Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Twelve Fascinating Fe/male Spies

History is written by the victors, mainly male victors, leaving the tales of heroic women buried in the sands of time.

A simple search for female spies led me to a hundred different heroines whose stories deserve to be told.  I present a few of the most fascinating.

1. Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew

Mary was born a slave on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia owned by the Van Lews. Upon Mr. Van Lew's death, Mary was freed but remained as a servant of the household. She was sent to the Philadelphia School for Negroes by Elizabeth Van Lew and learned how to read and write. That would make a riveting literary tale, but it gets better. Elizabeth was unpopular for her Union sympathizing and pretended to be crazy to deflect from her efforts to aid a spy ring and hide escaped soldiers on her estate. Mary adopted the pose of a feeble minded servant to spy on Jefferson Davis in his own home. These two actress activists deserve at least fifteen minutes of fame.

2. Belle Boyd

Belle was a confederate spy caught after she killed a Union soldier. Instead of ending her days in a dark prison, her Union captor became her lover and let her go. They reunited in England and married but later returned to the United States. Belle trod the boards as an actress but her lover died in prison. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.

3. Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds was destined for an arranged marriage, but escaped with her mother's help and traveled as a man to the Connecticut colony. Sarah's disguise allowed her to serve as a male field nurse during the Civil War. She used many disguises, even posing as a black man to infiltrate and spy on the Confederates. She developed malaria and left her post to avoid discovery. When her alter-ego was outed as a traitor, she simply reverted to being female and continued to work as a nurse/spy.

4. Chevalier Charles Genevieve d'Éon

The Chevalier was a gender-fluid spy, French diplomat, and freemason, at times posing as male and others as female as needs suited. He was part of a secret network of spies, Secret du Roi, employed by King Louis XV. He posed as a woman to infiltrate the Russian court to work against the Habsburg monarchy. As Lea de Beaumont, he served as a maid of honor to the Empress of Russia. He returned and resumed his male identity to fight in the Seven Years' War. d'Éon claimed to be born female but raised as male because of inheritance issues. At his death, doctors found he had "male organs in every respect perfectly formed," but also feminine characteristics.

5. Zora Fair

Zora lived a short but adventurous life as a spy. She disguised herself as a black servant to infiltrate Sherman's headquarters in Atlanta. Little is known about her life and sources disagree about whether she was caught and questioned by the Union Army. She died in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War ended.

6. Eileen Mary "Didi" and Jacqueline Nearne

This sister duo worked as Britain's Special Operations Executives (SOE) during World War II. Eileen worked as a home-based signals operator, receiving secret messages written with invisible ink on the back of typewritten letters. Eileen was caught and tortured by the Germans. She escaped and fled to Leipzig until the arrival of US troops. Meanwhile, Jacqueline was sent to France to work as a courier. She was trained in Morse code and was outfitted with a suitcase radio. She also had parachute training. She carried spare parts for radios inside her cosmetics bag. She spent fifteen months aiding the French resistance and returned to Britain in 1944.

7. Cecile Pearl Witherington

Cecile was born in France to British parents. Along with her mother and three sisters, she escaped occupied France and went to London. Like the Nearne sisters, Cecile joined Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) where she became an expert marksman. She was parachuted into France in 1943 and worked as a courier posing as a cosmetic saleswoman. When her boss was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, Cecile became the new head of SOE Wrestler Network. With the help of her fiancé, Henri Cornioley, she played an important role in fighting the German army. The Nazis issued a one million pound bounty for her capture. Her small force was attacked by thousands of Germans in June of 1944. She escaped, regrouped, and launched a large-scale guerrilla attack on the Germans. She ultimately presided over the surrender of 18,000 German troops.

8. Violette Morris

Violette challenged female stereotypes and sexual norms. She was born in 1893 and raised in a convent. She married briefly, then lived life on her terms. She was real-life super hero (or villain) material depending on your point of view. Any sport a man could do, Violette claimed to do better: shot put, discus, women's football, water polo, boxing (defeating men), road bicycle racing, motorcycle racing, car racing, airplane racing, horseback riding, tennis, archery, diving, swimming, weightlifting, and wrestling. She earned two gold and one silver medals at the Women's World Games in 1921–1922. Her smoking, swearing, and bisexual lifestyle got her banned from the 1928 Summer Olympics.

She was invited to attend the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin by Adolf Hitler and became a German spy. She served as a military nurse during the Battle of the Somme and a courier during the Battle of Verdun in WWI. She is credited with gifting the Germans with partial plans of the Maginot Line, strategic points in of Paris, and schematics of the French army's Somua tank S35. She lived through the German occupation of France in a houseboat on the River Seine and worked against the British SOE. She was sentenced to death in absentia and was murdered by members of a French resistance group on 26 April 1944, at the age of 51.

9. Loreta Janeta Velázquez

Loreta was born in Cuba but raised and educated in New Orleans. She dodged an arranged marriage by eloping with a Texas soldier. With the outbreak of the Civil War, her husband joined the Confederate army. Upon his death, Loreta posed as a male to enlist. After fighting in major battles such as Bull Run, her disguise was blown. She changed identities and locations and reenlisted. Her second cover blown, she turned Confederate spy/double agent working at times as a man, others as a woman. She died in 1923  in a public psychiatric facility.

10. Majda Vrhovnik

Madja was raised in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While enrolled in medical school, she joined an underground Communist movement. She became a courier during the occupation of Yugoslavia and was sentenced to life in prison in absentia. Her parents were held hostage for months as leverage. She continued her work organizing a print shop for the resistance and carrying manuscripts. She assisted her brother in setting up a bunker in May 1943 reproducing copies of The People's Justice and the Slovenian Reporter. She then turned to instructing students for Young Communist League of Yugoslavia (SKOJ). In the fall of 1944, she disguised herself as a peasant girl and spent months organizing committees for the Liberation Front. She was betrayed and arrested, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo but lives on as a people's hero in Yugoslavia.

We rarely hear about the hundreds of brave women who served during the wars, much less the successful spies. Beyond biography, you can bring their stories to life through Literary Fiction, Historical fiction, Suspense Thriller, or screenplay. There is no shortage of intrigue to work with.

I love a story where a character is undercover with the possibility of exposure around every corner. Stories that encourage me to learn more earn bonus points. Stories that highlight history's forgotten female heroes earns higher bonus points.

Continue Reading:

New Stories

History's Mysteries

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. You've made the point well that strong, determined women are not only courageous, but also very creative in accomplishing their missions. This is quite an interesting article, Diana.

    1. None of these ladies were in text books. History would have been more interesting!

  2. Fascinating stories, Diana, each one worthy of a historical novel or screenplay.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The last sentence of the Nearne paragraph says she spent "...fifteen years aiding the French resistence..." I think it should be months - the war wasn't 15 years long.

  5. how do you leave out Nancy Wake?

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Lauren Dyer PelletierMarch 9, 2018 at 12:29 AM

    Fascinating. No doubt spies made use of a huge variety of different disguises and developed complex personas in order to outwit and hide from the enemy. Certainly gets the imagination going.

  8. What a terrific look at a little slice of history. It would take pages and pages to cover all the amazing women who have made significant positive contributes to world events. Thanks for this glimpse.

  9. It has been some time since I read A Life of Secrets, but it recounts Vera Atkins' role in training agents for France and, after WWII, trying to account for those who did not return, particularly 12 women. I also read William Stevenson's biography but recall it as less focused on the post-war search.

  10. Excellent post and even better research. I believe some of these women who be held in a different light today.


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