exact nature of her activities at the organization have never been revealed.
3. Elizabeth Van Lew
Born almost 50 years before slavery was abolished in her home state of Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist from a young age. And after her father’s passing, she devoted her inheritance to the cause. But it was when Civil War broke out in 1861 that this heroine really came into her own. Working for the Union, Van Lew established the Richmond Underground, a ring of spies working undercover in Confederate circles.
And she didn’t stop there. Once she received important information, she’d translate it into a cipher and transfer it out of the state — sometimes hidden inside hollowed-out eggs. And while some regarded her as a traitor during her lifetime, she’s seen as inspirational today.
4. Vera Atkins
Thanks to her privileged upbringing in Romania, Vera Atkins often rubbed shoulders with diplomats in the years prior to World War Two. And when the conflict broke out, she was enlisted by the Allies as a spy, charged with ferrying information from Europe to Winston Churchill himself. Later, she became part of the Special Operations Executive, continuing her career in espionage. Like many female spies, Atkins is said to have used her looks and charm to trick the enemy into revealing their secrets. But that wasn’t all.
As the war progressed, she found herself in charge of an entire unit of women operatives, supervising their missions out in the field. And according to some, she even helped persuade United States officials to enter the war.
5. Krystyna Skarbek
A member of the Polish aristocracy, Krystyna Skarbek was beautiful, charming, and — to those who knew her — the “bravest of the brave.” At the outbreak of World War Two, she tried to sign up to fight for the Allies, but was rejected because of her gender. So she then strapped on skis and crossed into occupied Poland via the Tatras Mountains, ready to work behind enemy lines. There, Skarbek joined forces with the resistance, spreading British propaganda and smuggling vital information out of the country.
On one occasion, she brazenly walked into a jail and persuaded the guards to release their prisoners — including a man who’d become her lover. Though she survived the war, Skarbek ultimately met a tragic end, murdered at the hands of a jealous admirer.
6. Nancy Wake
Dubbed the White Mouse by the Gestapo, Nancy Wake was an Australian who’d enjoyed a privileged life in France before World War Two broke out. But when conflict arrived on her doorstep, she rose to the challenge, initially driving an ambulance that she persuaded her husband to buy. Later, she used her wealth to establish an underground railroad, smuggling Allied servicemen to safety across the Pyrenees. When the Germans occupied France, Wake escaped to Britain, where she enlisted with the Special Operations Executive.
And for the rest of the war, she engaged in dangerous missions, parachuting behind enemy lines to aid the resistance. In Russell Braddon’s biography Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine, the author described her as “the most feminine woman I know — until the fighting starts. And then she is like five men.”
7. Belle Boyd
According to legend, Belle Boyd’s life as a rebel began when she shot an interfering Union soldier during the American Civil War. Now on the Yankees’ radar, she managed to turn the attention to her advantage, seducing at least one officer and passing confidential information on to the Confederate Army. At one point, she even rode through enemy fire to deliver a vital message to the Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, helping him to victory in Virginia.
But though she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor for her actions, her political passions must’ve faded over time. In fact, she went on to marry former Union officers on two separate occasions.
8. Josephine Baker
Before World War Two, American-born Josephine Baker was a popular entertainer in Paris, an icon of the Jazz Age. But when war broke out, she turned informant, charming German officers at parties and passing intelligence on to the French military. Later, she used her career as a cover to travel without suspicion, carrying classified messages penned in invisible ink. In 1941 Baker traveled to North Africa to continue her work with the French resistance, delivering intelligence between Morocco and Spain.
And even though she was eventually sent to London for her own safety, Baker’s espionage career inspired her to become a serious performer. After the war, she went on to become a leading figure in the American civil rights movement, considered by some the unofficial heir to Martin Luther King.
9. Violette Szabo
Paris-born Violette Szabo was living in London and working at a department store when the horrors of World War Two began. After marrying a French soldier, she spent the early years of the conflict as part of a women’s army defending home soil. But when her husband was killed, she signed up with the Special Operations Executive instead. Arriving by parachute in occupied France, Szabo — affectionately dubbed “La P’tite Anglaise,” meaning The Little Englishwoman — successfully gathered intelligence on damaged Allied equipment.
But during her second mission, she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Even under terrible duress, though, she refused to reveal her secrets. Eventually, she was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp, receiving a George Cross after her death.
10. Mata Hari
Perhaps the most notorious of history’s female spies is the woman known as Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who turned to espionage during World War One. Born Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, she fled an abusive marriage and traveled to Paris, where she was the mistress of a number of influential men. When war broke out, MacLeod’s exotic alias and globetrotting ways brought her to the attention of the French authorities, who persuaded her to turn spy.
But in 1917 she was arrested and ultimately executed for being a double agent, having allegedly betrayed secrets to the Germans. Today, though, many regard her as innocent of these crimes, and no conclusive evidence has ever been found to support her conviction.
11. Edith Tudor-Hart
The daughter of liberal politicians, photographer Edith Tudor-Hart fled her native Austria to escape persecution in the run up to World War Two. Settling in Britain, she used her art to make political statements, commenting on everything from industrial decline to the plight of refugees. But ultimately, her communist sympathies led her to seek out allies in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s Tudor-Hart became involved with the Cambridge Spy Ring, a group of informants who fed British intelligence to the KGB.
And despite actively recruiting members while under surveillance, she was never prosecuted for her actions. Instead, she lived a quiet life after the war, operating an antiques store before her death in 1973.
12. Corrie Ten Boom
Watchmaker Corrie Ten Boom had been the first Dutch woman to work in her trade prior to the Germans invading her home country in 1940. Though she and her family were Calvinist Christians, they opened their doors to Jews fleeing persecution, becoming part of the Dutch underground movement. And even as the Gestapo closed in, she hid refugees behind a false wall in the bedroom of her Haarlem home. Later, Ten Boom joined an underground railroad network, smuggling Jews out of the city to safety.
She was personally responsible for having saved some 800 lives by the end of the conflict. Arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, she was ultimately released, going on to support other survivors after the war. And in 1946 Ten Boom returned to Germany, forgiving the soldiers who’d ill-treated her family during their internment.
13. Odette Hallowes
The daughter of a World War One hero, Odette Hallowes was born in France but relocated to Britain with her English husband in the 1930s. When conflict broke out in Europe yet again, she trained with the Special Operations Executive to work for the French resistance behind enemy lines. And in November 1942 she arrived on the shores of Cassis. During her time back in France, Hallowes risked her life to attend air drops and transport supplies across dangerous terrain.
Later captured by the Germans, she refused to reveal confidential information — even under extreme distress. And though she then wound up incarcerated in Ravensbrück concentration camp, she lived to tell the tale. In 1946 she was awarded the George Cross, the first woman to receive the honor.
14. Noor Inayat Khan
Born in Moscow, Russia, Noor Inayat Khan was living in France with her family when World War Two began. After fleeing to England, the devout pacifist decided to join the Allies’ cause, signing up as a wireless operator with the Special Operations Executive. Reportedly, she felt unable to kill anyone — choosing instead to take one of the most dangerous jobs around. In June 1943 Khan was shipped behind enemy lines to operate wireless communications, the first woman to be dispatched to fulfill such a risky role.
There, her language and technical skills made her a valuable asset, until she was betrayed, captured, and sent to Dachau concentration camp. Executed during September 1944, she was given a posthumous George Cross in recognition of her heroism.
15. Pearl Cornioley
A British national born in France, Pearl Cornioley worked as a typist to support her family from a young age. At the outbreak of World War Two, though, she set her sights on the French resistance and was soon recruited to the Special Operations Executive. According to reports, she was the best marksman that her superiors had ever seen. Initially, Cornioley used her cover as a cosmetics agent to travel through France, delivering sensitive information.
But when her radio operator was taken out of action, she stepped up to replace him — eventually controlling a network of some 3,500 resistance fighters. Later, she turned down the offer of a Civil Division MBE in recognition of her work. Allegedly, she retorted, “There was nothing remotely ‘civil’ about what I did.”
16. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade
When the French resistance leader George Loustaunau-Lacau was arrested towards the beginning of World War Two, he nominated the young spy Marie-Madeleine Fourcade to take over in his stead. Married but estranged from her family, she threw herself into the war effort, constantly moving from city to city to evade capture by the Gestapo. At the head of a network of 3,000 resistance fighters, Fourcade, nicknamed Hedgehog, gathered vital intelligence for the Allies.
And while she was captured twice, she escaped to London and continued to direct her agents from across the Channel. Curiously, Fourcade wasn’t among the — mostly male — heroes whom Charles de Gaulle named after the war, though she received great praise following her death in 1989.
17. Lise De Baissac
When the Germans invaded in 1940, Mauritius-born Lise de Baissac fled Paris for Britain. Once there she signed up with the Special Operations Executive as soon as women were allowed. And two years later, she and Andrée Borrel parachuted into occupied France — the first female agents to embark on such a mission. In France, de Baissac was bold and brave, carrying out covert operations right under the Germans’ noses.
Befriending a Gestapo chief, she took lodgings with the enemy, hiding her subterfuge in plain sight. And along with her brother Claude, she was instrumental in the Allied invasion of France. Despite her risky activities, she survived the war and received an MBE in 1945.
18. Elaine Madden
Belgian-born Elaine Madden was 17 years old and engaged to be married when World War Two came to her hometown. Disguised as a soldier, she smuggled her way onto a boat during the Dunkirk Evacuation, escaping to safety in Britain. But before long, her desire to help her fellow countrymen put her on the frontline once more. Keen to do more for the war effort, Madden pursued a number of positions until she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive and parachuted back into occupied Belgium.
There, she collected intelligence on German rockets, passing it back to her handlers in Britain. Later, she’d state that her only regret was not getting involved sooner in the war.
19. Rose Greenhow
Before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Rose Greenhow was a socialite moving within influential circles in Washington, D.C. But when her husband died, she found herself drawn to the Confederate cause. Utilizing her connections, she became a spy, gathering intelligence about the Union Army and delivering it to generals in the South. Credited with helping the Confederates to a victory on the battlefield, Greenhow was eventually arrested and imprisoned — though she even continued her espionage from her cell.
On her release, she traveled to Europe, tasked with drumming up support for the American South. But on her way back, Greenhow’s ship ran aground. With a Union gunboat approaching, she attempted to flee in a rowboat but ultimately capsized and drowned.
20. Harriet Tubman
Born into a life of slavery, Harriet Tubman escaped her violent masters and fled to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1849. But rather than disappearing, she returned to her former home time and time again, risking her life to smuggle out family members and friends. Eventually, she became a vital part of the original Underground Railroad. For years, this network of secret safe houses and clandestine routes helped thousands of people flee enslavement and find safety in the free states.
But Tubman didn’t stop there. When the Civil War broke out, she began working as a spy for the Union Army, and ultimately led a successful armed raid that liberated some 700 slaves. Today, she’s one of America’s icons, a symbol of courage in the face of adversity.
21. Jane Kendeigh
U.S. Navy flight nurse Jane “Candy” Kendeigh from Oberlin, Ohio was just 22 years old when she boarded a flight to the Pacific island of Iwo Jima in March 1945. At the time American G.I.s were meeting bitter resistance from the occupying Japanese troops. That made Kendeigh’s arrival on the island a notable first. Never before had a Navy nurse landed on a Pacific island where fierce fighting was still under way. Eventually, Ensign Kendeigh and other colleagues would evacuate nearly 2,400 U.S. Marines who had been wounded in the Iwo Jima battle.
The nurses were specially trained to cope with battlefield casualties as they were evacuated from the island by air. In a 1985 story the The San Diego Union newspaper quoted Kendeigh’s words about the rewards of her work, “…wan smiles, a slow nod of appreciation, a gesture, a word – accolades greater, more heart-warming than any medal.”
22. Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko
Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a sniper with the Soviet Union’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, a Red Army unit, fighting the Germans who had invaded her country in 1941. At first the Soviet army had tried to steer her towards nursing. But she insisted that she was a crack shot and proved it by killing two enemy soldiers in an impromptu test of her skills. When Pavlichenko first went into combat, by her own admission she was rigid with fear.
But a young comrade was shot and killed beside her, and from then on she operated with a steely determination. She killed an extraordinary 309 of the enemy, making her the most prolific female sniper in history. A 2013 article in the Smithsonian Magazine quoted her attitude towards her cruel profession. Pavlichenko explained, “Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
23. Josephine Baker
Born into poverty-stricken circumstances in 1906 in St Louis, Missouri, Freda Josephine McDonald would later become the legendary dancer Josephine Baker. She came to the attention of the world after she arrived in Paris, France in 1925. Her risqué costumes and flamboyant dancing at the notorious Parisian nightclub the Folies-Bergère made her a huge star in France and elsewhere. But Baker’s glittering career came to a juddering halt in 1939 when WWII erupted across Europe.
The following year, Hitler’s troops invaded France. Baker knew where her loyalties lay and she began clandestine work for the French Resistance movement. She kept her eyes and ears open, passing on useful information she heard while performing and acting as a messenger for the Resistance. The French recognized her bravery after the war with two highly prestigious military awards, the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.
24. Queen Boudicca
Roman invaders arrived in the south of England in 43 A.D. One of the tribes they conquered were the Iceni. The leader of these people, who lived in what today is called East Anglia, was Prasutagus. The Romans decided to allow him to continue as king. But everything changed when Prasutagus died in 60 A.D. The Romans now opted to attempt to take over the Iceni fiefdom lock, stock and barrel. But the dead king’s queen, Boudicca, had other ideas. Enraged by ill-treatment of herself and her daughters at the hands of the Romans, Boudicca led her people in rebellion.
Under the queen’s command the Iceni warriors routed the Roman 9th Legion. The Iceni and other tribes then put Colchester, the Roman capital of England, to the torch and marched on London, destroying the city. Eventually, though, the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus crushed the revolt at what was later called the Battle of Watling Street in 61 A.D. Boudicca is said to have taken her own life with poison rather than be captured by her Roman enemies.
25. Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc as the French know her – was born in France circa 1412 into a peasant family in the north-east of the country. Although she could neither read nor write, she was deeply religious. The girl was born into a turbulent period of French history, the Hundred Years War with England. The English had seized a telling advantage by about 1420 and had denied Charles of Valois what many French regarded as his right, the royal throne. When Joan was just 13, a voice that she believed was a message from her creator implored her to lead her people against their enemies and to help Charles win the French crown.
Some years later, Joan did indeed lead an army, riding in full armor at its head in a victorious battle over the English at Orléans. Charles was duly crowned king of France. But Joan was captured soon afterwards by the English who took a terrible revenge, burning her at the stake as a witch. She was just 19 when she met her terrible fate.
26. Cut Nyak Dhien
Born in Indonesia’s Aceh Province in the northern part of the island of Sumatra, Cut Nyak Dhien is revered in her homeland for her resistance to Dutch colonialists. Her father, a military leader with the title of uleebalang – which translates as commander – and her first husband took to the jungle in 1873 to wage guerilla warfare against the Dutch. Abandoning a comfortable life, Dhien joined them. Tragically, both her father and husband were killed at the Battle of Sela Glee Tarun. Dhien now took over her father’s command, leading the resistance against the colonizers.
Surprisingly, Dhien and another commander, Teuku Umar who was now her husband, surrendered to the Dutch in 1875. But it was a tactical subterfuge. Having convinced the Dutch of their loyalty, they made off with a considerable amount of armaments and fighters. Now well-resourced, Dhien and Umar were able to mount effective resistance to the Dutch for many years. Eventually, Umar was killed in 1899 and Dhien was captured and exiled in 1901.
27. Gwenllian Ferch Gruffydd
Born circa 1100, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd was a Welsh princess. The offspring of Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynned, and his wife Angharad is regarded as a great hero by the Welsh for her resistance against English and Norman invaders. It was in 1136 that she led a group of patriots in rebellion against the occupiers. The Welsh gave the Anglo-Normans a beating at the Battle of Llwchwr on the first day of 1136.
But the Normans were determined to fight back and mustered a strong force to counter-attack the Welsh. Princess Gwenllian now embarked on a campaign of guerilla warfare against her country’s enemies. Dismayingly, her fate was sealed when she was betrayed by a supposed ally: the Normans captured her and put her to death. Still, the brutal slaying of the warrior princess enraged and inspired her people, and a successful rebellion forced the Anglo-Normans from much of Welsh territory.
28. Ruby Bradley
Ruby Bradley was serving with the U.S. Army Nurse Corps in the Philippines in 1941 when the Japanese invaded soon after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. She was taken prisoner and sent to the Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Apart from the trauma of being held captive by a hostile power, the worst thing about the camp seems to have been the chronic shortage of food. In a 1945 UPI press agency article one internee, Jean Hick, remembered, “Last Christmas we got a spoonful of jam each, and that was heaven.” Bradley made it her mission to help those suffering from malnutrition.
She smuggled food to the worst-affected prisoners and often went without herself so that others could eat. And all through the three years of her captivity she continued with her medical duties. She delivered 13 babies and carried out 230 vital operations. When the camp was eventually liberated by American soldiers in February 1945, Bradley registered just 84 pounds on the scales. Bradley continued as an Army nurse and, much decorated, she rose to the rank of colonel.
29. Deborah Sampson
Deborah Sampson was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, in 1760 into a family descended from the original Pilgrim Fathers. But that didn’t make them wealthy. Indeed, after her father was lost at sea, Sampson was indentured as a servant at the age of ten. At 18, she became a teacher, but it seems that her patriotic fervor dictated her next move. In 1782 Sampson disguised herself as a man so that she could join the Revolutionary Army fighting to free America from British colonial control. Taking the name Robert Shurtleff, Sampson succeeded in joining the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment and went on to fight with the Company of Light Infantry in New York.
She undertook dangerous missions such as scouting Manhattan for enemy positions. She led a force of some 30 men that ended up in hand-to-hand fighting with British loyalists, and she fought at the Siege of Yorktown. After two years her ruse was revealed when serious illness forced her into hospital. The Revolutionary Army gave her a well-deserved honorable discharge – and she even got a military pension.
Khutulun, born circa 1260, was a Mongolian leader whose military prowess became legend. The fact that the famous Mongol leader Genghis Khan was her great-great grandfather may go some way to explaining her leadership qualities. As a young woman, it’s said that she upset gender stereotypes by becoming an outstanding wrestler, defeating all-comers. In his Travels of Marco Polo, published in about 1300, the great Venetian explorer wrote about Khutulun.
He declared that she was “so strong, that there was no young man in the whole kingdom who could overcome her, but she vanquished them all.” When it came to battle, Khutulun liked to be in the thick of things, according to Marco Polo’s account. She would charge into the enemy soldiers, snatch one, and drag him off to her own troops. Sounds terrifying.
31. Nancy Wake
Born in 1912 in New Zealand but brought up in Australia, Nancy Wake traveled to Europe in 1932. She settled in Paris, France, where she worked as a journalist for the American press. As the 1930s rolled on, the reporter filed stories from both Berlin and Vienna, where she witnessed the rise of Hitler, whose fascism and vicious anti-Semitism repulsed her. After the German invasion of France in 1940, Wake and her husband Henri Fiocca, a prosperous businessman, joined the Resistance movement. Wake and Fiocca helped Allied airmen and Jewish refugees to escape the clutches of the Germans by spiriting them over the border to neutral Spain.
Eventually, Wake herself made the journey across the Pyrenees to Spain and on to Britain. There, she joined British special forces and was parachuted back into France. She worked with the Resistance, preparing for the 1944 invasion of Normandy. After D-Day, she fought against Germans as they attacked Resistance units. Not until France was liberated did she learn that the Gestapo had killed Fiocca in 1943.
Cynane, a half-sister of Alexander the Great, was born in about 357 B.C. and was the daughter of Princess Audata, an Illyrian, and King Philip II of Macedon. The Illyrians had a tradition of training their women as warriors, so Audata made sure that Cynane had military instruction and instilled in her the conviction that she could fight and indeed command just as capably as any of her male counterparts. Still only in her teens, she joined a military campaign to her mother’s homeland of Illyria. It’s said that she killed a queen called Caeria there, a woman that might even have been a relative. After Phillip II’s assassination in Aegae, the capital of his homeland, Alexander the Great took the Macedonian throne.
But in 323 B.C. Alexander died and was succeeded by his dim-witted half-brother Arrhidaeus. Cynane saw her chance to grab power. At the head of an army, she marched on Babylon with the aim of coercing the new ruler into a marriage with her daughter Adea, installing the young woman on the throne and ensuring Cynane had a position of influence and control. Yet, after winning a battle against her Macedonian rivals, Cynane was undone by the treachery of an old friend, Alcetus. He murdered her during a meeting.
33. Lilya Litvyak
After the Germans invaded in 1941, the Soviets had no hesitation in putting women into frontline combat positions – 800,000 of them eventually fought in WWII. One of those was Lilya Litvyak, who was a Muscovite born in 1921. Before the war she’d trained as a civilian pilot from the age of 14 and went on to earn an instructor’s certificate. But when she applied to join the Soviet air force, she was rejected for lack of experience. Undeterred, she applied again after doctoring her papers to add an extra 100 hours of flight time. That did the trick and she joined the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment, flying her first mission in summer 1942.
Soon, she was flying combat missions in the skies of Stalingrad and her first kills came in September, when she downed both a German fighter and a Junkers 88 bomber. More successes came her way and under the title of the “White Rose of Stalingrad” she became internationally famous. But on August 1, 1943, she was shot down on a mission, presumed killed. Astonishingly, her grave was not located until 1979 after a 36-year campaign to uncover the truth about her fate; she was posthumously awarded the title “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1990 by then-premier Mikhail Gorbachev.
34. Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan’s was born in 1914 in Moscow, to an American mother. Her Muslim father could trace his lineage back to a famed Indian ruler, Tipu Sultan, who died fighting the British in 1799. Khan was educated in Paris, France, and then went on to write children’s stories in the city. She and her family escaped to Britain in 1940 when the Germans invaded France. Once in Britain, Khan volunteered for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. This soon led to her recruitment as an agent by the secretive Special Operations Executive, the SOE. Khan was trained as a radio operator and was flown to France in June 1943.
There she connected with a resistance group in Paris. Unfortunately, many of its members were detected and captured soon after Khan’s arrival, but she continued doggedly with her mission. Although in October she was betrayed to the Gestapo, who arrested and tortured her, she refused to talk. In 1944 she was sent along with three other female SOE agents to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. All four were shot there.
35. Cathay Williams
Cathay Williams was born into slavery in 1844 in Independence, Missouri, and as a teenager worked as a house slave at a plantation near Jefferson City. When Union forces captured the city early in the Civil War in 1861 Williams took on the status of “captured slave.” But she volunteered her services to the Union army and worked in its catering section and doing laundry. In 1866 Williams decided to officially enlist under a different identity.
She became William Cathay and joined the 38th U.S. Infantry as a man after passing a rudimentary medical examination. That gave her the distinction of being the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Army. Indeed, the all-black regiment with whom she served became the basis for the legendary Buffalo Soldiers outfit; she was the only woman ever to serve with the unit. Her deception only came to light after a serious illness struck her down; she was honorably discharged in 1868.
36. Flora Sandes
Flora Sandes was without doubt one of a kind: she was the only British woman to fight on the frontline during World War I. Sandes was born in the northern English county of Yorkshire in 1876 and brought up in the Suffolk countryside, further to the south. Initially she signed up with the St. John Ambulance Service and was posted to Serbia. Having learned Serbian, after a year she moved to the Serbian Red Cross.
The Germans were making advances into Serbia and Sandes now signed up with the Serbian Army, a rare military force which allowed women to join and fight. She was wounded in action in a grenade attack, sustaining a broken arm and shrapnel wounds. Sandes rose to the rank of sergeant-major in the Serbian Army and was decorated by the grateful Serbs with the King George Star.
37. Susan Travers
Keen to have a go at the Germans in WWII, Susan Travers joined the Free French Forces as an ambulance driver with the 13th Demi-Brigade of the French Foreign Legion. She had been born in 1909 into a well-to-do family in London, England, her father a Royal Navy admiral, her mother a rich heiress. Still, Travers was happy to rough it with her comrades as they fought in French West Africa. Eventually, Travers ended up driving her ambulance in Eritrea where dodging bullets and mines was all in a day’s work.
She also saw service in the north African desert battlefields of Libya. At one point, the Germans were advancing and French troops had to evacuate. Travers led the way, driving her commander’s staff car under intense fire through the desert. Even this episode didn't mark the end of Travers’ war heroics: she saw further action with the French Foreign Legion in its subsequent Italian campaign and engaged in fighting on the Western front, when she was injured by a landmine.
38. Dr. Mary E. Walker
Dr. Mary E. Walker was already a rarity in mid-19th-century America: a female surgeon. But she wanted to go further, to become an army doctor fighting with the Union forces in the Civil War. Aged 29, she applied to the Union Army in 1861 but was refused permission to join. Undaunted, she gave her professional skills as a volunteer. After two years of service, her worth was finally recognized and the army accepted her as an assistant surgeon, serving with the 52nd Ohio Regiment. Dr. Walker was unlucky enough to be captured by the Confederates 1864 and held as a prisoner of war for four months in poor conditions.
Her bravery was recognized in 1866 when she was awarded America’s highest military accolade, the Medal of Honor. Bizarrely this was revoked by Congress in 1917 on the grounds that the medal was only for those involved in active combat. This injustice was finally rectified in 1977 when Walker’s decoration was reinstated, 58 years after her death.
39. Mariya Oktyabrskaya
Born in 1905 into a Ukrainian peasant family, 20 years later Mariya Oktyabrskaya met and married a Soviet artillery officer, Ilya Ryadnenko. The Soviets and the Germans were engaged in bitter fighting in the Ukraine during WWII and Maria’s husband was killed there in 1941. Grief-stricken but deeply angered, Oktyabrskaya was determined to take revenge on the Germans. She immediately applied to fight but her age, 36, counted against her, and she was rejected. As an alternative, Oktyabrskaya embarked on the improbable task of raising enough money to pay for a T-34 tank.
Somehow, she achieved her goal. Then she wrote to Joseph Stalin demanding that she should drive “her” tank. Incredibly, the Soviet leader agreed. In 1943 Oktyabrskaya became the first female Soviet tank driver, her vehicle named “Fighting Girlfriend.” She saw active service and killed many of the enemy. But in January 1944 Sergeant Oktyabrskaya, as she now was, sustained serious wounds in action. She died from her injuries in March.