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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 266 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 9: Spies

Saturday, August 19, 2023 - 12:19

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 266 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 9: Spies - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/08/19 - listen here)

Professions as Tropes

So far in the “Our F/Favorite Tropes” series, I’ve tended to focus on topics where gender is a functional aspect in how the trope plays out, such as marriage-based tropes or tropes that depend on assumptions about sexual tension. But many popular tropes simply feature aspects of the characters’ lives: their personalities, their life history, or their profession. With respect to professions (understood broadly) we definitely see gendered aspects in what professions are popular in fiction, or which are considered to have romantic potential.

There’s a motif that often comes up when discussing sapphic historical fiction that I’d like to tackle head-on, and that is the notion that women in history “weren’t interesting” and therefore that one either needs to manipulate them artificially into a male-coded profession, or go to the length of gender disguise in order to have at least one of your romantic protagonists be interesting enough to support the plot.

If you will excuse the vulgarity: bullshit!

It would be bad enough if I heard this notion from people who disparage the idea of woman-centered fiction in general, but too often I hear it from people who are fans of lesbian fiction as a rationale for why they don’t like historical fiction. Or from writers and readers of lesbian historical fiction explaining why they require at least one character to take on a male-coded role in the story. Or, for that matter, as a reason for why a fictional woman with an unexpected profession is considered “unbelievable”.

As a general booster of sapphic historical fiction, I do understand the attraction of adapting popular tropes, plots, and character types from heterosexual fiction and simply slotting one of the female protagonists into a traditionally male role. But as a historian and a feminist I find it immensely frustrating to see the implicit message, time and again, that women-as-women are inherently boring.

So in the trope episodes that explore professions, I’m not going to take the angle of “here is how you can have your heroine get around the problem that Women Didn’t Do This Thing” but rather to talk about the contexts and ways in which actual historic women Did The Thing.

To some extent, I kicked this off in the episode on Aristocrats and Billionaires by touching on ways in which women could become independently wealthy.  But today we’re tackling something a bit less ordinary: women as spies.

Espionage and Romance

Espionage creates a gloriously rich context for angst-filled romances. Not only is there a lot of potential for an enemies-to-lovers plot (as I mentioned in the episode covering that trope), but the inherent complexities of dissimulation, dishonesty, ulterior motives, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties lend themselves to a storyline in which the romantic conflicts and misunderstandings are solidly grounded rather than being trivial or artificial.

For same-sex romance plots, there is also the thematic parallel of being closeted in one’s profession as well as perhaps in one’s romantic desires. (Although, as always, I’ll note that modern concepts of being closeted or feeling a need to be covert about romantic or erotic attraction don’t necessarily map directly to historic experiences.) All in all, the life of a spy means that you are regularly trying to establish relationships of questionable sincerity, usually for a third party’s benefit, in contexts where being open and honest about your identity and desires could mean peril or death. I hope I don’t have to justify why having one or both of your romantic protagonists be a spy is guaranteed story potential!

Women in Espionage

So here’s the other side of the question: when and in what contexts in history were women engaged in espionage? What sorts of roles did they have and what types of actions did they take? And were those roles conducive to engaging in same-sex romances or would special pleading be needed?

Let’s first acknowledge that espionage has been a key aspect of politics and war since the earliest written records. The forms might differ, but the essential truth is that any time two cultures, states, or peoples come in contact with each other, people will be working hard to gather information on the other side while trying just as hard to keep information about their own side concealed. Any traveler, diplomat, or guest is a potential spy—and is often expected to be so by their own people. When the other party in a conflict comes into your territory, every ordinary person has the potential to become a spy, if they’re in the right place at the right time and paying attention.

The information being gathered might have to do with resources, technologies, plans, intentions, or actions in process. The spy may be purely an observer or may also be providing carefully selected information, either to affect the other side’s decisions or as a quid-pro-quo. Espionage may slide over into sabotage, either by the provision of false information or by acting against people or resources.

A spy may be motivated by loyalty or be a hired agent or a mixture of both. Or she might be playing all sides against each other, either for profit or personal power. Even when the arrangement was financial, bonds between spies and their handlers tended to be personal, rather than more anonymously administrative, which may explain continuing loyalties even when pay was scanty and infrequent. In the complicated politics of Europe, those loyalties were rarely as simple as basic nationalism, but followed lines of religion, family or marital allegiance, political alignment, or even simple charisma.

Spies came from all walks of life. Although our typical image of the official diplomat who doubles as a spy is male, it isn’t uncommon for women of the court—whether courtiers or courtesans—to fill a diplomatic role less formally. Female spies of the aristocracy often found themselves in that role to step in for a husband or father who had ben killed or imprisoned, or was in diplomatic service. All the way up through the 20th century, being a female member of the aristocracy often meant spending much of your adult life embedded in another culture, tangled in a complex jumble of allegiences.

But women of the middle and working class might be recruited or volunteer just as often, though their specific names are less likely to be recorded. All that was needed was access to information, the motivation to use that information, and a contact to pass it along to. Non-aristocratic women were more likely to act as agents in their home cultures, especially during wartime. But they might also become foreign agents if attached to the household of someone who traveled, or if engaged in commerce that involved travel.

In all these functions, women spies had significant advantages over men. Author Nadine Akkerman elaborates on this point in her book Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain. They were socially invisible. Men considered them less sophisticated, less astute, and less politically aware. They were often given a significant benefit of the doubt when acting suspiciously.  Nobody expected women to be involved in covert activities. And when they did come under suspicion, many women could leverage male courtesy. The same prejudice that leads us today to view espionage as a male profession served as useful cover again and again across the centuries, even in the face of the evidence.

Women were invisible in another way too, as providers of hospitality, goods, and personal services. In every army camp, every city, and every countryside, women came and went serving food, providing hospitality, doing laundry, cleaning living quarters, organizing social events, and so forth. A clever woman with even a smidge of acting talent could watch, listen, and read documents without being thought of as anything but part of the furniture. And that’s without taking into account the usefulness of manipulating male egos to boast of things better kept secret, if a woman is the one listening. We see this again and again in male commentary on secrecy and discretion—that the presence and access of women is dismissed and downplayed.

Another advantage women had in many cultural contexts was a hesitancy to perform rigorous searches of their person. Secret messages were concealed under clothing—or even sewn into the interior of garments—or tucked into elaborate hairdos, or hidden in jewelry or other household objects. This hesitancy to accost and search women, combined with the baseline lack of suspicion, offered a higher rate of success than males spies might expect. Furthermore, female spies, even when discovered, might be able to turn gender prejudice to their advantage, arguing that they had been duped, or were ignorant of the purpose they had been recruited for, or simply that they were deserving of mercy for their gender. This could be crucial in eras when unmasked spies might be tortured to reveal their contacts, and execution was a typical sentence.

The lack of suspicion extended to the objects and activities used to communicate information. There are stories in the 18th and 19th centuries of women using laundry as means of communicating signals and basic information, coded in the specific types and colors of garments hung out to dry. Secret messages might be written literally “between the lines” of ordinary correspondence using invisible ink (formulas for which are recorded as early as the 1st century) as well as being more obviously concealed with codes and cyphers. If a woman’s correspondence gave the appearance of concerning household and family matters, it might not be examined more deeply. Women gathering to talk in private are dismissed as “gossips,” not suspected of passing along intelligence.

Female spies might work alone, connected only to the “handler” that they passed information to. But from the 17th century onward, we also have evidence of women working together in organized rings that collaborated and supported each other.

A lot of the literature on women in espionage focuses on the 20th century and military contexts such as the two world wars or the Cold War. But we can identify female spies by name in Europe at least as early as the 16th century, and doubtless earlier if one were looking for them.

So let’s take a brief tour of some specific female spies, with a big nod to Wikipedia for having century-by-century indexes of people so categorized, starting in the 16th century.

The Spies

A Venetian woman named Beatrice Michiel, later known as Fatma Hatun, fled an unhappy marriage in Italy to join family in Constantinople, married a general of the jannissaries, and proceeded to send intelligence on the Ottoman court back to Venice during the reigns of two sultans. She was not the only female spy in the Ottoman court, and had regular alliances and conflicts with the others in trying to influence policy via the sultan’s mother.

When Catherine de Medici married the heir to the French throne at age 14 in 1533 she was thrust into a foreign culture with few allies. Even when she became queen she was expected to play second fiddle to the king’s mistress. But the king’s death when their three sons were still boys brought her into the middle of power struggles for influence. When her eldest son died, she was ready with her network of spies and influencers and ruthlessly took up the reins of power.  One of her tools was a group of beautiful female spies known as her “flying squadron,” skilled at extracting information from the men of the court.

Isabella Hoppringle, the head of Coldstream Priory located on the border between Scotland and England worked as an intelligence agent for England, aided by her personal friendship with Margaret Tudor, the dowager queen of Scotland.

Elizabethan England was rife with networks of spies, not only in direct service to the queen—or at least, to the queen’s spy-masters, but private individuals also had their own information networks, such as Bess of Hardwick, the Countess of Shrewsbury, who with her husband had custody of the exiled Mary Queen of Scots.

Although it’s less commonly on the radar of historical fiction readers, the north of Europe was full of political turmoil in the early modern period. When Ebba Bielke’s father was imprisoned for supporting King Sigismund of Poland against King Charles of Sweden, Ebba took on the task of supplying her father with essential intelligence about the progress of conspiracies against Charles.

During the Thirty Years War, Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis was the de facto postmistress of the Holy Roman Empire, after the death of her husband, the hereditary holder of the office, and during the minority of her son. “Postmaster” was far from a boring administrative post—she had access to every piece of correspondence that traveled within the empire and employed a network of agents to systematically open, review, and copy the contents of anything important that passed through their hands. She was successful for a long time because even those who suspected their letters were being tampered with, found it difficult to believe that a prominent noblewoman could be directing the surveillance.

Across the centuries, there’s no context like a civil war for espionage to create opportunities for drama. I previously mentioned Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents, which covers much of the English Civil War and interregnum. The most familiar name to listeners of this podcast may be Aphra Behn, who spied for Charles II, but she was only one of many women on all sides of the conflicts of the mid-17th century who engaged in espionage, not only in England, but in France and the Low Countries.

Elizabeth Alkin was a newspaper publisher and Parliamentarian spy during the English Civil War who worked to identify rival Royalist publishers.

Elizabeth Maitland was Countess of Dysart in her own right (remember from the aristocrats episode how this is a rare possibility) and was Duchess of Lauderdale by marriage. Her father saw to it that she received a classical education, as well as learning the skills to run an estate. Her family were royalists and Elizabeth was active in the secret organization known as the Sealed Knot and passed along information to exiled followers of Charles II on the continent, even developing her own recipe for an invisible ink. The intelligence she provided came from close social connections with the parliamentarian side, including Oliver Cromwell, with whom she successfully interceded for the life of the man who would much later become her second husband. At the Restoration of the monarchy, she was rewarded for her work and loyalty with lands and a pension—a far cry from the scraps that many spies of less exalted position had to be content with.

Not all royalist spies were from the aristocracy. Jane Whorwood’s family had minor positions at the Scottish court, her mother a laundress and her father the surveyor of the royal stables. But they worked their way up in responsibility and prestige, her mother later marrying a groom of the bedchamber to the princes Henry and Charles who would later become Charles I. During the Civil War, the whole family was active in royalist causes, especially channeling funds from supporters. Jane’s husband had gone into exile on the continent but she remained with the court in Oxford, once personally smuggling nearly a ton of gold concealed in laundry soap barrels, and helping to create a network of intelligence contacts ranging from London to Edinburgh, as well as participating in an unsuccessful plot to help Charles I escape captivity from Hampton Court. Letters in cipher between Jane and King Charles indicate that she also became his mistress when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, which reflects the close access she had for exchanging information. Her labors, alas, went largely unrewarded and unrecognized after the Restoration, compounded by a violent and unhappy relationship with her long-estranged husband. At one point, she reflected, “My travels, the variety of accidents (and especially dangers) more become a Romance than a letter.” I think we agree.

Wars between France and various coalitions, conflicts of interest and loyalty meant that family background or place of residence weren’t a predictor of loyalties. The French noblewoman Marie de Hautefort was a favorite of King Louis XIII, but although she benefitted from his friendship, her loyalty was to Queen Anne who was regularly under suspicion for her Spanish origins. Declining to spy for the king as an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, she instead spied on the king as an agent for the queen and assisted her in conducting secret correspondence with Spanish agents.

Queen Anne was surrounded by spies, working for different factions of the French and Spanish courts. When she first arrived in France, she was accompanied by Countess Inés de la Torre who had been planted in her household by the king of Spain to spy on Anne and report back on how well she supported Spanish interests, cooperating closely with the Spanish ambassador in France. Inés was replaced in Anne’s household by Marie de Rohan, duchess de Chevreuse who had her hand in more conspiracies and plots than it’s possible to detail here, resulting in regular periods of exile from France. Marie de Rohan features among the the female spies and intriguers fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.

Another woman in the orbit of Queen Anne was Madeleine du Fargis, who was placed in the queen’s household by Cardinal Richelieu in the expectation that she would be his agent there. Instead she befriended the queen and, after she was exiled to Brussels following a purge of the queen’s household sparked by plots against Richelieu, she became the queen’s agent there, engaging in secret correspondence to provide information on plots and alliances, as well as serving as a conduit for information gathered by others.

As an example of how tangled loyalties could become, we have the example of Swiss aristocrat Katharina Franziska von Wattenwyl who spied on behalf of King Louis XIV of France when protestant sympathizers in Bern were planning an alliance with England. Katharina had picked up her allegiances as a young woman sent to the French court where she appears to have led a rather wild life. A conflict with a French noblewoman resulted in a challenge to fight a midnight duel with pistols on horseback, reverting to swords when it turned out that the pistols were not loaded. On another occasion, she shot a count who was annoying her during a hunt. Her fame led to an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden—yes, that Queen Christina—to join her as a lady in waiting, and isn’t that an alternate history that could have been very interesting indeed? When an exodus of Huguenots from France into Switzerland, due to religious persecution, resulted in Swiss sentiment against the French crown, Katharina was recruited as an agent by the French ambassador, trading on her local contacts and access. When her messages were intercepted, she was imprisoned and tortured, but escaped a death sentence thanks to family influence.

Toward the end of the 17th century, Anna Maria Clodt’s position as a trusted confidante of the Queen of Sweden gave her a chance to leverage her access for profit from those who wanted favors from the queen. But when she turned her hand to supplying information to foreign agents, such as the Danish envoy to Sweden, she crossed the line to espionage.

Another Swedish courtier who turned her hand to espionage for profit was Beata Sparre, whose position as lady-in-waiting to two successive queens of Sweden offered scope for influence peddling, which again crossed the line to spying when she acted as an agent for the French ambassador.

Moving on to the 18th century, we begin to have so many examples I’m going to pick and choose. Women were engaged in intelligence-gathering on both sides of the American Revolution. Women had access to information from opponents in the context of providing hospitality, goods, or services. Signals encoded in everyday public activities such as hanging up the laundry were beneath suspicion—a technique used by Anna Smith Strong to signal the timing and location of messages to be picked up.

Domestic activities required easy movement and casual interactions with neighbors and merchants, creating a context for passing information, and this was used by Lydia Barrington Darragh to report on the conversations of British officers quartered in her house.

When Emily Geiger was carrying messages on behalf of General Nathaniel Greene, she was captured but maintained the secrecy of the message by eating it while her captors were trying to locate a woman loyal to the British side to search her. With no proof available, Emily was released and later delivered the memorized message verbally.

The British side of the Revolution had their own share of female agents. Ann Bates was part of several intelligence networks and completed a number of expeditions into Washington’s camp, disguised as a pedlar, which enable her to eavesdrop on logistical conversations as well as taking inventories of troops and equipment. Her work was extensive enough that eventually she was regularly at risk of being recognized and exposed, having several narrow escapes by means of a network of loyalist safe houses. After the war she moved to England and successfully petitioned for a pension to repay her efforts.

The French revolution and the Napoleonic era afterwards caught up a number of women — especially women of the aristocracy — in intelligence gathering.

The English actress Charlotte Atkyns was recruited as a royalist spy in Paris at the outbreak of the revolution and was active in several plots to try to rescue the royal family.

Camille du Bois de la Motte slipped into the role of spy for France when acting as hostess and secretary for her father , who served as the French ambassador first to Spain and then to Sweden. In Sweden she became a close confidante of Princess Charlotte who would later become queen of Sweden and was accused of passing along government secrets that Charlotte shared with her to foreign diplomats at the Swedish court.

The Baroness d’Oettlinger was the nom de guerre of one of Napoleon’s agents, working in Germany to gather information on the activities of exiled royalists by presenting herself as an exile.

Etta d’Aelders was a Dutch feminist who encouraged the French revolutionaries to extend their ideals of equality to women. From being active in French and Dutch intellectual circles, she became a courtesan at the Dutch court and was recruited there by the French secret service, though her activities served a variety of political interests. She teetered on the line between diplomacy and espionage, reporting on attitudes towards leaders or situations and offering advice and arguments regarding specific actions, but she was eventually imprisoned at the Hague as a spy.

There were so very many women who mixed espionage with the more ordinary duties of a courtier that it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface.

Moving on to the 19th century, let’s stick to a brief survey of female spies during the American Civil War. The intertwined nature of the two sides provided many opportunities for women who were engaged in everyday activities to have access to conversations and information.

Confederate supporter Belle Boyd based her espionage operations in her father’s hotel in Virginia. In addition to eavesdropping from concealed locations in the hotel, she took advantage of the tendency of Union soldiers to boast and brag to a beautiful woman. She passed this intelligence on to Confederate officers concealing the messages in a hollow watch case. Her work was so effective that the Pinkerton agency assigned three men to track her down.

And speaking of the Pinkertons, at least two women worked as spies for the agency during the Civil War. Hattie Lawton and Kate Warne were involved in uncovering an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln, among other more routine activities.

The women most at hazard when spying were Black women spying for the Union. Harriet Tubman had set up her extensive intelligence network for the purpose of liberating people from slavery, but when the war began she also used it to support the gathering of military intelligence, as well as more direct actions.

A woman whose name has not been recorded deliberately returned to where she had been enslaved after she and her husband had escaped to freedom so that she could spy on the Confederate officers camped nearby and pass messages to her husband on the other side of the lines by means of a code embedded in how she hung the laundry out to dry.

When the Confederate navy was building the ironclad ship Merrimack, Mary Touvestre, a free Black woman working as a housekeeper for one of the ship’s engineers, stole the plans for the ship and traveled secretly to Washington DC to deliver them to Union officials.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was part of a spy ring in Richmond organized by an eccentric socialite who arranged for Bowser to be hired as a servant at the Confederate White House. Taking advantage of the prejudice that assumed a Black woman would be illiterate and ignorant, she gained access to critical documents left out in the open and later reported their memorized content to her contact.


Can we identify any specific women who we know to have been spies and also to have been engaged in same-sex romances? With the aforementioned exception of Aphra Behn, perhaps not. But though many of the female spies in our brief tour found themselves recruited in the context of marriage to men (or other less formal arrangements), many others had careers where romantic relations with men were not a factor. The question feels like a red herring. As this podcast regularly points out, same-sex desire (in culturally-appropriate forms) is present throughout history. So an overlap between women who might experience that desire and women who might find themselves engaged in espionage is inevitable. And I would love to read more of those stories!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about women in espionage through the ages and why this makes a great context for romance

Sources mentioned

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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