The century-old myth about women in espionage

Getty Images

World War I gave us the modern flamethrower, poison gas and the cultural stereotype of women spies: sexy femme fatales who lure men into dangerous or compromising situations, obtain their secrets and betray them.

The myth originated a century ago this month and still persists in film and television. A recent Newsweek cover story on “Women of the CIA” accurately observed that Hollywood portrays CIA women as a “sorority of badass [b—-es] who stab by day and seduce by night.” Former and present women in the CIA have complained about that image. As a former CIA intelligence officer said, “I wish they wouldn’t use centerfold models in tight clothes. We don’t look that way. And we don’t act that way.”

{mosads}It didn’t have to turn like this. World War I forced Great Britain and other combatants to create huge intelligence bureaucracies and spy networks whose personnel needs could not have been met without recruiting women. Many became outstanding spies.


In German-occupied Belgium, a young Belgian woman, Marthe Cnockaert, spied for Britain while working as a nurse in German military hospitals. Her cover identity was so effective that the Germans awarded her the Iron Cross for her devotion to their wounded. After the war, the British, French and Belgian governments honored Marthe because her espionage had enabled devastating British airstrikes on German positions (she nursed many of the Germans wounded in her own airstrikes). Winston Churchill wrote the foreword to her memoir.

In the Middle East, where Great Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, Sarah Aaronsohn, a 27-year-old Palestinian Jewish woman, ran a pro-British spy network in Ottoman territory. She furnished crucial intelligence to the British, whose victory ultimately led to the Jewish state, but was caught and tortured by the Turks. Rather than reveal names of her spies, Sarah got hold of a gun and shot herself. In Israel, she is considered the Jewish Joan of Arc.

These bold women, and others like them in that war and subsequent conflicts, should have become the cultural image of female spies. History took a wrong turn on October 15, 1917, when a Dutch-born nude dancer, mistress to wealthy men and celebrated beauty was led at dawn onto a military parade ground in Vincennes, France.

Her name was Margaretha Zelle, but she had danced nude under the stage name Mata Hari. Whether she was a spy, and for whom, is debatable. Perhaps she had only tried to con men on both sides out of money in return for promises of espionage coups. The French charged Mata Hari with being a German spy on the basis of an innuendo-laden investigative report that emphasized her predatory sexual powers: “in the battle of the sexes, men, so skilled in other things that they are usually the victors, are always defeated.”  

Her Paris trial served principally to scapegoat her for the battlefield failures of the French army. A prosecutor claimed that “the evil that this woman has caused is incredible, she is perhaps the greatest spy of the century.” Later, one prosecutor admitted, “there wasn’t enough [evidence] to flog a cat.”

Before a firing squad, Mata Hari refused a blindfold and blew kisses to her lawyer and the attending priest. The command “Feu!” was given and the myth of the femme fatale spy was born. Movies based on the Mata Hari spy-seductress image began appearing in the 1920s and 1930s. A line from the Vincennes parade ground can be drawn to an episode of Homeland, where CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) seduces a teenage Pakistani asset and then uses the love-struck boy as bait to catch a terrorist but succeeds only in getting the boy killed. Profitable entertainment, but the femme fatale image promotes a misogynistic image of women as seducers who first weaken men’s wills and then destroy them.

In 2012, just 19 percent of agency officers promoted to executive-level jobs in the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service were women. Women at the CIA face many of the same challenges as women in other fields, but they work under a unique cultural burden that that might not exist had talented and courageous women spies become the popular face of female espionage, instead of the hapless Mata Hari.

Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor and author of upcoming book “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow on Twitter at @gregorywallance. 

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Gregory J. Wallance International Spies

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video