If Churchill taught us anything, it’s that history is written by the victorious and the free—and women weren’t all that free up until around a century ago. (And women of colour were certainly even more not free.) That’s probably why you didn’t hear about most of these espionage-loving bad bitches in your history books.
Here’s our mission:
1) Learn about spy queens.
2) Spread the word about spy queens.
3) Alert the history book writers. (Yo, you missed a spot.)
4) Conquer the world.
“I was born with what the doctors call a tendency towards the third sex, said Yoshiko in a statement to the Japanese press, “and so I cannot pursue an ordinary woman’s goals in life”.
And pursue ‘ordinary woman’s’ goals she did not. In a hard, fast, and controversial campaign to help take down the Chinese Republican government, Yoshiko became a Japanese spy around 1932. As a young woman who threw herself into her education and martial arts training, she was the lady for this kind of job.
Long story short, Yoshiko was technically an Imperial Chinese Princess by heritage (she’d been snatched away to Japan at birth) and, through an ex-husband, had ties to the Mongolian Independence movement—which made her the perfect spy for military attaché and intelligence officer Tanaka Ryukichi. Thus began her fairly short dance with espionage, which ended prematurely as her exploits saw her become a local legend.
Fun fact about Yoshiko? She cut her hair short and dressed as a man long before her spy career.
Nancy Wake ran away from school in Australia in 16, self-tutored in journalism in London, and became a correspondent in Paris for the Brits during the rise of the Third Reich, all before the age of 30.
By the time World War II began and Germany had invaded France, Nancy had joined the French Resistance and British Special Operations as a courier. She later joined the escape network of British Captain Ian Garrow and help smuggled Allied internees and POWs out of France.
It’d take a whole article to cover the bombshell that is Nancy Wake. Here’s all you need to know for now: 1) she once killed a man with her bare hands to prevent him from raising alarm during a raid; and 2) by 1943, she was the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a price of 5 million francs on her head. She was so good at flirting to elude capture, she earned the nickname The White Mouse among the Gestapo.
Aphra Behn is such a good spy that we’re not even sure exactly where or to whom she was born. She lived around 1640-1689 in England and eventually got involved with King Charles II’s court by 1665 at the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War between England and the Netherlands.
Her task was this: find William Scot in Netherlands and convince him to spy for Charles II. One thing, though—she quickly ran out of the allowance the court had given her and, in a scramble to avoid debtor’s jail, began writing. She wrote plays, poems, and then—after getting into legal trouble with some particularly politically-charged writing—stuck to prose and translations. Still, the fact that she went from being a spy to earning a living as a playwright was groundbreaking for 17th century England: in a time when women were seen as second-class citizens (and definitely not as breadwinners), a female could make a living writing, and that was huge.
Ah, the sweet satisfaction of turning out to be a whole hell of a lot smarter than people give you credit for. Just because Elvira Chaudoir was a notorious party girl didn’t mean she didn’t have quick wit and beaucoup d’intelligence up her sleeve.
British Lieutenant Colonel Claude Edward Marjoribanks Dansey, despite his stupidly long name, did a good thing indeed when he recognised the value in Elvira’s hidden intelligence and other people’s tendency to underestimate her. So he snatched her up real quick to the cause against the Germans in WWII. Her job? Basically to go around and party with everyone who’s anyone in the South of France, catch the attention of a German secret service agent who would want to offer her a position spying for them (so she could act as a double spy, with true loyalty to Britain), and send all the hot goss back to the Brits in invisible ink.
Meet the woman who singlehandedly drove Confederate President Jefferson Davis insane.
Mary Bowser was born a slave in Virginia around 1841. We don’t even know this for sure, and we don’t know much about the rest of her life, either. We do know that she was a Union spy during the Civil War, working in Elizabeth Van Lew’s spy ring to collect information from Confederate documents using her photographic memory. (Acting as an enslaved worker in the Confederate White House, it wasn’t even legal for Mary to read, but Mary was like, “I think I will, thanks”.)
Jefferson Davis never suspected her, and for the life of him could never figure out how Confederate secrets were leaking out of the White House of the South.
Born in Russia and raised in France by an Indian father and American mother, Noor Inayat Khan was destined for a wild and exciting life. After escaping to England during Nazi occupation of France, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was later recruited as a Special Operations Executive Agent (read: spy) for the British Armed Forces.
As a radio operator, Noor sent messages about the goings-on of Germany occupied France back to London while avoiding capture by the Gestapo. Eventually she was betrayed, captured (and tortured for information, but wouldn’t budge), and later shot in the back of the head at Dachau concentration camp. The first ever female radio operator sent into France by the Allies, Noor Inayat Khan was truly a queen of espionage.
You probably already know of American-born Francophile Josephine Baker, but did you know that she was one of the Allied Powers’ most valuable sources of information during Germany’s occupation of France?
This talented vaudevillian star danced herself all the way to Paris, where she collected information for French military intelligence by chatting up attendees to her shows and high-ranking socialites. She’d dance and charm her way into fascist hearts, then write down the information they had unwittingly indulged to her in invisible ink on sheet music.
Her stint as a spy for the French wasn’t the only amazing thing she did, though. She rose to fame in France and became the first Black woman (who was also likely bisexual) to star in a major hit film, Zouzou (1934). Upon returning to the US after the war, she continued to fight for civil rights, both in her music and in her activism.
It’s okay to pick favourites, right? Because Harriet Tubman is definitely my favourite. In the contest for ‘Most Amazing Person Our History Teachers Should Have Hyped Up to Us A Million Times More But Definitely Didn’t’, Harriet definitely wins first place.
We mostly know her as one of the biggest players in the Underground Railroad, but she was also recruited as a spy by the Union against the Confederate armed forces. She eventually endeared herself to the newly freed slaves of the south and was able to assemble a group of scouts who could give her information on the land, the waterways, and Confederate troops whereabouts.
Oh, and here’s the part you probably didn’t hear about in history books: as the first ever Black woman to organise and lead a military operation in the Civil War (and probably ever), she led boatloads of Union soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, which saw the burning and demolishment of many prominent secessionist plantations.
As if taking down prominent Confederate backers wasn’t enough, she even spread the word that Union boats coming up the river were welcoming aboard slaves so they could be carried to freedom. The Combahee River Raid ended up being a huge blow to the Confederate cause and cemented Harriet Tubman was one of the most badass women in all of American history.
We Can Do Hard Things.
Isn’t it cool that the hardest part about writing this piece wasn’t finding enough women to list into a full length article, but narrowing down which women to include? (BTW, honourable mentions: Brita Tott, Chevalier d’Éon, Charlotte de Sauve, Patience Wright, Claire Phillips.)
So here’s your reminder: women can do hard things. Women can be spies, writers, dancers, military commanders, and radio operators. Women can fly planes and invent things. Women—as I’m sure any of these 8 lady spies would tell you–can do anything.