“Well-behaved women don’t make history.” And the women on this list definitely didn’t behave! Espionage is probably one of a nation’s most important tools during times of war, as well as during the development of a country’s government and economy. When we think of spies, our minds may go directly to James Bond, tailored suits, martinis, fast cars, and sexy women a-plenty. But in truth, the life of a spy isn’t all that glamorous. In reality, it is a life of danger, working undercover, potentially with the wellbeing of your country at stake.
Spies are typically the unsung heroes of war. Their efforts will commonly go unacknowledged, as the very nature of a successful spy’s work is clandestine and anonymous. For example, we all know of George Washington who played a vital role in the war for American Independence. He had numerous spies not only on his home turf, but across the pond in Great Britain as well. Undoubtedly, the intel collected had an impact on the outcome of that war. Thanks to the typical depiction of spies in literature, most of us will see men as the chief agents of espionage. But when it comes to spying, sometimes the female intellect and wiles are the most useful prowesses.
Women have gone through a journey of not only obtaining respect, but also equality. Some of the most notorious spies have been women; it’s the perfect cover-up, as most people wouldn’t suspect a woman, especially not back in the 18th and 19th centuries. The following are ten of the most notorious, influential women of espionage and who were formative – but in their time, anonymous – faces of international politics.
10. Pauline Cushman (1833-1893)
Pauline Cushman was an unsuccessful actress in the 1860s who decided to use her acting abilities outside the thespian realm. In March of 1863, she was asked to give a toast for the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Given that Cushman was a Union supporter, she went to the Union general of her area to tell them what was going on. Then, instead of declining the order from the President, she went along with it and offered her services as a spy for the Union.
As part of the ruse, the Union publicly evicted Pauline Cushman from her area, and she used her acting abilities to portray a Confederate supporter looking for her brother. She was able to schmooze with other Confederate soldiers and convey messages back to the Union. She was eventually caught, tried, and found guilty. But she took advantage of the harsh conditions of jail to make it look like she was dying. She was set free by the Union army three days before she was to be executed.
9. Belle Boyd (1843-1900)
Also known as the “Cleopatra of the Secession”, Belle Boyd fell into espionage by chance. While the Civil War was raging, Boyd was living in her family home in Virginia and showed support for the Confederacy to the point that she had flags on display in her home. When the Union came and saw this, they were enraged and hoisted a Union flag on the front of her home. After shooting and killing a Union officer who yelled at her mother, Boyd found herself surrounded by Union soldiers, who kept a steady post around her home. From the soldiers’ position, Boyd was able to eavesdrop and even charm an officer or two into revealing military secrets. Boyd would then send messages to the Confederacy through her slave, Eliza Hopewell.
8. Harriet Tubman (circa 1822-1913)
History has told us that Harriet Tubman had numerous roles during the American Civil War and there is no question that her efforts helped shape the outcome of the war and the status of slaves. She offered her services to the Union Army and went down to South Carolina to act as a nurse for newly freed slaves and black soldiers. She became a spy, scouting out missions and lurking behind enemy lines to gather information to give to the Union. She also helped Colonel James Montgomery raid a plantation and free over 700 slaves, making her the first woman to lead a military expedition.
7. Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)
Whether you know her as Nora Baker, Jeanne-Marie Rennier, or Madeleine, Noor Inayat Khan played a vital role during the Second World War as an Allied Special Operations Executive agent of Indian descent. She was born in the Soviet Union in 1914 and was the first female radio operator who was sent into Nazi-occupied France. While she was there, she sent vital information back to London, and even when her colleagues chose to leave France, she stayed and continued her work. She was eventually captured and executed by Gestapo in 1944.
6. Violette Szabó (1921-1945)
Violette Szabó was a hero during World War II. She was the widow of a French Army officer who was killed in action during the war in North Africa. After the loss of her husband, Szabó offered her services as a Special Operations Executive agent, and she went on two missions in occupied France. She was captured on her second mission and was tortured and interrogated, then deported to Germany to the Ravenstock concentration camp and executed at the young age of 23.
5. Christine Granville/Krystyna Skarbek (1908-1952)
She known as World War II’s most glamorous spy whose real name was Krystyna Skarbek. Christine Granville was Skarbek’s nom de guerre (or “war name”), which she legally adopted when she became a British citizen in 1948. Skarbek was of Polish descent, and when World War II broke out, she fled to London with her husband. Skarbek wanted to help with the war effort and offered her services to British authorities. At first, they weren’t all that interested, but friends and acquaintances eventually introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service where she was recruited as an SOE agent.
4. Elizabeth Bentley (1908-1953)
Elizabeth Bentley came across as the all-American, well-educated and a good looking woman. She often traveled to Italy to study, where she was likely exposed to fascism and possibly recruited for espionage work. In 1938, she became a spy for the Soviet Union until 1945, when she separated herself from the Communist Party and became an informer for the United States. Talk about switching teams and playing for both sides! She confessed her espionage work to the FBI and provided them with spy network intel that became a very important part of the United States’ witch hunt for Communist sympathizers – which would lead to the McCarthy hearings.
3. Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
Marlene Dietrich was a high profile German actress and singer. So, with a high profile such as hers, how did she possibly partake in espionage and get away with it? Well, she performed espionage duties in a rather different way, using her talents to help Germany lose the war. She vehemently opposed the Nazi Party and so, joining forces with the Office of Strategic Services, she started recording musical broadcasts that subtly demoralized the Nazi Party. Her music ended up as a favorite on both sides of the war. Dietrich’s work was a sort of psychological or even sociological espionage, a covert propaganda which was an antidote to Nazi propaganda of the time.
2. Melita Norwood (1912-2005)
Melita Norwood is, according to the BBC, “the most important agent ever recruited by the USSR”. For 40 years, after being recruited in 1937, Norwood acted as a British civil servant and supplied the KGB with intelligence that she gathered from her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. She performed her daily work under the name “Hola”, and was a well-known communist sympathizer. But she remained undiscovered and she wasn’t exposed until 1992. Her activities didn’t become public until 1999.
1. Stella Rimington (b.1935)
Rimington is now well known for her spy thriller books, but she draws on actual experience for her writing. Rimington was the first female Director General of the British intelligence agency, MI5, from 1992-1996. Of course, given what we all now know of MI5 and MI6, it’s no surprise that Rimington, as an MI5 member, participated in espionage activities for the sake of her home country. Once Rimington became the Director General, she had to put her espionage activities aside since she was now recognizable as the public face of MI5.