Marvel’s Peggy Carter may seem like a feminist re-imagining of history, giving us a woman who played the spy game as well or better than any man during World War II and later during the Cold War, helping to found and later becoming head of the secret organization known as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) But although the writers of “Agent Carter” have never mentioned it, Peggy’s career has many parallels to a real female spy of the era, Virginia Hall. One of the hidden figures of history, Hall is now recognized for her vital role in creating and directing the French Resistance against Germany, as well as developing many of the techniques of modern-day spycraft.
Peggy’s bio goes like this: she began her career as a code-breaker for the British at Bletchley Park, then joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret organization devoted to espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in German-occupied Europe. Her brains and strong personality helped her to not be seen just as a beautiful woman, but as someone to be respected. On one mission she rescued Abraham Erskine, the developer of the super soldier serum, and joined the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a fictional organization, unlike Bletchley and SOE) where she met and worked with Steve Rogers, the only successful super soldier candidate, who became Captain America.
After Rogers disappeared in the Arctic and the war ended, Peggy continued working for SSR. At first she was only given clerical assignments, but she began going on missions clandestinely. She helped the genius Howard Stark clear his name when he was accused of being a traitor, and the two of them founded S.H.I.E.L.D. In 1970 she was named the agency’s director.
Compare that story to the true story of Virginia Hall. A strikingly beautiful woman, she had no interest in settling for life as a wife and mother. After studying French, German, Italian, Economics, and politics at several universities in the U.S. and abroad, she applied to work with the State Department, but was repeatedly turned down. Eventually she got a job as a clerk with the Consular Service, working in Estonia, Turkey, and Warsaw. While hunting in Turkey, she tripped and accidentally shot herself in the foot; her lower leg had to be amputated after the wound became gangrenous and she nearly died. Further attempts to get a job with the State Department were rejected because of a rule against hiring people with disabilities. Desperate to be of use, as soon as war broke out she became an ambulance driver for the army of France; despite the pain of having to drive with a heavy wooden leg, she rescued many wounded soldiers.
Once the Germans occupied France, Virginia escaped to Spain where she met an SOE agent who was so impressed with her, he gave her the number of “a friend” in England. She was hired by SOE and sent back to France as an American journalist; as a citizen of a then-neutral nation she could move freely about the country. In the next 15 months she made thousands of contacts and recruited many French citizens to her spy network, setting up safe houses and communication lines for the nascent French Resistance and British spies. She was charming and people naturally trusted her, but she had to continually battle against jealousy and sexism from other agents who tried to take credit for or wanted to be put in charge of her organization.
One of the many things she did that they didn’t: she recruited women, include all the nuns at a Lyon nunnery that became a ‘safe house’ where the Gestapo never thought to look. She helped smuggle downed pilots out of France and, working with a Jewish woman named Gaby Bloch (who deserves her own book), helped 12 captured British agents escape from a prison camp and get back to England. Her contacts also provided valuable information for the war effort, such as locations of armaments factories.
Although she moved often and used different names, the Nazis eventually became aware of her. In time the “Limping Lady” made the top of the Gestapo’s Most Wanted list. She made her own daring escape, walking 50 miles in two days over the Pyrenees mountains to Spain in harsh winter conditions at the end of 1942.
Despite her entreaties, SOE would not send her back to France, claiming that she was too distinctive to be able to operate covertly. So Virginia took a course in operating a wireless radio and approached the American equivalent of the SOE, the Office of Strategic Services, who gave her the rank of second lieutenant and sent her back to France, this time to the Haute Loire region. She dyed her auburn hair grey and had her teeth filed down to make herself look like an old peasant woman. In addition to sending back reports to the OSS, she again built up a network of agents and directed many successful sabotage operations, working with the now-flourishing French Resistance known as the Maquis. Together they managed to drive the Germans out of the Haute Loire before the Allies arrived, the first area of France to be liberated.
After the war was over, she returned to the US and was hired at the CIA, the successor organization to the OSS, but her brilliance went unrecognized there, and eventually she resigned and retired.
She was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the British, the Croix du Guerre by the French, and the Distinguished Service Cross (the only one awarded to a civilian woman during WWII) by the Americans, but she refused any public ceremonies and never talked about her work. Yet interest in her has grown in recent years, and in 2016, a CIA field agent training facility was named for her; she is one of five people given a special section in the CIA Museum Catalog–the other four all being men and former directors of the agency. A woman of her time could not achieve that position, but Peggy Carter allows us to imagine what Virginia might have done if she’d been allowed full exercise of her powers.
To learn more about Virginia, read “A Woman of No Importance” by Sonia Purnell.