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8 Most Daring and Courageous Famous Female Spies in World History

8 Most Famous Female Spies
Even though their male counterparts have reaped more cinematic portrayals, the female spies have made their mark on the pages of history by exhibiting valor and craft on the face of danger. We list out some of these famous ladies who dealt with deception and intrigue on daily basis.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
"Secrets with girls, like loaded guns with boys, are never valued till they make a noise." ~ George Crabbe
A funny thing about spies in this era is, they do things that rest of us also do to a certain extent. The spies are not happy about it. In fact, there is no glamor left in spy business anymore as there is a lot of cut-throat competition from wannabe spies, conspiracy buffs, journalists, sometimes bored housewives and even super-duper intelligent toddlers (I might be right, you never know). However, there is a new trend cropping up in the spy circles: females are excelling in this cloak and dagger field.
While the spy stereotypes have given us the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne, and many more, the women of the craft were believed to play the humble role of assisting the lead spies in action. Since that's not the case anymore, if it ever was, the fairer sex is more than qualified to bag top positions in the intelligence agencies. While talking about spies, one cannot but pay a tribute to those female secret agents who have set the bar quite high for rest of their comrades.
Clandestine Women of the World
Virginia Hall - The Spy Who Walked with a Limp
Agency: Special Operations Executive (SOE); Office of Strategic Services (OSS); CIA
Active years: 1940 - 1966
Fate: Retired from service at 60
Medals: Distinguished Service Cross (DSC); Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)
The German secret police chased her. They desperately wanted to catch the "woman with the limp". The Nazis knew how dangerous she was. They had to stop her at any cost. She ran on a frozen landscape during the winter, on a wooden leg, with the Nazis right behind her.

How did it all began?

The above incident is right out of the life of Virginia Hall - a spy who had a leg amputated after a hunting accident. She was born in 1906 into a rich family. After attending Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, she found jobs at the American embassies in various countries. She wanted to pursue a career in foreign service. However, she did much more than that. She joined SOE - Special Operations Executive, and contributed her bit to the resistance against the German regime. After several espionage jobs, she started working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944 where she got an important and risky assignment of going undercover in France. Disguised as an elderly woman, she used to go to the market where the Germans, unsuspecting of her, openly talked about their plans. All of which, she transmitted back to her office, which proved to be very valuable for the Allied forces.

After the OSS was disbanded and CIA was formed, she resumed serving her country till her retirement at the age of 60.
Violette Szabo - The Widow Who Sought Revenge
Agency: First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY); SOE
Active years: 1941 - 1945 (FANY); 1942/43 - 1945 (SOE)
Fate: Tortured and killed in a concentration camp in 1945
Medals: George Cross; Croix de Guerre; Médaille de la Résistance
Born as Violette Bushell on 26 June 1921 to a British father and French mother, she spent her early childhood in France. However, at the age of 11, she went with her family to Stockwell in order to settle down there. In her teens, she started to work for a hairdresser. During the World War II, at 19 years of age, she met Etienne Szabo who was an officer in the Free French Army, and the couple got married when Etienne was about to be sent to the war zone. Violette gave birth to a girl; however, her husband was killed in action before he could lay his eyes on his newborn daughter. This tragic loss gave Violette strength and desire to fight against the Germans. Eventually, she got an opportunity to work for Special Operations Executive (SOE).

After receiving training from SOE's French (F) Section, finally she was sent on a mission to obtain some valuable information about the possibilities for resistance work in the Rouen area. She was parachuted into France for the mission. Unfortunately, she sustained an injury in one of her legs during the drop. The mission was somewhat successful, and she returned home safely, albeit with a minor skirmish with the Germans.

Again, duty beckoned her, and this time, she was parachuted in an area near Limoges. The entire operation didn't go as planned. In fact, things went horribly awry when Violette and another agent, Jacques Dufour, came across a German roadblock. Violette, already hampered by the leg injury, shot at her enemies while covering for her colleague. She was captured while Dufour escaped. She was handed over to the Gestapo who repeatedly raped and tortured her for information on the F Section. But, it seemed that she didn't reveal anything as rest of the Resistance network didn't face any backlash from her arrest. She was eventually shot to death by an SS officer with two other female agents. Her body was cremated.
Josephine Baker - The Spy Who Lived a Bizarre Whirlwind Life
Loyalty: France
Active years: During World War II
Fate: Survived the war; became a civil rights activist
Medals: Croix de Guerre; the Rosette de la Résistance; Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur
A celebrity who set stage on fire with her singing talents, Josephine Baker was known as 'La Baker' in the music scene of her times. She was born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri, the United States. However, after achieving fame on Broadway in 1924, she moved to Paris to boost her career and eventually became a citizen of France in 1937.

Though she was a member of the French Resistance, today she is more known for her bizarre lifestyle and scantily-clad performances. Little do people know that she was approached by her agent's brother, who invited her to work for the French government. As she was Afro-American and her husband was a Jew, she was dead against Nazi atrocities. They wanted her to pass on the gossips and tidbits of information that get circulated at parties. As high-profile parties at the European embassies usually included her, she was able to relay the information to her handler, without arousing suspicion.

When Germans occupied France, Baker went to live in her chateau situated in the south of France, where she gave refuge to several Belgians who were on the run. She also smuggled secret information by writing it on her sheet music in invisible ink. As her fame rose, she became an even more active member of the Resistance. She set up a theater and stage company in Marseilles, France, which was a front for an espionage organization. French and Belgian refugees, were trained as stage artists and other members of the theater were also taught the craft of undercover operations. Later, she joined the OSS at a great personal risk, even though she was told that there was a mole in the OSS operations. After the war, she retired from the espionage world, and went back to her stage life. By no means, that was the end of her contribution to the world; she became a civil rights activist in the 50s. She passed away in Paris in 1975.
Noor Inayat Khan - The Spy Princess
Agency: Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF); SOE; First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY)
Active years: 1940 - 1944
Fate: Killed in the Dachau concentration camp, Germany in 1944
Medals: George Cross; Croix de Guerre
A direct descendant of Tipu Sultan (who was a Muslim ruler in the 18th century), Noor Inayat Khan was born to an Indian father and American mother. She grew up listening to her father's teachings about Sufism, a religious Islamic movement that was based on non-violence and mysticism.

Khan enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and received training to be a wireless operator for 6 months. However, as fate would have it, she found herself employed by the SOE's French Section as they were in a dire need of wireless operators. Agents who worked with the radio equipment ran a risk of getting caught by the Germans, as this equipment made it easier for the enemies to pinpoint their location. Understanding the risk, Khan joined SOE and was given the code name, Madeleine. Though her trainers' initial reports stated that she was "not over-burdened with brains", she was nonetheless sent to the field as the need for a wireless operator surpassed the 'necessary field qualifications'. Even though she proved them all wrong, a betrayal at the hands of one of their agents compromised her mission and the SOE network in France was greatly hampered.

At a later point of time, she became the only person, whom F Section was able contact for ground information. Continuously evading several traps set by the Germans, she was finally captured, much to the delight of Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the German intelligence agency. She was executed in Sept. 1944, in the Dachau concentration camp.
Belle Boyd - The Southern Belle With an Ability of a Killer
Loyalty: Confederate States of America
Active years: During American Civil War
Fate: Died due to a heart attack in June, 1900
After killing a Union soldier for using profanity against her mother, she came into limelight during the American Civil War. She was acquitted of the crime as the officer who looked into this matter believed that, what she did was right. At the age of 17, she became a courier for the Confederates and her career as a rebel spy took off. She eavesdropped on the Union Army and passed on the information to the Confederates, often riding several miles amidst enemy fire.

This little rebel, remembered as the Belle Rebelle, is less revered for her spy work, and more for the way she went about it. She flirted with the Union soldiers and learned bits of military secrets from them. Thus, she managed to promptly deliver crucial information to the South. When the Union caught up to her espionage, they placed her under arrest. However, they were not able to detain her more than a week and she was released. It still didn't stop her from fighting for the rebel cause and she continued to be an asset to the Confederates. After several arrests and releases, she was banished to the South. When the civil war ended, she went to England to publicize her war memoirs. She spent her last few years in poverty.
Nancy Wake - The Spy Who Killed Someone With Her Bare Hands
Agency: SOE; FANY
Active years: 1943 - 1945
Fate: Survived the war; died because of natural causes at an old age
Medals: Companion of the Order of Australia; George Medal; Officier de la Légion d'Honneur; Croix de Guerre; Medal of Freedom; RSA Badge in Gold
Nancy Wake by no means was an ordinary woman. She was once quoted as saying, "I don't see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas." She moved to Europe from Australia in order to see the world and started to work as a freelance journalist. However, the world she saw was pretty stark to her perceived reality. She saw Jews being whipped to death on the streets and the rising of anti-Semitism. This sight paved the path for a determination that helped her in courageously fighting against Nazism.

After getting married to a wealthy industrialist, Henri Fiocca, she witnessed the invasion of France by Germany. Not being able to content herself as a mere observer, she joined the fight for the French Resistance as a courier and managed to smuggle messages and food to other underground agents. She also bought an ambulance and helped refugees make their escape. At a great risk to her life, she constantly helped the Resistance, going beyond the usual duties of a courier. However, Nazis were soon on her trail and she had to escape from France to Spain. Sadly, her husband was captured and shot to death by the Gestapo. She was soon nicknamed as 'The White Mouse' by the Germans for her habit of evading capture.

Blaming herself for her husband's death, she joined SOE and started working for Britain. In 1944, she was again sent to France on a mission that coincided with the D-Day. She was successful in completing the task of dropping off ammunition for the Allied forces that were advancing into the area.

After the war, she remarried and returned to Australia. She died at the age of 98. She once admitted killing a German sentry with her bare hands. A fellow comrade quipped, "She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts. Then she is like five men."
Ethel Rosenberg - The Spy Who was Betrayed by Her Brother
Loyalty: USSR (alleged)
Active years: During Cold War
Fate: Executed by USA for committing espionage
This is the story of a seemingly ordinary woman who was a mother of two children, and the wife of a spy. She, along with her husband, was tried and executed for obtaining secret information about American nuclear technology and handing over to the Russian government.

Born as Ethel Greenglass, she studied at a Seward Park High School from where she graduated at the age of 15. She had strong political views and joined the Young Communist League and later, became a member of the American Communist Party. Though she wanted to become a singer and an actress, she settled for a clerical job and played an active role in the trade union. After her marriage to Julius Rosenberg, she gave birth to two sons. During the World War II, Julius Rosenberg was working for the Army Signal Corps as a civilian inspector. However, he was fired from his job due to his political affiliations.

He opened a machine shop with Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, which didn't run well. In 1950, David Greenglass was arrested in connection with the passing of sensitive information to the former USSR. Greenglass, upon interrogation, coughed up Julius Rosenberg's name and on the basis of this confession, Ethel's husband was arrested. Not long after that, Ethel Rosenberg was also placed under arrest for her involvement in the case. Amidst the outpour of media attention, the trial began against the Rosenbergs. It was believed that the Ethel supported her husband's spying work by tying up the letter that contained the secrets of nuclear weapon technology. The couple was found guilty and were sentenced to electric chair for their crimes. Even years later, this case still doesn't fail to generate controversy, as the couple was not found guilty of treason, but of espionage; the punishment they received was considered to be too severe.
Amy Thorpe Pack - The Spy Who Mastered the Art of Seduction
Agency: MI6
Active years: 1937 - 1944
Fate: Survived the war; died at the age of 53
Sexpionage - is the word that the media coined to describe the likes of Mata Hari. Though this term cannot be used to describe the work Amy Thorpe Pack did, she was definitely an archetype of the proverbial femme fatale. Amy married a secretary at the British Embassy in Washington named Arthur Pack, after having an affair with him and becoming pregnant. Even though the marriage was on the rocks from the start, her husband's position gave her espionage career an impetus. Bored with her married life, she indulged herself with clandestine work and cheated on her husband quite frequently.

Using her unique position in the diplomat community, she charmed her way to the hearts of many of her targets. They all somehow fell for her demeanor beauty and she transmitted the information gathered from the pillow talk to her handlers. Not only that, she also helped several supporters of Spanish leader, Francisco Franco in fleeing from the country during the civil war in Spain.

After the formation of the Vichy government in the French State, Amy Pack was asked to identify and manipulate the anti-Vichy French patriots to the advantage of the British government. Later, MI6 gave her the codename, Cynthia and she was given an important mission that involved obtaining secrets of the Enigma cipher machine. Agent Cynthia began an affair with Charles Brousse, who was a press attache with the Vichy French Embassy. She helped him in defecting to the British side and together, they obtained copies of telegrams about the cipher machine from the French Embassy. Moreover, they were also under orders of obtaining the French Naval Ciphers that was kept in the Embassy under tight security. It took them three attempts, but they successfully managed to accomplish the impossible feat.

After the war, Arther Pack committed suicide and Amy Pack married her long-time lover Brousse. She died of throat cancer in 1963.
Influenced by the movies, we all think that the spies live in a world where the pens kill and the watches talk. Perhaps, the real life of a spy is not as per our imagination, but rest assured that it is stranger than fiction.