Spotlight on Women's History: Virginia Hall
Women have made significant contributions to the CIA mission throughout its history. One of the most dramatic examples is the career of Virginia Hall.
Hall was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1906. As a young woman, she acquired the language skills and displayed the intrepidness that would lead her to the front lines of intelligence gathering during World War II. After studying at Barnard and Radcliffe, she headed to Paris and Vienna in 1926 to finish her studies. She stayed on in Europe, intending to pursue a career in foreign affairs. However, Hall became ineligible for the Foreign Service when a hunting accident led to the amputation of lower left leg in 1933 and for the rest of her life used a wooden prosthetic leg. Until 1939, she worked in clerical positions for the State Department in Turkey, Italy, and Estonia. In Paris when war broke out in 1940, she volunteered as an ambulance driver until the French surrender. She moved on to London, where she secured a clerical job in the American Embassy.In London, Hall came to the attention of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was in search of agents to work with the French resistance in training, logistics, and sabotage. Hall arrived in Lyon in August, 1941 posing as a correspondent for the New York Post. Over the next 14 months, she helped downed fliers escape, provided courier services, and obtained supplies for clandestine presses and forgers, while filing articles for the Post to maintain her cover. During this time, German officials became aware of her presence and published her likeness on a wanted poster.
When the Germans seized all of France in November, 1942, Hall barely escaped to Spain by walking across the snow-covered Pyrenees. She spent the next year working for SOE in Madrid because the British believed it was too risky for her to return to France.
In 1944, Hall joined the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, in order to return to France. Disguised as an elderly female farmhand, Hall organized sabotage operations, supported resistance groups as a radio operator and courier, mapped drop zones, and helped sabotage German military movements. She helped train three battalions of Resistance forces to wage guerrilla warfare against German forces and kept up a stream of valuable reporting. Her work during this period is depicted in the painting, Les Marguerits Fleriront ce Soir, which hangs in the CIA’s Intelligence Art Gallery.
For her efforts in France, OSS chief General William Donovan personally awarded Hall a Distinguished Service Cross—the only one awarded to a civilian woman during World War II. The medal is currently on display in the CIA Museum’s OSS Gallery. Hall later worked for the CIA, serving in many capacities as one of CIA’s first female operations officers.
Details of Hall’s career remained unknown to the public for many years. With the release of British and American World War II records in the 1980s and 1990s, historians have begun to bring her remarkable story to light. To learn more about Hall, see Hayden B. Peake’s book review in Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 49, No. 4.