SHE-LOGY: This post is dedicated to all the women who never got the chance to be recognized for their achievements because they had to hide their gender. Women in history who had to pretend to be a man to be able to attend university, or to publish their work, or to work in a male-dominated field, or to serve in war as soldier or spy.
This is a post featuring 3 remarkable women undercover.
ELIZABETH JANE COCHRANE.
Elizabeth is better known for her pen name, Nellie Bly (who was previously featured in the She-logy post MARY GERTRUDE NELLIE). She was a journalist who became sensational through her groundbreaking exposé of a mental institution’s system. This made her a pioneer in the field and launched a new kind of investigative journalism.
She took an undercover assignment where she feigned insanity so she would be committed to an asylum and experience firsthand the rumored cruelty and overall neglect of patients. Her report, which was later published as Ten Days in a Mad-House, launched an investigation into the conditions at the mental institution. She was asked to assist a grand jury where her proposed changes were recommended and eventually led to an increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.
Norah is a writer whose book “Self-Made Man” narrates her 18-month experiment where she disguised herself as a man. She went all-in with the undercover — from fake stubble and fake male genitalia to lifting weights, joining an all-male bowling club, and dating women. It is another example of a work of investigative journalism, although it is not intent on reporting an exposé against the male population. It is more of providing (an entertaining) glimpse into the male world through her firsthand experience.
It was said that it took her a year and a few trips to different hospitals to get the male character out of her system.
I initially included Nancy in this list because she was a remarkable “spy” who was known for being so skilled in covering up her identity, allowing her to escape many times from the Gestapo. But as I read about her life, I found out that there’s so much more about this notable woman (hence the unusually long description that follows).
Nancy was best known as the White Mouse, a nickname given to her by the Gestapo for her ability to elude capture. This British secret agent, born in New Zealand and dubbed “Australia’s Greatest War Heroine“, was the Allies’ most decorated servicewoman of WWII.
In the mid-1930s, she visited Germany to report on the rise of fascism and to interview Hitler. When she witnessed Nazis randomly beating up Jewish people on the streets of Vienna, she was so horrified, she vowed to do everything in her power to rid Europe of the Nazis.
In 1940, she became a courier for the French Resistance and helped organize a successful escape network for Allied soldiers out of the Nazi-invaded France and into Britain. Shortly after (1943), she became the Gestapo’s most wanted person with a 5 million franc bounty on her head.
She repeatedly slipped through the Nazi traps, using her femininity as an advantage: She would flirt her way out of trouble. And her German pursuers assumed that this woman who was so skilled at escaping them must be “a butch matron“, and not the very attractive woman that she actually was.
While attempting another escape, Nancy was arrested in Toulouse during a random round-up. After four days of torture and interrogation, she was released with the Gestapo never finding out her true identity. Wake made several more attempts to escape into neutral Spain, but was thwarted each time by German patrols. At one point, she jumped from a train window while dodging bullets. Finally, she successfully escaped into Spain buried in the back of a coal truck.
Less than a year after this escape, she arrived in Britain and was recruited to be an agent of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), where she did so well in her training. By April 1944, she parachuted into France, where she recruited and led about 7,000 resistance fighters and coordinated attacks against German installations and one local Gestapo Headquarters, before the D-Day landings.
During the violent months preceding the liberation of Paris, Wake killed a German guard with a single karate chop to the neck, executed a female German spy, shot her way out of roadblocks and biked 70 hours through perilous Nazi-controlled zones to deliver radio codes for the Allies. (Source: History.com)
Nancy is definitely the fiercest female I’ve ever known through the She-logy project. Her story is like a sequel of Missions Impossible and she could easily be a female James Bond. There are so many ways to learn more about her — a number of books, autobiography, articles, and shows. There was a 1987 made for TV movie titled “Nancy Wake” (“True Colors” in the U.S.), but she criticized how the film portrayed her, particularly her cooking breakfast for the men or being romantically involved with another resistance member. The feisty and outspoken Nancy reacted:
“For goodness sake, did the allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men?
There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money, and even if there had been, why would I be
frying it when I had men to do that sort of thing?”
I wish they make a new movie highlighting this extraordinary woman.
(Sources: Wikipedia, and others mentioned and/or linked above.)
SHE-LOGY is a blog project open to everyone who is interested to celebrate women this whole month of March. If you’re reading this, I extend that invitation to you to contribute post/s about the women you’d like to honor. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading this.