Female Spies and Their Secrets

An old-boy operation was transformed by women during World War II, and at last the unsung upstarts are getting their due.

Owen Freeman

Are women useful as spies? If so, in what capacity? Maxwell Knight, an officer in MI5, Britain’s domestic-counterintelligence agency, sat pondering these questions. Outside his office, World War II had begun, and Europe’s baptism by blitzkrieg was under way. In England—as in the world—the intelligence community was still an all-male domain, and a clubby, upper-crust one at that. But a lady spy could come in handy, as Knight was about to opine.

In a memo “on the subject of Sex, in connection with using women as agents,” Knight ventured that one thing women spies could do was seduce men to extract information. Not just any woman could manage this, he cautioned—only one who was not “markedly oversexed or undersexed.” Like the proverbial porridge, a female agent must be neither too hot nor too cold. If the lady is “undersexed,” she will lack the charisma needed to woo her target. But if she “suffers from an overdose of Sex,” as he put it, her boss will find her “terrifying.”

“What is required,” Knight wrote, “is a clever woman who can use her personal attractions wisely.” And there you have it—the conventional wisdom about women and spycraft. Intelligence officers had long presumed that women’s special assets for spying were limited to strategically deployed female abilities: batting eyelashes, soliciting pillow talk, and of course maintaining files and typing reports. Overseeing operations? Not so much.

Historically, women had indeed counted on their charms in practicing espionage, mostly because charms were often the only kind of weapon permitted them. During the American Civil War, when a group of elite hostesses relied on their social connections to gather intelligence for both sides, Harriet Tubman was an outlier who actually ran spying efforts. But the aggression, vision, and executive capacity required to direct an operation were not considered within the female repertoire.

Even as Knight was ordering his memo typed, however, change was at hand. World War II, a “total war” that required all able male bodies for global fighting, offered new opportunities. In the United States, “Wild Bill” Donovan recruited blue-blooded women for his Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Among them was the future chef Julia Child. But most OSS women were consigned to the secretarial pool, the “apron strings” of Donovan’s outfit, in his words. Those who went far beyond their brief—his secretary Eloise Page helped plan Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa—got little recognition.

Europe presented more possibilities. Spy agencies were expanding to cope with the need for covert action in countries where insurrection had to be plotted under the noses of occupying Germans. The French Resistance called on women’s courage, as did the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, created by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze” by planting bombs, stealing plans, and stoking internal opposition. Colloquially known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, the SOE sought agents willing to parachute into occupied France or be off-loaded by air or sea. Behind enemy lines, SOE operatives had to recruit locals as agents, establish networks, receive clandestine shipments, set up safe houses, manage communications, suss out traitors.


The SOE’s leaders were readier than the old boys of MI5 and MI6, the foreign-intelligence agency, to grant that women enjoyed certain advantages. Many French men had been sent to labor camps in Germany, so women operatives were better able to blend in with a mostly female population. As Sarah Rose writes in D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II, a British captain who recruited three female SOE agents, Selwyn Jepson, believed that women were psychologically suited to behind-enemy-lines work—“secretive, accustomed to isolation, possessed of a ‘cool and lonely courage.’ ” Some officers thought women had greater empathy and caretaking instincts, which equipped them to recruit and support ordinary citizens as agents. Women were considered good couriers—a high-risk role—because they could rely on ingratiation and seeming naïveté as tools in tight spots. The war also provided openings for women to show that they could execute operations, making strategic life-and-death decisions.

In intelligence, as in computer science and so many other fields associated with male prowess, women have made far more important contributions than they have gotten credit for—but a recent boom in attention to their stories is remedying that. “In the French resistance as a whole, women played crucial roles,” the historian Lynne Olson writes in Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler, her masterful biography of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, the patronne, or boss, of Alliance, one of the largest Resistance networks. Nazi sexism helped: Germans’ stereotyped ideas about female domesticity blinded them, early on at least, to women spies in their midst.

Random House

In some cases, women had their own blinkered views of female leadership to overcome. Barely 30 when she was recruited in 1940, Fourcade had lived abroad, and relished the liberated environment of 1930s Paris. Still, she was astonished when “Navarre,” the code name for Georges Loustaunau-Lacau, asked her to be his deputy. Being a woman surely ruled her out, she protested to the World War I hero, who was secretly mobilizing citizens worried by Nazi aggression in Europe. That was precisely why she would be above suspicion, he told her. “Good God—it’s a woman!” cried another recruit, who became one of her most trusted aides. After Navarre was arrested in Algiers in 1941, Fourcade became the undisputed leader of Alliance.

The Alliance network, backed by MI6, comprised thousands of agents; its main mission was to infiltrate German submarine bases along the coast and report on U-boat movements. The head of a shipyard provided crucial plans and drawings. On the bases, bartenders and prostitutes listened to chatter, which Fourcade passed on to the British in code. She and her lieutenants hiked into fields at night, waving in planes flown by Royal Air Force pilots. Fourcade’s code name—POZ 55 at first, and later Hedgehog—initially enabled her to hide her gender from the old-line British officers. She feared they wouldn’t take her seriously, and she didn’t want to risk the lives of agents in her network, who depended on British support and funding. When she did meet one U.K. colleague, she was accompanied by a male deputy. “This is a joke, isn’t it?” the British agent said. Looking at the man, he asked: “You are the real POZ 55?”

Fourcade showed the skeptics who was boss—not least by pushing the British to alter their communications routine to protect her agents. In occupied Europe, being a wireless-radio operator was one of the most dangerous jobs, and it often fell to women. Nazis on patrol would look for a signal emanating from a house or a hotel room, and then strike. For Fourcade’s agents in touch with London, every moment spent awaiting a British response put them at risk. She wanted the Brits to make contact first. Hammering at the war bureaucracy of men in pin-striped suits, she persisted in making the case for her department’s safety and welfare.

The intelligence her network provided was astonishing. One of her assets was the brilliant Jeannie Rousseau, who spoke five languages and at age 20 began working as a German translator. Rousseau hung around with Nazi officers, who seized the chance to mansplain their exploits, including a new rocket technology, the V‑2, the first ballistic missile. As she later put it: “I was such a little one sitting with them, and I could not but hear what was said. And what they did not say, I prompted.” They also showed her their plans. Rousseau had a photographic memory. Fourcade passed the material to the British, who bombed the rocket plant at Peenemünde. Impressed, the British sought to bring Rousseau to London for debriefing. En route, she was captured and taken to a concentration camp, where she survived through remarkable acts of defiance.

In 1943, when the Germans began to crack down on saboteurs in grim earnest, the Alliance network was a chief target. Scores of agents were arrested in successive waves. Among them were women tortured by Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” who burned their breasts with cigarettes. “In my network, no woman ever faltered, even under the most extreme kinds of torture,” Fourcade later remembered. “I owed my freedom to many who were questioned until they lost consciousness, but never revealed my whereabouts, even when they knew exactly where I was.” She was exfiltrated to England, after a two-and-a-half-year career running operations against the Nazis—most Resistance leaders lasted no more than six months in place before their cover was blown—and continued to work from there. “I’ve often wondered what you were like,” one male British colleague confessed upon meeting her.

If obstacles hone leadership (as research suggests), few female spies cleared more hurdles than Virginia Hall, one of the SOE’s first operatives of either gender and the subject of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. She became, as the British journalist Sonia Purnell writes, “the most successful Allied female secret agent,” unimpeded by her sex or by a wooden leg she nicknamed “Cuthbert.” (According to a famous anecdote, Hall was trekking across the snowy Pyrenees to escape the Gestapo, and radioed to her handlers that Cuthbert was giving her trouble. The response from a novice: “Have him eliminated.”)

Born into Baltimore high society in 1906, Hall grew up outdoorsy, adept with horses and guns. She ditched a boring fiancé, attended Barnard College, traveled to Jazz Age Paris, and studied in Vienna. When her father lost his fortune during the Depression and then died, she took jobs as a clerk in the American embassies in Poland and Turkey (where, while snipe-hunting, she blew off her foot and nearly died of sepsis). She tried over and over to join the U.S. diplomatic corps, but the State Department kept turning her down on flimsy pretexts. After war broke out, she began driving an ambulance in France, among the few active jobs for which women, even one missing a leg, were accepted.


What many of these women spies had in common—along with grit and remarkable courage—was a man who saw their potential. Key in Hall’s case was George Bellows, an undercover British agent milling around a Spanish border-town train station in 1940, gathering intelligence for the SOE. He chatted with Hall, whose sights were set on England as the Nazis overran France. The British realized that an American—the U.S. was still neutral—could move freely without attracting suspicion in occupied France.

Under the cover of being a newspaper reporter, Hall operated as a “secret liaison officer,” on an ambitious and dangerous mission to build a Resistance network in Lyon, where she knew no one. “In the field, she would either learn fast or die,” Purnell writes. Hall learned fast. In a city overrun with refugees from occupied sectors, she recruited women helpers from marginalized communities. Hall quickly went way beyond her job description. She began collecting details on the political situation in France. She helped downed British pilots escape, organizing French women to escort them to safety.

Much like successful women today, Hall was called brusque, and her handlers were reluctant to formalize her authority as chief. Instead they elevated a reckless and incompetent agent codenamed Alain. Yet her self-taught professionalism and, yes, caretaking instincts made Hall a magnet for incoming operatives. “Her apartment had become the center of all resistance,” Purnell writes, and she was soon directing operations herself. Alain, her nemesis, was fired for “womanizing, boasting, and boozing.”

Gallery Books

Hall’s “success opened the gates to more women agents,” Purnell points out—agents who faced mounting danger. Nazi reprisals became savage. Hitler wrote a memo saying that saboteurs would be “annihilated without exception,” and of the 39 women sent to France by the SOE, a third never returned. Some ended up in Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Some were poisoned, others shot. Odette Sansom, one of the operatives featured in Rose’s D-Day Girls and the subject of a biography by Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise, survived being burned and having her toenails pulled out. She never divulged the information the Germans wanted.

Virginia Hall, though hunted by Klaus Barbie and arrested at least once, always managed to get away. Eventually she was exfiltrated, and worked in Spain until late 1943. She was then finally hired by her own country, and the OSS sent her back into France, under heavy disguise. She directed guerrilla forces to support the D-Day landings by destroying railway communications, organizing roadblocks and ambushes, and cutting telephone wires. Incredibly, the OSS refused to put her officially in charge. Having a woman at the head of a paramilitary operation was considered “controversial,” so putative control was given to her petulant, often-absent male boss. Disguised as a milkmaid, she sold cheese and eavesdropped on the German Seventh Army, which, Purnell writes, helped “pave the way for the Allied recapture of Paris.”

After the war, the contribution of these women was overlooked and then forgotten. The CIA blossomed, becoming institutionalized, slick, and buttoned-down—a place where, in Purnell’s words, “brilliant masculine brains and well-connected college kids had taken charge.” Hall stayed on, but nobody quite knew what to do with the person one wet-eared upstart described as “the gung-ho lady” from the war. In 1953, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, convened a “Petticoat Panel” to look into attitudes toward women at the agency. Compared with men, they were seen as more emotional, less objective, and insufficiently aggressive.

That was then. Now the CIA is directed by a woman, Gina Haspel, who has promoted veteran women to head top directorates. These leaders have antecedents, whether or not they know it. Thanks to these overdue volumes, they can now find out all about them.

This article appears in the June 2019 print edition with the headline “The Women Who Changed Spycraft.”