Date of Award

Spring 5-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


War and Society

First Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Keene

Second Advisor

Dr. Charissa Threat

Third Advisor

Dr. Kathryn Statler


The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established in 1940 under the directive of Winston Churchill to collaborate with resistance groups, divert enemy military advances and “set Europe ablaze!” As the world’s armies marched across the globe once more, dozens of women found themselves deployed by the SOE to act as agents and combatants behind enemy lines; effectively challenging traditional gender roles in war. While World War II has often been perceived as a man’s war, the direct and violent participation of women in various theaters of the war have been largely overlooked. Rather, women during WWII have been recalled as factory workers, nurses and mothers, all of which were crucial components in the war effort, but nonetheless conscribe to the traditional notions of the gendered war work hierarchy. In this hierarchy, superiority was defined as soldiering, but only for the men of a nation. As societal norms excluded women from this wartime role, nursing was the valued feminine position. Yet, female agents of the SOE were employed and valued for their claims to femininity as the organization co-opted stereotypes of womanhood to deceive enemy forces in occupied territory. This thesis explores the overarching question of what it means to be a woman in war, a perceived male-dominated sphere of influence. Even though research has expanded extensively on this important question, female SOE agents in France present a unique case study in which women were not only legitimized as combatants by a government, but were also recognized for the advantages of their femininity. Drawing from SOE documentation, personnel files, and personal accounts from agents, this thesis illustrates the elite combatant status of female SOE agents in France. By tracking their experience from recruitment, training, war work, and imprisonment, reveals how both their actions and legal terminology defined these women as combatants, although unlawful. The fascination revolving around female agents has persisted over the past seventy-nine years since the inception of the SOE. That said, the way in which these elite women have been recognized has shifted from combatants to spies, a subtle but important distinction in terms of wartime gender roles.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.



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