Judging Women by their Agency

11 March 2019

Article originally published on the Andante Travel Website as an interview with Clare

Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency! The women of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, were special agents, recruited, trained, armed and sent to serve behind enemy lines coordinating, training and arming resistance circuits in Nazi-occupied countries alongside their male colleagues. The SOE was established in July 1940, following Winston Churchill’s injunction to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Yet the first female agent of the war, the Polish-born Countess Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, had demanded to be taken on by the British secret services six months earlier, and was in post before the end of 1939! Her achievements in three different theatres of the war showed how valuable female agents could be. Later more women were recruited as they were considered less likely to be stopped and searched than able-bodied men travelling around enemy-occupied countries. Around 39 women were sent into occupied France alone, to act as clandestine couriers and wireless transmitters – work for which they were told they could expect to be arrested, interrogated and executed within six weeks. Many stepped up to undertake sabotage and armed combat, and several became circuit leaders, organising armies of several hundred men. Thirteen would not return.

The women who were involved in this project, what would have given them the ‘edge’ to apply (or be recruited, if that was the case)?

Krystyna Skarbek was unusual in that she approached MI6 to be given a role. Women were usually recruited from other branches of the services when they were discovered to have valuable skills. All the female agents were great patriots with a strong sense of honour and duty. They were determined, ready to endure both stress and loneliness, and each was also incredibly brave. They shared certain skills too; the ability to think quickly and creatively under pressure, languages skills, physical fitness; and the ability to win support and generate loyalty. Yet there was no single ‘type’ of woman that made a good agent. They came from many different countries and faiths, some were young women, others mothers or grandmothers, one had an artificial leg. Beauty could be both a help and hindrance, as an attractive face might charm but was also more memorable. The popular idea that the female agents’ most important role was as a ‘honey-trap’, seducing the enemy into revealing their secrets, is mistaken. Although some did employ their charms to good effect, their most vital attribute was simply that they might be overlooked while getting on with a range of tasks from gathering intelligence to smuggling, and sabotage to transmitting radio communications.

What can guests on Historical Trips’ Women of the SOE tour expect from the experience?

This is a very special and personal tour that follows in the footsteps of several of the female special agents, some of whom did not return, but all of whom made a significant contribution to the Allied war-effort. As well as visiting a couple of small museums, and several public and some quite hidden memorials, family members of several of the special agents have supported the tour, opening up their homes, giving talks, and sharing their knowledge. I feel strongly that the contribution made by the women should be remembered respectfully, and their service honoured.

What do you think is important to consider, discuss or celebrate on International Women’s Day 2019?

I am often asked why I mainly write about women. While I would be delighted to write about the lives of interesting men, the fact is that there is still a rich seam of women’s stories waiting to be told, and plenty of information to be found that has been misfiled under ‘domestic’! Furthermore, all too often female special agents, in particular, are still presented primarily as beautiful and brave, rather than as effective. Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency!

What interests you so much about women involved in war?

Conflict requires societies to give of their all, even if this means defying previous societal norms. As a result, wars have provided many women with new opportunities, be it working on farms or in factories, as drivers or pilots, or behind enemy lines as special agents. My three books look at the responses of four very different women to conflict. The remarkable Eglantyne Jebb, who distributed aid in the Balkan conflict that turned into the First World War, later defied the law to set up Save the Children, and developed the pioneering concept of children’s human rights – permanently changing the way the world regards and treats children. Krystyna Skarbek was not only the first female agent of the Second World War, but also the longest-serving agent male or female. Brought up to marry well, she yearned for freedom, and was extremely effective when she had the chance to fight for it. Most recently, I have written about the only two women to serve as test-pilots for the Third Reich, one a fanatical Nazi, the other secretly in the German resistance. Their perspectives, choices and actions meant that they would end their lives on opposite sides of history. Perhaps paradoxically, in overturning established special norms conflict can be an enabler, as well as a force of destruction.

You must have experienced some really memorable moments over the years, thanks to your work as an author along with your various lectures and television/radio appearances, could you please share some with us?

I love my job. I am naturally nosy, and being a biographer gives me license to read private letters and diaries, and interview witnesses of the most extraordinary events from the past. My research has led me to sleep in my subjects’ bedrooms, and eat from their dishes – how good is washing up, could there be any DNA left on a plate? I have flown a glider in France, eaten breakfast with an assassin’s son in Germany, and in Poland I was once nearly arrested by the Gestapo… honestly, you will have to ask me when you see me!