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Famous Women Spies in History

Updated on June 29, 2013
Unlikely Women Spies throughout History
Unlikely Women Spies throughout History | Source

Those Unlikely Women Spies

Female Spy: Julia Child

It would seem that "Bon Appétit" isn't all Julia Child is known for. Julia Child, the famous chef, was in fact a spy. She honed her spying skills while working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), known today as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She even served as an undercover spy in Sri Lanka (Ceylon back then) sporting the highest security clearance any spy can acquire.

Julia assisted the U.S. Navy in solving their shark problem in World War II. It seems the sharks were continually setting off underwater explosive devices aimed at blowing up German U-boats. Julia developed a repellent that solved the Navy's shark problem post-haste; little did she know this would be the first of many recipe's she would create.

Julia met Diplomat Paul Child while working for the OSS, and they soon were married. When Paul was reassigned to serve in Paris, Julia found her passion in cooking. Paris is also where she trained at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school, leaving the spy game behind and diving head-long into life as a gourmet chef.

Julia is not alone when it comes to famous female spies. You may recognize some pretty famous names in Hedy Lamarr, Josephine Baker, The Girl Guides, Pauline Cushman, Harriet Tubman, Virginia Hall, Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, and Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, just to mention a few. Let's find out just how some of these unlikely Women Spies landed right in mix of spy infamy.

Hedy Lamarr's Last Movie

Unlikely Woman Spy - Hedy Lamarr

Female Spy: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler

Hedy Lamarr is known far less as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. The 1930s and 40's movie star was not simply an actor, she was a successful inventor who patented an idea that was to become the key to our modern wireless communication system. During World War II, Hedy, along with George Antheil, invented a way that made military communications secure by managing frequency-hoping, a very early form of technology referred to as spread spectrum. Hedy had the absolute perfect cover for a spy as a beautiful and famous movie star. Using her fame, Hedy was able to travel to a variety of venues on tour while she interacted with several people; not one who suspected the starlet of carefully listening closely and contemplating ways to assist the U.S. military cause.


Given the chance, whould you spy for your country?

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Unlikely Woman Spy - Josephine Baker

Female Spy: Josephine Baker

Another World War II-era spy is entertainer Josephine Baker. Her celebrity status helped to detract from her missions and spy efforts. Josephine was an African American dancer and singer from St Louis, Missouri. She found some success in the United States, but racial prejudices deprived of her true potential. She relocated to Paris at the age of nineteen, where she became an international super-star. When World War II began, the French Resistance recruited her as an undercover operative, where she transported military orders and maps from the Resistance into countries occupied by Germany. Her huge fame and renown made it very easy for her to go unchecked and unsuspected, as foreign officials were far too star-struck by the famous female. Josephine was not taking any chances in her willing spy activities; any information she transported? She made certain to write it in disappearing ink on her sheet music just as a precaution.

Just where is St. Louis, Missouri?

St. Louis, missouri:
St Louis, MO, USA

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Josephine Baker lived in St. Louis, Missouri before finding ultimate fame in Paris, France

Unlikely Women Spies - The Girl Guides

Female Spies: Girl Guides

Stepping back in time a bit, during the First world War, The Girl Guides—the British version of Girl Scouts—were used as couriers by MI-5 (Britain's counter-intelligence agency) to carry secret messages. Because Boy Scouts were so difficult to manage, the War Office, who needed messengers desperately, decided The Girl Guides would be asked to serve instead. These young ladies who ranged in age from fourteen to eighteen, transported messages and patrolled on the roof tops. Each girl was paid ten shillings a week, plus food as reward for her service. Like all employees of MI-5, the girls took a pledge of secrecy. However, unlike many employees of MI-5, they were the least likely spies to cause any suspicion whatsoever.

Pauline Cushman Fought for the Union Army dressed as a man, escaping from capture to be awarded the commission of Mayor by President Lincoln.
Pauline Cushman Fought for the Union Army dressed as a man, escaping from capture to be awarded the commission of Mayor by President Lincoln. | Source

Unlikely Women Spies - Civil War Spies

Female Spy: Pauline Cushman

Pauline Cushman was an actress who worked as a Union Spy. Unfortunately she was captured while carrying incriminating papers and then sentenced to be executed. But, that's not the end of the story. As luck would have it, this female spy was a very lucky spy indeed. Three days before she was to be put to death, Pauline was rescued. Upon her safe return, President Abraham Lincoln gave her the honorary commission of Mayor, and she traveled the country for years, telling of her spy exploits in the Union Army.

Female Spy: Sarah Emma Edmonds

This cleaver female spy disguised herself as a man so she could serve in the Union Army. She was known for her bravery and chameleon-like ability to blend in, whether as a black slave or "disguised" as a woman. Frank Thompson was the name she fought under, and very successfully so. She became ill with malaria, so she checked into a private hospital where her true identity was discovered. You see, when she heard that Frank Thompson had been listed as a deserter from the Union Army, she had to come clean. She then continued her service as a nurse for the Union—using her real name—until the war ended. You can read about her exploits in her memoir's titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.

Say it like you mean it! Say it like a spy!

Here are a few top-secret Spy words:

  • Agent - A person officially employed by an intelligence agency.
  • Babysitter - Bodyguard
  • Blowback - Unexpected negative outcome as a result of spying.
  • Blown - Detected, as in "your cover is blown."
  • Burn Notice -An official statement from agency that says a spy or group is an unreliable source.
  • Chicken feed - Low grade information from a double agent to an enemy intended to build credibility of double agent.

Find more "SPY LINGO" in the table below!

Female Spy: Nancy Hart

Nancy Hart served as a spy for the Confederate Army, where she transported messages between the southern armies. When she was twenty, she was captured by the Union Army; she subsequently escaped after shooting one of her guards in the foot with his own gun.

Female Spy: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

An abolitionist, prisoner of war, feminist, and surgeon, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker also served in the Union Army as a spy. She would dress as a man and work as a physician, becoming the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Female Spy: Mary Elizabeth Bowser

A freed slave who served as a maid in the Confederate White House, Mary Elizabeth Bowser spied for her country. Her status as simply "the help"—along with the misconception that she could neither read nor write—made for the perfect covert cover. She was able to be present for some very key conversations, while being absolutely ignored. She manged to smuggle important information and papers to the Union Army.

The Language Of Spies Chart (Spy Lingo)

A spy who makes false passports, visas, diplomas and other documents. 
A spies secret identity.  
Dead Drop
A secret hiding place somewhere in public where communications, documents, or equipment is placed for another agent to pick up.  
Ears Only
Material too secret to put in writing.
Eyes Only  
Information that may be read but not discussed. 
A person used on occasion or for an event unknowingly for intelligence operations.  
Agent who searches obituaries and graveyards for names of the deceased for use by agents. 
A persson who provides intelligence to the surveillance team. 
A deep-cover agent 
An agent who penetrates enemy organizations. 
Pocket Litter 
Item's in a spy's pocket (receipts, coins, tickets, etc.) that add to the authenticity of her identity. 
A network of spies or agents.
A hideout unknown to the adversary
The person being spied on.
Hard Target
A target who actively maintains secrecy and may not reveal that she has detected the surveillance team.
The Take
Information gathered by spying.
An agent who watches for the target and alerts the rest of the surveillance team when the target is spotted.
An unknown subject in a surveillance operation.
Disguising your identity, or using an assumed identity, in order to learn secret information. 
Wheel Artist
An outdoor surveillance specialist operating from a vehicle.

Unlikely Woman Spy - Harriet Tubman

Female Spy: Harriet Tubman

When you think of freeing the slaves, Harriet Tubman comes to mind, as she is best known for her contribution to the cause. But she also served with the Union Army in South Carolina, organizing a spy network. While serving there Harriet also lead expeditions, fought as a soldier, worked as a cook and laundress, and aided in helping the wounded in a nursing capacity. Through her experience with the Underground Railroad, leading more than 300 slaves to freedom, she became very familiar with the landscape and was able to recruit former slaves to be her ears and eyes surrounding troop movement of the Confederate Army and location of any rebel camps. In 1863 Harriet went on a gunboat raid with the famous Colonel James Montgomery along with several black soldiers. This raid resulted in the ultimate freedom of over 700 slaves thanks to the information Harriet's spies were able to gather.

Unlikely Woman Spy - Princess Noor-un-nisa inayat Khan

Female Spy: Madeleine
Princess Noor-un-nisa inayat Khan, code name "Madeleine" was an author and a heroine of the French Resistance. The Princess trained as a wireless operator in Great Britain, and then was sent into occupied France as a spy with her code name "Madeleine." She became the sole link to communication between her unit and the French Resistance and home base. She managed a successful but short career as a female spy until the Gestapo captured then executed her promptly.

Unlikely Woman Spy - Amy Elizabeth Thorpe

Female Spy: "Betty Pack" and Code Name "Cynthia"

Amy Elizabeth Thorpe, also known as Betty pack and "Code Name Cynthia," was an American spy who was originally recruited by the British secret service and then later by the American OSS. She is most likely remembered for her acquisition of French naval codes. These codes, so it turns out, were necessary to the Allies' invasion of North Africa. She was able to procure the information by tricking a man who was connected to the Vichy French Embassy into giving them to her. She not only successfully captured the French naval code books from the safe in his locked room, she also captured his heart: after the war they were married, and spent the rest of their lives in each others arms.


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