The Lady Was a Spy
Exhibit Presents the Untold Stories of Women in Espionage
Listen to Susan Stamberg's report.
Before becoming a famous chef, Julia Child, seen here in 1944, worked for the OSS. She helped the U.S. spy agency develop shark repellent, a critical ingredient in protecting explosives used to sink German U-boats during World War II.
Photo courtesy Julia Child
Virginia Hall receives the Distinguished Service Cross from Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan, founder of the OSS, in 1945.
Photo courtesy Lorna Catling
The exhibit features tools of the spy trade, including this tiny and easily portable Minox Model C Subminiature Precision Camera used to photograph documents.
Photo: Linda McCarthy
April 4, 2002 -- During World War II, entertainer Josephine Baker helped the French Resistance by smuggling secret information written in invisible ink on her sheet music. Ironically, Baker's fame made it possible for her to complete her missions unnoticed, Linda McCarthy, curator of a new exhibition on female spies throughout history, tells NPR's Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition.
Passport checkers were so starstruck by Baker that they never suspected she was a spy. As she toured Europe, she and her entourage -- which included other members of the resistance -- were allowed to pass through.
"One thing about espionage, at its peak it's an equal opportunity employer," McCarthy says. "And there are times, quite frankly, where women can get into situations where men can't."
The National Women's History Museum exhibit, Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage, also features the story of another unlikely operative, Julia Child.
Decades before becoming a famous chef, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services. (The OSS was the predecessor to the CIA.) She was assigned to solve a problem for U.S. naval forces during World War II: Sharks would bump into explosives that were placed underwater, setting them off and warning the German U-boats they were intended to sink.
"So... Julia Child and a few of her male compatriots got together and literally cooked up a shark repellent," that was used to coat the explosives, McCarthy says.
Virginia Hall, known as the "limping lady of the OSS" because of her wooden leg, also played a key role during the Second World War. As the D-Day invasion unfolded, she worked with the French underground to cut electrical lines to telegraph offices, disrupting German communications. She received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest U.S. military award for bravery.
The exhibit also features the story of "355," a female member of the Revolutionary War-era Culper spy ring. She fingered Benedict Arnold as a potential traitor. The numerical code name stood for "lady," but her real name remains a mystery. "She did what she was supposed to do and faded into oblivion," McCarthy says.
The exhibit, which can be seen at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington Cemetery through December, includes the following spy tools:
"Dog Doo" Transmitter: "A homing device is only effective if it is undetected and undisturbed. The ingenious, albeit disgusting, disguise of this transmitter actively discourages the casual passerby from touching the item."
CIA "SOB" Sting Knife Set: "Self-defense items remind us of the dangers of a cloak-and-dagger life. These knives are worn in the Small Of the Back and are easily accessible in hand-to-hand combat situations. They have been specially weighted for throwing. "
World War II-Era Escape and Evasion Scarf: "Not only stylish, but also potentially lifesaving, these scarves were printed with maps. If an operative needed to plot an escape route, she could use these maps to find towns, roads, or steamer service routes."
The National Women's History Museum: Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage.
The CIA Museum.
Spy Letters of the American Revolution.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS): America's First Intelligence Agency.
The National Cryptologic Museum.