“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.
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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)
8 Harriet Tubman (circa 1822-1913)
7 Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944)
6 Violette Szabó (1921-1945)
5 Christine Granville/Krystyna Skarbek (1908-1952)
4 Elizabeth Bentley (1908-1953)
3 Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)
2 Melita Norwood (1912-2005)
1 Stella Rimington (b.1935)
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