Prior to WW2, the only reason women might be seen as useful to an espionage unit was as a honeypot: a woman gaining secrets from the enemy through sex. By the beginning of the Second World War, this notion had expanded to include… back office clerical duties. Even women outperforming as secretaries and codebreakers were rarely applauded; the praise was given to their male counterparts or bosses, the invariable subtext being that a woman couldn’t possibly be behind anything important.
Then a few women began to stand out. Sometimes it was a man recognizing their potential. Sometimes it was chance: a male superior missing or fired, a space for a woman’s undercover role, or the fact that they had insider knowledge. But mostly it was because they ruthlessly looked for the opportunity and grabbed it.
Gradually, the men in charge of some organizations began to actively seek women for espionage work. In Britain, the Special Operations Executive, the agency Churchill charged to send operatives into occupied territory to ”set Europe ablaze,” was light years ahead of the more stuffy, conservative MI5 and MI6. Occupied countries were often populated by women, all the men fighting or captured, so women agents wouldn’t stand out.
Women also had the advantage of not being suspected. The Nazis themselves wouldn’t countenance that women could be spies, and it took them a few years to realize that, actually, some were doing it very well indeed, to their expense. Waitresses, maids, and companions could eavesdrop on conversations. Apparently harmless farmhands cycling to work past their parading grounds and air stations could track troop movements. Women naturally spent more time at home, so why would it raise alarm if a woman sat in her room all day waiting for a wireless transmission?
Some chiefs in espionage believed women were naturally more secretive and better at acting alone. Women were seen as having better social skills with the predominantly female occupied population, and the empathy and caring nature increased their ability to recruit and mobilize local spy networks. In many ways, it was their social force that put the female spies above the others. They had an instinct for predicting how others would behave, an adeptness for acting quickly and casually.
In my research for my latest book, THE SPIES OF SHILLING LANE, I came across an interesting comparison of British advertisements aimed at women before and then during the Second World War. The conclusion sums it up: before the war, women were treated as whimsical, fearful creatures that like being pampered and looked after. By the middle of the war, women are depicted as strong, independent, and most of all, resourceful. While a growing part of the world of espionage was embracing women into their workforce—especially those with fluent European languages—many of the traditional, often elite espionage clubs, such as MI5 and MI6, were keen to maintain the status quo.
All except for one man. Maxwell Knight, formerly an active member of the British Union of Fascists himself, was recruited in MI5 through unusual channels—usually MI5 agents were family friends of existing agents. From the beginning, Maxwell Knight was a maverick. He worked slightly outside the main MI5 framework, infiltrating anti-government groups, such as the fascists and the communists. He quickly saw the potential in using female infiltrators. They blended in and got on with other women. People didn’t suspect them. Some of them had a knack for deception: they easily took on a new name and persona. They became their cover.
Joan Miller was one such woman. “Plucked” out of the MI5 secretary pool for her quiet looks and ability to fit in, a few interviews proved her to be quick-thinking and rather brilliant at making up lies to fit the circumstance. He had a particular task for her. A middle-aged woman was very powerful in one of the fascist groups that he was tracking. He wanted this woman to take Joan under her wing. It was an elaborate, long-term plan, but paid off immeasurably when Joan was able to intercept the exchange of documents that could blow up the Allied union. Following this, women were “plucked” with greater frequency.
Meanwhile in France, the resistance had women in its ranks, so why not in its leaders? Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was incredulous when she was asked to be a deputy to WWI hero who was in charge of Alliance, one of the largest resistance networks in France. Yet when he was arrested a year later, she stepped into his place as undisputed leader without hesitation. Codename “Hedgehog,” she kept her gender secret from MI6, her British contacts, and when they finally met her and her deputy, they were convinced that it was a prank: surely the male deputy was the real “Hedgehog?”
Making use of female agents, her network excelled in intelligence gathering, mostly from eaves dropping, watching Nazi movements, and befriending Nazis and submarine-base workers. One such agent, Jeannie Rousseau, armed with a secret knowledge of fluent German, played on German officer’s propensity for showing off to a naïve country girl. She enticed out of them details about the development of the new V2 ballistic missiles, including the precise location of where they were being built. The British bombed it shortly after.
Toward the end of her tenure, a new threat faced women spies in France: “the Butcher of Lyon.” Klaus Barbie was a Gestapo functionary who enjoyed torturing Allied spies, renowned for burning female spies’ breasts with a cigarette. By 1943, the British discovered through decoding German messages that the Nazis were to crack down on spies, and with the use of radiowave detectors and ruthless torture of captives, they were able to bring in large numbers. Never did any of Fourcade’s women give her away, a fact for which she was proud and grateful. Fourcade worked for the resistance for an unprecedented two-and-a-half years before escaping to London; most leaders only lasted six months before their cover was blown.
It was groundbreaking. Ever since those first women spies entered the Second World War, their value as undercover operatives has widened. Today they play central roles in espionage throughout the world, with Gina Haspel actually heading the CIA since 2018.