SpiesWomen on a Secret Mission

Long before their fictional counterparts were hunting international villains with underwater jetpacks, female spies were gathering secret information in hostile territories, commanding dangerous missions and, yes, occasionally sleeping with the enemy. Though the James Bond brand of gadget-centric reconnaissance usually places the woman as sidekick or sexy villainess, women have played key roles throughout the history of espionage.

Stories about clandestine women date as far back as biblical times and include Delilah, who chopped off Samson’s notorious locks for the Philistines, and Jezebel, who led Phoenician spies to the King of Samaria. Both helped create the iconic image of the seductive and dangerous woman infiltrating the enemy. After all, spying is considered to be the “second-oldest profession.”

 Life Undercover

Josephine Baker strikes a pose during a performance in 1936.

Generally less suspicious than their male counterparts, women have had the freedom to move across borders and through influential circles undetected, making them the perfect candidates for covert operations. Compelled by patriotism, politics, money and/or adventure, women have risked their lives to perform the dangerous work associated with spying. Many female operatives have posed as clerks, nannies, housekeepers and/or companions to gather information, facing potential torture, imprisonment or death if caught.

Despite its dangers, the thrill of life undercover has attracted celebrities and housewives alike without regard to age or class. In fact, occasionally, being a star made the job easier. During World War II, performer Josephine Baker’s high profile allowed her to travel freely on tours while smuggling secrets written in invisible ink on her sheet music for the French Resistance. Long before Julia Child brought quiche lorraine to dinner tables across the United States, she was whipping up shark repellent for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. The U.S. Navy used her concoction to coat explosives so that they could journey to their target German U-boats without getting set off by curious sharks.

Edith Cavell was a heroic Allied spy who was later executed by the Germans.

These missions were uncomplicated in comparison to the dangerous assignments other female spies undertook during wartime. Throughout the history of war, female intelligence operatives have risked their lives for the cause. Nancy Wake, the most decorated woman of World War II, led Dunkirk survivors and Allied airmen to safety, only to have her husband tortured and killed as the Germans searched for her. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman served as a Union spy during the American Civil War, as did Crazy Bet (Elizabeth Van Lew), who acted deranged to gain access to secrets. Fighting against them was Belle Boyd, one of the Confederacy’s finest agents.

Sometimes, it was a spy’s capture that could lead to her infamy, as was the case with Edith Cavell, a nurse in World War I who orchestrated an elaborate escape network for Allied soldiers trapped in occupied Belgium. When German soldiers executed her, her death became a rallying cry in international propaganda against the Germans. The controversial execution of Ethel Rosenberg, an American Communist, and her husband Julius in 1953 inspired many protests at the time. Modern scholars generally agree that it is doubtful Ethel ever committed the acts of espionage for the Soviet Union that led to her persecution.

 Sleeping With the Enemy

The Avengers’ Emma Peel was the prototypical sexy secret agent.

Sex has been a significant part of the iconography of female spies, and images of the “swallow” abound in popular culture. Mata Hari, a striptease dancer and World War I spy, epitomized this figure. Although she was inept as a double agent for Germany and France, she became famous for her irresistible sexual powers and was executed for causing the deaths of hundreds of men.

The Mata Hari archetype has inspired generations of fictional fantasies about the sex appeal of secret agents. Advances in intelligence technology and the Cold War climate in the 1960s led to a surge of TV shows, books and films about spies, often starring sexy female agents. Perhaps the most popular of this genre is TV’s The Avengers, the ultra-stylish drama featuring actress Diana Rigg as British agent Emma Peel, who exuded beauty, brains and prowess.

The true history of espionage, however, is far less glamorous than Emma Peel’s knee-high leather boots. Though not all have used a shoe phone or pen radar, women have been in the right place at the right time to reveal some of the most vital pieces of intelligence in history. Female spy “355,” for example, was the one who first suspected the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold in the American Revolution. During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the popular women’s magazine Good Housekeeping ran a series titled “When and What to Report to the FBI,” asking the women of America to report any suspicious information to the U.S. government—paranoid, maybe, but certainly looking in the right place. Female spies have stealthily completed their dangerous missions for centuries—and it’s impossible to say how many of these fearless women remain undercover!

:: Kate Soto

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