3 Women who played surprising roles in World War I

Jul 28, 2014 at 5:50 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons

On June 28, 1914, exactly 100 years ago today, World War I was launched with the assassination of Austria's Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as they walked to their car in Sarajevo.

Although Sophie remains a side note in the history books next to her husband's assassination, her role in the launch of the bloody war foretold a new age where combat and war were no longer only business of men.

There is so much that has changed since that terrible war which claimed the lives of more than 37 million people worldwide, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, it left a vacuum on the home front which required women to leave their traditional roles and enter the workforce and other areas of society once only accessible to men.

Women for the first time worked in the military as nurses, in factories and held government positions. In fact, it's the roles women assumed during World War I which are credited with helping get women the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment.

Many women heroes and notable figures emerged from the horrors of World War I and showed that the fairer sex had plenty to contribute. Here are three examples of women at the start of the 20th century with some decidedly 21st-century attitudes. Spoiler alert: Things don't end very well for any of these envelope-pushers.

Mata Hari: The sexy spy

Mata Hari: The sexy spy

Photo credit: Apic /Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mata Hari gained notoriety as the "greatest woman spy in history" during World War I as a sexpot who traded in war secrets. Although born in Holland as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, she posed as an Indian courtesan and put on wildly popular shows where she would slowly strip nude doing exotic dances she claimed she learned from a priestess. She kept a roster of high-placed military lovers and was later accused of revealing secrets in the heat of passion. Eventually Mata Hari was arrested as a spy and executed by French authorities in Vincennes by firing squad. According to sources, the evidence surrounding her conviction was shaky as best.

Dorothy Lawrence: The stealthy soldier

Dorothy Lawrence: The stealthy soldier

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Dorothy Lawrence was a 20-year-old English journalist who enlisted in the British Army in 1915 by passing herself off as a man. Although the move was brazen, she revealed her true identity after only 10 days. Her presence among the men was later explained away by labeling her a prostitute.

Edith Cavell: The smuggler

Edith Cavell: The smuggler

Photo credit: Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edith Cavell was a British woman who served her country in World War I as a nurse. She's remembered as a hero for working with colleagues to smuggle hundreds of Allied soldiers out of German-controlled Belgium. She was later found out, arrested by German forces and executed by firing squad in October 1915.

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