Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War

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When the Germans invaded her small Belgian village in 1914, Marthe Cnockaert’s home was burned and her family separated. After getting a job at a German hospital, and winning the Iron Cross for her service to the Reich, she was approached by a neighbor and invited to become an intelligence agent for the British. Not without trepidation, Cnockaert embarked on a career as a spy, providing information and engaging in sabotage before her capture and imprisonment in 1916. After the war, she was paid and decorated by a grateful British government for her service.

Cnockaert’s is only one of the surprising and gripping stories that comprise Female Intelligence. This is the first history of the female spies who served Britain during World War I, focusing on both the powerful cultural images of these women and the realities, challenges, and contradictions of intelligence service. Between the founding of modern British intelligence organizations in 1909 and the demobilization of 1919, more than 6,000 women served the British government in either civil or military occupations as members of the intelligence community. These women performed a variety of services, and they represented an astonishing diversity of nationality, age, and class. From Aphra Behn, who spied for the British government in the seventeenth century, to the most well known example, Mata Hari, female spies have a long history, existing in juxtaposition to the folkloric notion of women as chatty, gossipy, and indiscreet.

Using personal accounts, letters, official documents and newspaper reports, Female Intelligence interrogates different, and apparently contradictory, constructions of gender in the competing spheres of espionage activity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“How did women's work contribute to the propagation of war, and impact their own changing relation to the nation-state? How did women themselves, their contemporaries and popular culture represent their war work in gendered terms? Tammy Proctor addresses these significant questions in her intriguing study of women spies. As Proctor shows, women's substantial work for the developing British intelligence service belied the figure of the treacherous and seductive woman spy.”
-Angela Woollacott,author of On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War

“A useful and engaging history of women in the British intelligence service during World War I. The book is an important contribution to the history of British intelligence and sheds light on the unglamorous reality of a highly romanticized aspect of women's work.”
-American Historical Review

“In Female Intelligence, Tammy Proctor attempts to rescue female spies from cliches that classed them as either sexual predators or martyred virgins, manipulators or dupes, heartless vamps or emotional basket cases.”
-New Yorker

“This engaging and intelligent study of women in espionage adds to our understanding of the experience of women during the First World War and of the legacy of their work, both mythic and real. Proctor carefully explores why the image of the female “spy seductress”—notably the iconic Mata Hari—has endured and uncovers the largely unknown history of this pivotal generation of women intelligence workers.”
-Susan R. Grayzel,author of Women’s Identities At War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War

“Retells forgotten stories and unearths new evidence of intrepid female field agents. . . . Proctor’s archival discoveries hint at countless small acts of audacity and defiance. . . . Thanks to books like this one, the history of female espionage—from Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Van Lew to Lotus Blossum to Stella Rimington—is slowly being filled out.”
-London Review of Books

The New Yorker
The image of the seductive female agent frightened and fascinated people even before Mata Hari faced a French firing squad, in 1917. Not only did it tap into fears about women's treachery, but it distinguished between the government-intelligence bureaucracy and the more dangerous and romantic aspects of espionage. In Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War, Tammy Proctor attempts to rescue female spies from clichés that classed them as either sexual predators or martyred virgins, manipulators or dupes, heartless vamps or emotional basket cases.

Elizabeth Bentley, the subject of Lauren Kessler's Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley and the Dawn of the Mc Carthy Era, fell into the latter camp--more a depressive than a femme fatale. A Communist spy while her K.G.B. lover was alive, Bentley came clean to the F.B.I., which led to the first of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts. Later in life, lonely and alcoholic, she was reduced to supporting herself with speaking fees and an overwrought memoir.

The anonymous author of Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America, an Iraqi-born Jew, has spent years disguising herself to attend Muslim rallies and conferences. When she was a child, her father was executed by Saddam Hussein as an alleged Israeli agent--a trauma she thinks led her into the spy game. But she's aware of the equivocal nature of her profession: lecturing a pair of F.B.I. agents, she is delighted to see them dumbfounded at her competence; earlier, she says, "they'd been ogling me."

(Kate Taylor)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814766941
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 205
  • Sales rank: 1,086,137
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Tammy M. Proctor is professor of history at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. She is the author of On My Honour: Guides and Scouts in Interwar Britain, Scouting for Girls: A Century of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War (NYU Press).

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
1 Intelligence before the Great War
2 DORA’s Women and the Enemy within Britain
3 Women behind the Scenes
4 Soldiers without Uniforms
5 Spies Who Knew How to Die
6 Intimate Traffic with the Enemy
Conclusion: “Perpetual Concubinage to Your King and Country”
About the Author

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