Skip to the end to watch the video.
From spies to factory workers to bomber pilots to snipers, women filled all kinds of essential roles during wartime, and the courage, skill, and determination of these fifteen amazing women ranks them among the baddest asses of them all.
1. Virginia Hall — Allied Spy
The Nazi secret police organization the Gestapo once labeled her as the most dangerous of Allied spies, and she appeared on wanted posters with a reward offered a reward for her death. Her codename was Germaine, her alias was Brigitte LeContre, but her real name was Virgina Hall, and she was truly badass.
Did we mention she also only had one leg?
Originally an American diplomat, her intelligence, moxie, and ability to speak five languages made her the idea spy. The British recruited her and sent her into France under the cover or being a journalist.
She spent over a year operating in German-occupied Vichy France, and along with her wooden leg she’d nicknamed Cuthbert, Hall did everything you would expect from a superspy: she blew up bridges, helped downed Allied pilots, recruited resistance fighters, organized jailbreaks, and generally raised the badass bar to the highest level.
Then her cover was blown, and after escaping to Spain and then home again, the Americans sent her back to Paris where she spent a few more years operating under cover.
After the war, she was recruited into the fledgeling CIA where despite her experience and success as a field agent, she was slotted into the usual role held by women at the time: a desk job.
2. Jacqueline Cochran — Aviator
She may be best known as the first woman to break the sound barrier, but Jacqueline Cochran did a whole lot more than that. She originally learned to fly as a way to be more competitive with her beauty products business, but aviation soon became her passion and she became a successful air racer.
When WWII broke out, she proposed creating a women’s flying division, and after being the first woman to fly a bomber over the Atlantic, she became the first director of the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) program. Stationed in England, she trained female pilots for the duration of the war, earning the US Distinguished Service Medal for her efforts.
After the war, she continued to fly and race, setting new records all the time. After breaking the sound barrier, she worked with NASA to test the feasibility of women as astronauts in the Mercury space program.
3. Sophie Scholl — German Dissident
Not all heroes have happy endings, and poor Sophie Scholl’s story is as tragic as they come. Born in Germany in 1921, when she was 14 the ruling Nazi party passed the Nuremburg Laws, which among other things began the official persecution of Jews. Her opposition to this started her on a path of rebellion against the Nazis that would ultimately be her doom.
After WWII began, she joined the White Rose movement, an anti-Nazi group. In 1943, she and her brother were caught distributing anti-war propaganda leaflets, interrogated for four days, and found guilty of treason.
She was executed the next day by guillotine.
Although her time was short, she became a symbol to the German anti-war movement, and inspired many to take up the fight at home against the Nazis.
4. Susan Travers — French Foreign Legion Soldier
Susan Travers was bored with her life. Born to well-to-do English parents, she was educated in France and spent her young years gallivanting around Europe. That is, until WWII changed all that.
Seeking a little adventure, she joined the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. After France fell she was back in England, and bored again. So she joined the Free French legionnaires in Africa as a nurse and eventually as driver to one of its leaders, General Koenig. She also became his lover.
During Rommel’s rampage across North Africa, she helped the General escape through enemy lines. She won the Criox de Guerre for her bravery in the face of several barrages of intense artillery fire, numerous bullet strikes of her vehicle and pitch blackness” as she drove Koenig to safety.
In 1945 the Free French legion was being demobilized, and Travers didn’t’ want to leave. Life back home with her family would be too dull. So, even though she was a woman, the French Foreign Legion recruiting officer signed her up.
She was the only woman to ever be a French Foreign Legionnaire.
5. Faye Schulman — Partisan Fighter
Faye Schulman was born a Jew in Poland. In 1942, when she was just 23 years old, the Germans killed her entire family, but left her alive because she was a skilled photographer. They made her develop their photos of the massacre.
She later escaped and joined up with a group of Soviet freedom fighters, whom she worked with as a nurse. Her only medical credentials were that her father had been a doctor. But since the group’s own doctor was a veterinarian, that was good enough.
During a raid on her old home, she liberated her photographic equipment, and over the next few years she took some of the most striking images of the war, capturing some of the only scenes of the Jewish and Russian partisans ever taken.
6. and 7. Francis Wills and Harriet Pickens — Naval Officers
Francis Wills and Harriet Pickens were two very special women. To be the first African-American women commissioned as officers in the United States Navy, they had to be.
Before the war, Frances Wills earned an MA in social work, and helped place children in foster homes at an adoption agency. Harriet Pickens was a public health administrator with her own Master’s degree in political science. She was also the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP.
At the time, all branches of the US military were racially segregated, and no service fought the growing calls for desegregation more than the Navy. Yet the determination and sheer awesomeness of these women helped break down the racial barriers, and earned them a place in the history books.
8. Veronica Lake — Actor/Icon
The 20th Century was a time of great change for the role of women in society, and World War II was one of the most pivotal periods. With so many men mobilized overseas, for the first time it fell upon the shoulders of women to keep the industrial engine churning.
Thousands of women went to work in factories, which was a very different workplace than what they were used to. The long hair that women typically wore proved to be a hazard around the heavy machinery, prone to getting caught in the works; this was a danger to the woman and caused costly delays in production.
One of the biggest movie stars of the time was the glamor icon Veronica Lake, whose flowing blonde “peek-a-boo” tresses helped drive the fashion of long hair. Upon learning of the dangers caused by long hair in the factories, Lake famously and very publicly changed her hairstyle to something shorter and more practical, a signal to the working women that it was okay to do the same.
While it served as an inspiration and Lake’s patriotism was praised, the decision to cut her locks may have damaged Lake’s career. After the war, Paramount declined to renew her contract.
9. Gertrude Boyarski — Partisan Fighter
When the Germans invaded her Polish home, Gertie Boyarski and the other Jews were forced into a ghetto. That is, until the Germans started to slaughter the Jews. Boyarski and her family were lucky, and managed to escape into the woods and join a partisan group. But the luck was short-lived, the partisans were hunted down, and soon only Gertrude remained alive.
She found another partisan group, persuaded them to let her join, and took revenge on her family’s murder by ferociously attacking any German soldier she could. After three years with the partisans, Gertrude and her friend set off to destroy a bridge used by the Germans. It was meant to honor International Woman’s Day. Both girls were still only teenagers at the time.
After forcing some local villagers at gunpoint to provide them with fuel and straw, they set fire to the wooden bridge. Even though they were being shot at by German soldiers, Gertrude and her friend were determined to see the bridge completely destroyed, so they stuck around, grabbing pieces of burning bridge and throwing them into the water until the deed was done.
10. Nancy Wake — Allied Spy
The Nazis called her the White Mouse, put a 5 million franc price on her head, and considered her the Gestapo’s Most Wanted. Not bad for a girl from New Zealand who came to France when she was 16.
Nancy Wake began her career in the resistance as a simple courier, but in time became one of the most important Allied spies. She headed up a group of 7000 resistance fighters and led numerous attacks on the Germans in occupied France. For her efforts she was awarded some of the highest honours from England, France, and the US, as well as being made Companion of the Order of Australia.
After the war, she returned home to Marseilles to find that her husband had been tortured and killed by the Germans for refusing to give her up.
11. Nadezhda Popova — Bomber Pilot
The Eastern Front witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War, and some of the fiercest of those fighters were the Russian women who dared to take crop duster airplanes made of canvas and plywood, attach a bomb under each wing, and fly thousands of missions into German territory. All in the dead of night.
The Nazis called them Night Witches, because the eerie sound of the flimsy planes reminded them of brooms in the dark.
One of the most successful Night Witches was Nadezhda Popova, who flew 852 missions in her bumbing career. She was shot down several times, but always came back for more.
12. Hedy Lamarr — Inventor/Actor
At one time, she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Who cared if she could act (she couldn’t, not well anyway), with jet black hair and porcelain skin, this real-life Snow White (her mother’s nickname for her) lit up a movie screen.
And, secretly, in her spare time, she fiddled around with some science.
This was during World War II, and she had something of a hate-on for the Nazis. Born in Austria, her first husband was a very rich man, and a Nazi sympathizer who used to have people like Hitler and Mussolini over for dinner. He also kept her locked in his castle until she managed to escape…all the way to Hollywood.
And it was there where, among other things, she invented something called at the time a “Secret Communication System.” It was frequency-hopping technology intended to help with the war effort, but was a bit ahead of its time. It did, later on, help missiles go undetected, as well as enable some of today’s sexiest technology like cellphones and wifi.
Who says beauty and brains can’t go together?
13. Violette Szabo — Allied Spy
Violette Szabo wanted a way to get revenge on the Nazis for killing her husband, a French Foreign Legionnaire, so when Winston Churchill started the Special Operations Executive — the British wartime spy agency — she found a way to join.
Leaving her young daughter with her parents, Szabo went to France as a spy and saboteur. After a successful first mission, she went back to France the day after the Normandy invasion to disrupt German communications.
Three days later, she found herself on the run with a young French resistance fighter and facing a German roadblock. Telling her companion to make a run for it, she held off the Nazis for half an hour with her machinegun. Long enough for him to get away.
She was not so lucky.
Captured by the Nazis, she eventually ended up in a Concentration Camp. As the end of the war approached, the Germans attempted to cover their tracks by exterminating as many prisoners as they could. Although thousands of survivors were liberated by the Red Army, Szabo was not one of them. She had been executed behind the crematorium at the prison a few days before the Russians arrived.
14. Veronica Foster — Factory Worker
Everyone today has seen the image of Rosie the Riveter, the fictional, bicep-showing factory worker who told American women “We Can Do It,” but few among us know of her Canadian predecessor, Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl. Unlike Rosie, Ronnie was a real person.
Veronica “Ronnie” Foster worked in a factory in Toronto producing Bren Light Machine Guns, one of a million Canadian women who kept the manufacturing plants going while the men went off to war.
A famous image of Foster wearing her factory coveralls with a kerchief around her hair, smoking a cigarette as she posed with her not-at-all-phallic Bren Gun, became an inspiration for countless women working at home. It also made her something of a sex symbol with the boys overseas.
15. Lyudmila Pavlichenko — Soviet Sniper
It’s a strange but true fact that one of people the Germans on the Eastern Front feared the most was a teenaged mother. But it’s understandable when you consider that this young woman was responsible for the deaths of over 300 soldiers, each one the result of a single pull of her sniper rifle’s trigger.
Called Lady Death by the Soviet press, she was the deadliest female sniper ever.
As her fame spread, she was sent on a new mission: to build support for the war overseas. In America. There she forged an unlikely bond with none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
- She was a Post columnist — and a heroic WWII spy
- Jacqueline Cochran Biography
- Sophie Scholl Biography
- A Legionnaire, She Was Never Timid In Amour or War
- FAYE SCHULMAN
- First Black Female Naval Officers: Frances Wills, Harriet Pickens
- During WWII, Veronica Lake changed her trademark peek-a-boo look to encourage factory workers to adopt safer hair styles
- Gertrude Boyarski
- Farewell to Nancy Wake, the mouse who ran rings around the Nazis
- Nadezhda Popova
- Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Ecstasy of Hedy Lamarr
- Behind Enemy Lines With Violette Szabo
- Ronnie, The Bren Gun Girl
- The life and myths of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Soviet Russia’s deadliest sniper