Art by Kayla Silber

International Women

Photo by Art by Kayla Silber

When Women Spy

As Homeland returns for Season Two, starring the impeccable Claire Danes, we pay tribute to real spy women with a list of the top women in espionage.

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For those just emerging from a coma, Homeland is back on Sunday for a second season, so set your DVR. You won’t be the only one. President Obama is a fan of the show, and so are the Golden Globes and the Emmy people, it seems. They’re not wrong. Female spies are in. 

The main draw, of course, is the exceptional Claire Danes who plays the bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, the only one at the agency who can see the threat and is prepared to break the rules to thwart it. And it turns out that she’s not the only woman who’s rocking it in the spy game – women have always been rather gifted at intelligence (wouldn’t you know). The Allies couldn’t have done without female spies during World War II, the Russians still make full use of them, as does the CIA. The list goes on. It was a woman, after all, who located Osama Bin Laden and provided the intelligence for the mission that killed him.

Here is a list of some of the best women spies in recent history.


“Jen”, Tracker, CIA

Active: Now

Known for: Finding Osama bin Laden

Would be played by: Sandra Bullock

Dossier: Having tracked Osama bin Laden for five years, “Jen” provided the crucial intelligence about his location at the Abbotabad compound that led to the mission on May 2, 2012. Every detail she gave of the building and the people within checked out. Though very much undercover, she makes a brief appearance in No Easy Day, the new tell-all book about the assassination that was written by one of the Navy SEALs on the mission. He describes her as “wicked smart, kind of feisty”, an agent who walks among the men wearing high heels and makes sharp, funny remarks about the military “boys club.” When she travelled with the SEALs to Afghanistan and saw the terrorist leader’s body in a bag, she wept.

Recommended Reading: No Easy Day by Mark Owen


Valerie Plame Wilson, Covert Operations Officer, CIA

Active: 1986 to 2003

Known for: Exposing the Bush Administration

Was played by: Naomi Watts

Dossier: While serving as an active agent in counterproliferation – after almost 20 years at the CIA – her cover was deliberately blown by the late conservative journalist Robert Novak, who was fed the information by the Bush White House. The subsequent trials revealed not only the brazen criminality of the Bush-Cheney administration, but also the heroism of an individual speaking truth to power. Plame’s name had been leaked to punish her husband, the former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had exposed President Bush’s famous 16 words about Iraq’s pursuit of yellowcake uranium as the fabrication that it was. No one was convicted of outing Plame – Karl Rove remains a powerhouse Republican fundraiser and Scooter Libby had his sentence commuted by President Bush. But when historians come to judge the Bush years, they’ll turn to Plame’s book: Fair Game: How A Top CIA Agent Was Betrayed By Her Own Government. It made a great movie too.

Recommended reading: Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House by Valerie Plame


Anna Chapman

Active: 2010

Known for: Getting deported by the U.S. and ending up on the cover of Maxim

Would be played by: Emma Stone

Dossier: Born Anna Kushchyenko, the daughter of an alleged KGB official, Chapman has an IQ of 162, bright green eyes, cherry red hair and a figure that landed her on the cover of Russian Maxim. She made headlines as “The Sexy Spy” in July 2010 when she was deported from the United States after a decade-long FBI investigation. While on the surface, she fit the Manhattanite profile – a 20-something real estate CEO dating an old millionaire restaurateur, hitting nightclubs and matching her shoes, nails, and purse – according to reports, she was in fact a secret agent working with a 10-person spy ring. FBI videos implicated Chapman and others in the secret exchange of money and information. They were all fluent in foreign languages and tech savvy, each one a highly trained agent of the SVR, aka “Moscow Center,” a successor agency to the KGB. After her deportation, she gained instant notoriety as a model and Russian TV star, often posing with guns or other spy toys.


Virginia Hall AKA “The Limping Lady”

Active: 1941 to 1966

Known for: Escaping from the Nazis on a wooden leg

Would be played by: Kate Winslet

Dossier: Despite her wooden leg – the result of a hunting accident in which she shot herself – Hall became one of the Allies’ most valuable spies against the Nazis. She lived in Paris when the war broke out and was recruited by British Special Operations to work undercover. After three years organizing sabotage missions and train derailments, and smuggling out American soldiers and escaped P.O.W.’s, the Nazis put a price on her head. They circulated this message: “The woman who limps is one of the most dangerous allied agents in France. We must find and destroy her.” Hall escaped the Nazis on foot by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, where she was arrested for traveling without papers.  Upon release, however, she returned to work at once, destroying bridges and telephone lines. Her team took more than 500 prisoners before the occupation of France ended. She was the only woman to receive a Distinguished Service Cross from President Truman, but declined to visit the White House so as not to blow her cover. When she retired in 1966, she bought a farm, like a good spy should.

Recommended reading: The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson


Marlene Dietrich, Morale Operations, CIA

Active: 1941-1945

Known for: Singing American propaganda songs for broadcast to German soldiers

Would be played by: Michelle Pfeiffer

Dossier: The first German actress to make it in Hollywood, Dietrich not only entertained frontline troops by singing and playing the musical saw, she also volunteered with the OSS Morale Operations (MO) branch, recording anti-Nazi songs for the MUZAK project. The MO produced “black” radio programs to raise skepticism about the Nazi regime that reached listeners throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. These radio broadcasts turned out to be as effective as an actual air raid in lowering German morale about the war, according to the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. The most popular station was Soldatensender (Soldiers’ Radio), and Dietrich’s song “Lili Marlene” about a soldier leaving his lover behind was one of the most popular recordings. Threatened by Dietrich’s sultry voice, the German government warned against listening to Soldatensender and banned “Lili Marlene.” But the soldiers demanded the song return to the airwaves and ultimately, the government complied. It became the song played at the end of every broadcast. Dietrich received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945, which she claimed as her greatest life achievement.

Recommended Reading: Sisterhood of Spies by Elizabeth P. McIntosh


Dame Stella Rimington, Director General of MI5

Active: 1965 to 1996

Known for: Becoming the first MI5 Director General to go public

Would be played by: Helen Mirren, though Judy Dench did a good parody in the James Bonds films as M

Dossier: The first female head of the British Secret Service, MI5, and the first to be officially photographed, Rimington joined MI5 in the mid-1960s as a part-time clerk and held positions in all three key departments – counter-subversion, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism, serving as Director or Deputy Director of each one. The tabloids called her the “housewife spy” upon releasing an out-of-focus photograph featuring Rimington wearing an overcoat and carrying shopping bags. In 1992, she became the first Director General to be identified publicly in a 36-page booklet titled The Security Service, offering the first official glimpse at MI5’s operations, including photographs of its female DG. Rimington instituted a policy of greater public openness, including the periodic release of historical Service files to the National Archives. After she retired, she used her spy skills for companies like British Gas and Marks & Spencer, walking shop floors to overhear what customers thought about their goods. Now she writes a best-selling spy fiction series about a female intelligence officer named Liz Carlyle

Recommended reading: Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 by Dame Stella Rimington


Julia McWilliams Child, OSS

Active: 1942-1945

Known for: Processing classified documents for the OSS during World War II

Would be played by: Sigourney Weaver

Dossier: During the war, Franklin Roosevelt created a spy network called the Office of Strategic Services, which later folded into the CIA. In 2008, when the National Archives released 24,000 names of OSS personnel, the culinary icon appeared among them. A staggering 6-foot-2, Child had been rejected by the Women´s Army Corps (WAC) and the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) because she was a whole foot taller than the average 1940s woman. Too tall, they said. Instead, she took a position as senior typist at OSS headquarters and was soon promoted to research assistant for OSS Director Wild Bill Donovan. She also worked with developers of a shark repellant to keep the big fish from blowing up undersea tracking devices targeting Nazi U-boats. Child traveled to Shangri-La and then China, where she set up and ran the OSS Registry Secretariat, filing and cataloguing secret papers and communications. When the war ended, Child received an award for her “drive and inherent cheerfulness” while serving the OSS. She followed her husband, Paul Cushing Child, to Paris in 1948. The rest is food TV history.

Recommended reading: A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant


@condeelevator, Conde Nast

Active: August 2011

Known for: The first elevator with a Twitter account

Would be played by: The voice of Gossip Girl

Dossier: There were 36 tweets in all, each one a snatch of overheard conversation in the elevators at Conde Nast as it transported gossiping employees from some of the nation’s most read magazines to and from lunch. They mostly discuss dizzy interns and Voguettes, but there are editors among them too including Anna Wintour and the occasional “dudeitors” (male editors). New York media loved how the vapid bitchiness and insecurity of the fashion industry was laid bare. Often hilarious, always scathing, and possibly made-up, no one knows for sure, it contained gems like: Summer Intern: My driver had SUCH a bad attitude. I was like, ‘don’t complain to me, I didn’t eat lunch either! You think I eat clothes?’” Was it a satire? A GQ staffer? Theories were rife. But the tweets became so popular, they had a bigger following than actual Conde Nast Magazines, so the corporate bosses set about hunting the culprit down. And he/she was scared off. The last tweet was August 11, 2011: “this got really crazy. Love my job. Better stop.” Don’t be fooled by copycat account @conde_elevator, it’s not as mean. It’s not the same.

Recommended reading: For now, skip the books. Watch The Devil Wears Prada


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