The Atlantic

Female Spies and Their Secrets

An old-boy operation was transformed by women during World War II, and at last the unsung upstarts are getting their due.
Source: Owen Freeman

Are women useful as spies? If so, in what capacity? Maxwell Knight, an officer in MI5, Britain’s domestic-counterintelligence agency, sat pondering these questions. Outside his office, World War II had begun, and Europe’s baptism by blitzkrieg was under way. In England—as in the world—the intelligence community was still an all-male domain, and a clubby, upper-crust one at that. But a lady spy could come in handy, as Knight was about to opine.

In a memo “on the subject of Sex, in connection with using women as agents,” Knight ventured that one thing women spies could do was seduce men to extract information. Not just any woman could manage this, he cautioned—only one who was not “markedly oversexed or undersexed.” Like the proverbial porridge, a female agent must be neither too hot nor too cold. If the lady is “undersexed,” she will lack the charisma needed to woo her target. But if she “suffers from an overdose of Sex,” as he put it, her boss will find her “terrifying.”

“What is required,” Knight wrote, “is a clever woman who can use her personal attractions wisely.” And there you have it—the conventional wisdom about women and spycraft. Intelligence officers had long presumed that women’s special assets for spying were limited to strategically deployed female abilities: batting eyelashes, soliciting pillow talk, and of course maintaining files and typing reports. Overseeing operations? Not so much.

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