How easy it is to go through our days on remote control. Shut off the alarm, blow dry hair, grab the new purse, listen to an audiobook on the drive to the office.
Can you imagine replacing that alarm clock with a predawn phone call from your informant? Pulling on a wig over sleep-matted hair? Putting the audiobook that contains a coded message in the purse with the secret compartment, and making sure no one follows you on your drive to the dead drop?
Just another day for a woman spy who sets out to do her part to keep her country safe.
March is National Women’s History Month, set aside by our Congress to honor the achievements of women. It began as a weeklong celebration. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter described the reasons for the observance, harkening back to the original settling of our country: Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.
Most women spies still go unknown and unsung. For obvious reasons. When Valerie Plame was outed in 2003, her career was over, her contacts in jeopardy. A spy has to stay secret, even long after her service has ended.
A Navy poster from World War I warns servicemen to “Beware of Female Spies,” who were being so employed “on the theory that they are less liable to be suspected than male spies.”
As we researched the women for In Disguise!, we quickly saw why the Navy posted the warning. Women could often just be themselves, at social gatherings or in casual conversations, and ferret out the most classified, most hidden information. Belle Boyd charmed Union officers into giving her important military information that she carried to the Confederate side. Exotic dancer Josephine Baker socialized with Axis officers and diplomats in Paris, secretly working against Hitler during World War II. Quaker Lydia Darragh let British officers meet in her parlor in Philadelphia. One evening she overheard them planning a sneak attack on General Washington’s camp, some twelve miles away. She set out walking across icy country roads the next morning to deliver it herself.
She didn’t need an alarm clock to wake her, she hadn’t slept a wink!
Women who take on such a task, whether they are being themselves or deep undercover, face the danger of being caught. Why take the risk? Many of the spies were simply in the right place at the right time. Others sought out the adventure. They weren’t content to sit back and let things happen. They stood up for what they believed in.
Whatever the work we take on each day, we’re in it together. Celebrate the women in your past, celebrate your friends and colleagues, and celebrate those who continue to work in dangerous situations, unknown and unsung, for freedom.
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