A version of this article originally appeared in an October 2017 issue of The Hill. Gregory J. Wallance is the author of The Woman Who Fought an Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring (Potomac Books, 2018) and a lawyer and writer in New York City, a former federal prosecutor, and a longtime human rights activist.
Among other destructive innovations, World War I gave us the modern flamethrower, poison gas, and the cultural stereotype of women spies: femme fatales who lure men into dangerous or compromising situations, obtain their secrets, and then betray them. The myth arose 100 years ago this month and still persists. A Newsweek cover story last year on “Women of the CIA” observed that Hollywood portrays CIA women as a “sorority of badass bitches who stab by day and seduce by night.”1
It didn’t have to turn out this way. Until World War I, women spied largely on an informal, ad hoc basis. The war’s scale forced Great Britain and the other combatants to create mammoth intelligence bureaucracies and spy networks whose personnel needs could not have been met without recruiting women, many of whom became outstanding spies.
In German-occupied Belgium, a young Belgian woman, Marthe Cnockaert, spied for Britain under the cover of working as a nurse in German military hospitals. She was so accomplished a nurse that the Germans awarded her the Iron Cross for her devotion to their wounded. But she was also adept at obtaining intelligence that led to devastating British airstrikes on German positions (she found herself nursing German soldiers wounded in her own airstrikes). After the war, Marthe was honored by the British, French and Belgian governments and Winston Churchill wrote the foreword to her memoir.2
In the Middle East, where Great Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, Sarah Aaronsohn, a 27 year-old Palestinian Jewish woman, whom my book is about, ran a behind-the-Turkish-lines spy network of mostly young Jewish men that furnished intelligence to the British crucial to their victory, which led to the creation of the Jewish state. She was caught by the Turks in October 1917 and tortured. Sarah got hold of a gun and shot herself rather than give up the names of her spies. In Israel, she is considered the Jewish Joan of Arc.
These bold women, and others like them in World War I and subsequent conflicts, should have become the cultural image of female spies. History took a wrong turn on October 15, 1917, when a one-time Dutch-born nude dancer, courtesan to rich and powerful 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 (one of the first dancers to do so) under the stage name Mata Hari. Whether she was even a spy, and for whom, is still a matter of debate; perhaps all she did was try to con men on both sides out of money in return for promises of great espionage coups. The French charged Mata Hari with being a German spy on the basis of an investigative report that emphasized her predatory sexual powers without explaining just what secrets she had obtained: “in the battle of the sexes, men, so skilled in other things that they are usually the victors, are always defeated.”
Her Paris trial and conviction 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.” Thirty years later, a member of the prosecution team admitted that “there wasn’t enough [evidence] to flog a cat.”3
Before a firing squad on the Vincennes parade ground, Mata Hari, with considerable sang froid, refused a blindfold and blew kisses to her lawyer and the attending priest. At the moment that the command “Feu!” was given, the myth of the femme fatale spy was born. Within three years, a spy novel appeared featuring a treacherous spy-seductress based on Mata Hari and ever since “mata-haridans” in one form or another have been a staple of fiction, film and television. A line from the Vincennes parade ground can be drawn straight to a 2014 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.4
Lucrative entertainment, to be sure, but the femme fatale image promotes a misogynistic image of women as seducers who first weaken men’s will and then betray and destroy them. Today, women are underrepresented in executive positions in the U.S. intelligence agencies. For example, in 2012, just 19 percent of agency officers promoted to executive-level jobs in the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service were women.5 Women, of course face sexism and double-standards in many industries and endeavors. But popular culture adds a burden to women in intelligence work that might not exist had the serious, talented, and courageous women spies become the cultural image of female espionage. Unfortunately, the public is largely ignorant of these women spies because of a misleading myth built on the hapless Mata Hari.
- Jones, Abigail. “Women of the CIA: The Hidden Story of American Spycraft.” Newsweek. September 21, 2016.
- McKenna, Marthe. I Was A Spy! New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1933.
- Shipman, Pat, Femme Fatale, New York: Harper Collins, 2007, 338, 350, 373.
- Proctor, Tammy M. Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. New York: New York University Press, 2003, 1-2, 133; Alan Eyerly, “’Homeland’ recap: Carrie moves fast to win over young asset,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2014.
- Director’s Advisory Group On Women In Leadership Unclassified Report