Interview with Sarah-Louise Miller on Writing about Women in Wartime and Intelligence

This week, The Footnote interviewed Dr. Sarah-Louise Miller, an experienced historian, author and media consultant, specializing in Second World War history. She is currently based at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, and is a tutor at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. She has recently published The Women Behind the Few; The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and British Intelligence During the Second World War and is due to publish Women in Allied Naval Intelligence in the Second World War: A Close Secret in 2024 and Hawaii’s Women at War in 2025. 

In The Women Behind the Few, Miller highlights how historical records, which are mostly recorded by men about other men, tend to completely omit or misrepresent women and their work. Historians Christopher Andrew and David Dilks reflect how intelligence is the “missing dimension” from political and military history. Within this dimension, there is another missing dimension—that of women. Miller’s study covers the “missing missing” dimension. In The Women Behind the Few, Miller highlights how “war, the great destabilizer of the 20th century, necessitated military experimentation…the British government appealed to women to step into military roles previously unavailable to them.” Despite this, the War Office made it clear that women under these “special concessions” were not soldiers, but ‘workers,’ ‘amazons’ or ‘camp followers.’ Moreover, women were not considered “wholly capable of intelligence work, even as clerks and secretaries.” Historically, women have been considered untrustworthy and incapable of keeping secrets, and Miller’s work subverts these enduring assumptions. 

What inspires you most when writing a book, and what methods do you use to help bring history to life? 

Sarah-Louise Miller: People’s lives and their stories inspire me. At the moment, mostly women inspire me. Especially people who have done unexpected things in difficult circumstances, which for me is mainly wartime. In terms of methods, I really like to think outside the box. I get very frustrated when we try doing the same thing over and over again. Especially when women are concerned because we get the same results. For me it’s about finding intersectional and interdisciplinary ways to approach looking at a subject. I’ve always had interesting results when I’ve done that, as we tend to box women into women’s history or gender history, and these can actually be counterproductive. I enjoy taking women out of the “box” and analyzing them in a much wider context—the context of war—and military studies and intelligence studies. 

How does the process of writing history differ from creating documentaries? 

SM: Working on documentaries is really fun. For me, it has highlighted the issue of accessibility. All of the men in my family are dyslexic and don’t enjoy reading. It’s really unfair to think that everyone who enjoys history enjoys reading. My grandfather stopped going to school when he was fourteen to go work on the land, but loved watching me in documentaries, learning about the Second World War, which he lived through but never fully understood. Watching my family’s reaction has shown me how important it is to make history in other ways, making it accessible to everyone– especially because it is everybody’s history. 

How can historians make their work more accessible and engaging for general audiences, without sacrificing rigor or accuracy? 

SM: In film, producers want soundbites of history—short and sweet soundbites, which is how most people are going to understand historical complexities and fully absorb history. It can be difficult to isolate what the most important things are to draw out. I am very adamant about historical accuracy; with a book, the editorial process double-checks everything, but with a documentary you sometimes have to fight to protect what history means. On one documentary, which I won’t name, I was asked to say something that I did not think was 100% accurate and you have to fight for accuracy sometimes in those circles. I would never compromise academic integrity or fact for accessibility on television. It can be a struggle, but it is very fun and definitely feels like you’re doing something very important.  

What tips would you give young historians starting out in the field today? What are some common pitfalls that historians should avoid when conducting research and writing about history? 

SM: I really think you will do a much better job as a historian if you research topics you are most interested in. Especially if you have that choice, it sounds simple, but lots of people just write to fill a gap in the literature, or someone says it is a good idea to write on a certain topic, or you think it will be popular. It is very easy to lose momentum if you don’t follow your own passion. As an undergraduate, when choosing a topic for my thesis I decided to write about the Boston Tea Party. Two weeks into the reading, I realized that it was not the topic for me. I did not feel passionate about it. I went to a museum in London and saw this exhibition on women in war. There was this lipstick gun—and it was someone’s real possession, and I thought, “this is amazing!” This is where I found my passion. Some people will offer the wrong advice or think your topic is too difficult to research. Everyone will have an opinion, but only listen to those you truly admire. Trust yourself and your own opinion. I always tell my undergraduates, if you want to succeed, I want to hear your voice and what you think. It is not enough to regurgitate historiography. It took me far too long to trust myself and be brave enough to pursue my interests. 

Women are often portrayed as femme fatales, especially in the sphere of intelligence. Even in the International Spy Museum in DC, this element seems to be the central and most entertaining aspect when it comes to female spies. In your research, did you find this to be the case? 

SM: I start every piece of work I do by looking at stereotypes. These have shaped how we have always viewed women in espionage and intelligence, and while that might be fine if you’re watching James Bond, it is not in the real world. In 2018, less than 25% of the higher-ranking members of MI6 were women, and the first public drive for recruitment in 2018 showed a woman carrying a child with the slogan “we’re not looking for the next 007, we’re looking for people like you.” This move came so late, as the 007 stereotype persisted all the way through the Cold War. Women are either portrayed as femme fatales, completely useless damsels in distress, a love interest, Moneypenny making a cup of tea–they are never represented as strong or capable women in espionage. These stereotypes are critically important, as they need to be deconstructed. We need to think of ways of rebuilding these images with the truth. We also crucially need to understand how we conceive of women before how we look at women as spies. 

How do you overcome these stereotypes when these are ingrained within the source material in archives? 

SM: It’s a bit like a cross between detective work and a patchwork quilt. You are going to find sources that have been created by men with those stereotypes involved. When you go to the National Archives in DC or London, you get a very familiar narrative containing these stereotypes and assumptions about women. I found files suggesting women are “too emotional,” “too hysterical” and “too risky” for intelligence work. This is why you cannot rely only on official sources to do this kind of work—I had to figure this out very quickly. We can start with this narrative, but then continue to deconstruct the records by uncovering the bias. There is a high level of mythology and misunderstanding that has come out by just using those records to reflect women in intelligence. Looking at what individuals think becomes vital: what did male colleagues think or say about their female coworkers? Oral history is an important component of this. The proof is in the pudding—these narratives bring to light new perspectives of women’s work. If you take the German enigma in late 1942, the U Boat losses increase and the allied shipping losses decrease…This directly correlates with breaking into enigma at Bletchley Park, where 7,000 women were involved in this effort. This is statistical proof, then you can start finding the sources that will further back up and corroborate the facts. 

Do you think these stereotypes are still very much present today? 

SM: As both a historian and being involved in modern day defense and security, I often get asked, “Why are you here?” Current critical issues all have to be understood through history, just as in combating myths about women in intelligence– nothing will change if we do not understand our history. We want to think that progress is quick and lasting, but it was not—it took decades. It was not like 1945 came and everything was better for women in espionage and intelligence. In 1992, the first female fighter pilots flew active-duty missions. In 2018, for the first time MI6 admitted it has a major recruitment problem. It is the same with other minority groups—there is no equality. This ongoing process has to be informed and led by history. Through history we can pinpoint the problem and understand just how good underestimated people are at work— like Alan Turing. Even women were underestimated at every possible opportunity, but look what they did. I don’t need to write two paragraphs about why women are great in the intelligence field– I just gave you a whole book. Real stories are enough to write whole books on the importance of underestimated people. History has to be how we tackle these issues. 

What projects are you currently working on? 

SM: At the moment, I’m working on publishing my PhD thesis, focusing on the wartime work of women in the US and British naval services toward Allied naval intelligence during WWII and focusing on their contributions behind the scenes during the Battle of the Atlantic and the Pacific Naval War. My current research for my third book is about women at war in Hawaii, and while visiting the Hawaiian Islands I discovered so many files about women who were doing so much work towards the war. American, native Hawaiian, Pacific and Polynesian Islander and Asian women contributed towards the Allied fight in the Pacific and are a significant part of its narrative, but are crucially missing from it. We have to understand how their work affected so many different things—not just the war, but identity. I am working on research into the intersection of island-identity– the anthropological idea of “islandness” and the idea of an “allied effort” prior to and during the Second World War. Researching the roles of women and minority groups can help recover this history. 

Images: PUNCH and The London Charivari, October 25, 1939

Sarah-Louise Miller was interviewed by Krystel von Kumberg on 5/1/23. The text has been edited by von Kumberg and the staff of The Footnote. She is studying Global, International, and Comparative History and graduated from the Security Studies Program at Georgetown in 2020. She specializes in the roles of non-state actors; militarized social movements, terrorists, and militias in Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. Her research focuses on the Cold War, the history of transnational terrorism, recruitment methods, and radicalization.  

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