Why A Female Protagonist?

Part One: Real Spies

Why a female protagonist? Why not?

One of my two main protagonists is U.N. spy Mai Fisher, whom I tout as a “strong female protagonist” in my marketing. Some have asked why. (See question above, and I’ll leave it to you to speculate on which gender asks the question.) I write about a female protagonist for the same reason that other women authors do: It was hard to find them in mysteries, police procedurals, and espionage fiction unless women wrote them.

Even my writing mentor (he doesn’t know this yet) John le Carre gives us stalwart and sometimes flawed male protagonists, with women in secondary roles. One thing I’ll say about le Carre, the women aren’t subservient nor femme fatales, and, granted, at the time he was in British Intelligence, there would not have been a Georgina Smiley. Sadly.

Women have been involved in espionage since there was espionage, so let’s take a look at some real women spies.

Rahab, The Harlot of Jericho

Rahab lived in Jericho in Old Testament times. Called a prostitute by some, she may have simply been an innkeeper. Regardless of her profession, she gave shelter to two Israelite spies, send to reconnoiter the strength of Jericho’s defenses. Soldiers within the city walls tracked the spies down to Rahab’s house and demanded she produce them. Instead, she hid them–but only after they promised the Israelites would spare her family in the subsequent battle. They agreed, and so the Israelite army would know who to spare in any massacre, she placed a red cord out the window of her residence, which was built into the famous wall–perhaps the first use of a physical signal. After Jericho’s fall, Rahab and her family were incorporated among the Jewish people. We may speculate why Rahab chose to help conquerers instead of her own city, but I’d like to think a strong woman took a chance to save her family.

Anna Smith Strong, The Culper Spy Ring

Anna Strong may have been the only woman among George Washington’s famous Culper Spy Ring, operating out of New York City during the Revolutionary War. She relayed signals to a whaleboat operator who smuggled supplies for Washington’s army. Whenever it was safe for the whaleboat to execute a delivery, she hung a black petticoat on her clothesline, visible to boats on the water. To communicate which hiding place where the supplies should be left, she’d add a specific number of handkerchiefs to the line. Historians are divided whether the mysterious female member of the Culper Spy Ring was Strong, but she would have had good reason to go against the British: They had her husband on a prison ship on New York Harbor.

Women Spies in the Civil War

The Confederacy had a long list of women who spied for their lost cause: Fannie Battle (who would travel with her sister in and out of Nashville to smuggle medicines and make note of Union positions and numbers); Belle Boyd, the “Cleopatra of the Secession” or the “Siren of the Shenandoah,” who spied for the Confederacy from her father’s inn in Front Royal, Virginia, (not far from me); Nancy Hart Douglas, a scout, guide, and spy for the Confederacy and a member of a pro-Confederate guerrilla group in West Virginia–her spying ability was so admired, she was allowed to join the Confederate Army; and there were plenty more.

The Union had Mary Bowser (one of her many aliases), who was born into slavery but freed as a child, who supposedly worked as a servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, passing information on to her spymaster; actress Pauline Cushman, considered to be one of the most successful Civil War spies, became a spy when two Confederate soldiers forced her to toast the Confederacy, proving hell hath no fury like a woman made to do something she didn’t want to; and there is the incredible Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who helped John Brown, and who after working as a cook and nurse for the Union Army, was recruited to be an armed scout and spy. Tubman has the distinction of being the first woman to lead an armed raid at Combahee Ferry, in the process freeing more than 700 slaves. Like the Confederacy, the Union had plenty of women willing to risk their lives for a cause.

Mata Hari

Variously known as an exotic dancer or a Dutch courtesan, Mata Hari stunned Europe in the early 20th century with her dances, influenced by her time in the Dutch East Indies. By the time World War I broke out, her popularity as a dancer had declined, but she was “in demand” as a courtesan, having become the mistress of several high-ranking military officers–French and German. Because the Netherlands was neutral during the war, she could cross borders with ease. It was the French who asked her to obtain military secrets from her various German lovers, but she also shared secrets from her French lovers with the Germans. That was her ultimate downfall. The French tried her and executed her by firing squad for espionage, and her story is far more complicated than a short paragraph can explain. Indeed, she may have been set up as a scapegoat to account for the high losses of French soldiers in the war.


The British in World War II knew they had to improvise and innovate to win a war against a powerful enemy like Nazi Germany, and no one knew that better than Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill established the Special Operations Executive, consisting of agents and spies to work with resistance movements in Europe, to gather intelligence, and to conduct action of sabotage. Many SOE spies were women for the sole reason that no one would expect them to be. Men and women underwent the same rigorous training and executed the same types of missions. I briefly worked for a woman who had been in the SOE and who parachuted behind enemy lines to work with a resistance movement in planning hostile actions against the Germans. She was captured and tortured but survived. Truly, a strong, female protagonist.

The Cold War to Present Day

Much of what women spies did in the Cold War isn’t yet declassified and is quite often speculated on in fiction. We get a few glimpses into the lives of women who were real spies–Valerie Plaime, disguise artist Jonna Mendez, Gina Haspel, who now heads the CIA, and more. Stella Rimington became the first head of British Intelligence and now writes spy fiction. And women were effective spies not only in the west. The Soviet Union and the Chinese have made use of women spies, playing on patriarchal notions that no one would suspect a woman of being a spy.

So What am I Complaining About?

Nothing, really. There are plenty of examples of strong, female protagonists in real espionage. You have to hunt for them, however, because they are quite often glossed over in history class, where the emphasis frequently rests on these women’s sexual exploits as spies.

I write fiction, so in part two, I’ll talk about how women spies have appeared in popular culture–books, movies, and television.