From Delilah via Mata Hari to numerous modern-day women intelligence officers, the concept of a female spy is hardly new
In a recent interview, Daniel Craig said a woman should not play James Bond but that there should be better roles for women instead. After you fight through the obligatory nonsense that meets any public comment that attaches fixed attributes to genders, there is actually a discussion to be had about what Craig, in his innocent (foolhardy?), way was trying to say. He was referencing the dearth of decent roles for women in acting: the actress Glenda Jackson noted that there isn’t a huge amount to do between playing Juliet or Cordelia in your 20s and Cleopatra or Gertrude in your 50s (she became an MP in the British House of Parliament to fill the gap).
But there is another angle to this discussion, and that is the seeming preposterousness of the idea of a woman spy who can match the capabilities of James Bond. ‘Jemima Bond’ is an oft-used name a women 00, deliberately chosen to reference the first name of a dolly from a British children’s TV programme, ‘Playschool’. Sadly for the harrumphing, golf club bore types who hold this view (which is often accompanied with images of kitchens, ironing and babies), history and contemporary reality does not support that assertion.
There is a flaw in the proposition that there can be a woman to match James Bond and that is the default assumption that she must, therefore, be capable of doing everything James Bond can do. In the physical sense, Bond in the novels and the films is clearly fit, fitter than most in fact, and actually, fit enough to kill people with his bare hands. But, hard as Bond is, he is often presented with enemies who are considerably ‘harder’:
Red Grant in the Ian Fleming novel ‘From Russia with Love’ is both exceptionally fit and completely psychotic; Oddjob in both the novel and the film of ‘Goldfinger’ is another example (he hardens his hands by karate chopping a wooden post for hours on end and then sharpens the calloused edges); and Jaws, a giant with metal teeth who appears as a combined murderous henchman and clown in the films ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker‘. But Bond still defeats them because, while he is often labelled ‘a blunt instrument’, he is also intelligent, imaginative and shows considerable guile. Women can exhibit all those attributes as well. Firearms are also a great leveller, since they show no gender bias towards who is pulling the trigger.
‘Not as physically fit as a man’ is a weak argument anyway. A number of women have passed notoriously demanding military courses such as the British military’s Commando and Parachute Regiment selection courses and the US military’s Airborne and Ranger courses, courses which the vast majority of men would struggle to complete. But would a woman James Bond need to be able to jump out of a plane, run thirty miles and then kill someone, when there are already so many others who can do that?
That leaves the remainder of Bond’s role, the ‘proper’ spying: clandestine activities such as identifying and exploiting sources of sensitive information, infiltration, deception, and then, when the time is right, scuppering the other side’s plans. All of these should be within the ability of a clever, resourceful, well trained operative, male or female. The whole process need not necessarily have to follow the Bond model of taking the villain’s money off him in the casino, having sex with his girlfriend and then killing him.
Operatives and Analysts
Spies these days divide roughly into two groups, anyway: the operatives and the analysts. The balance has shifted in the digital age to the latter, geeks phone hacking and image analysing their way to victory. Analyst roles are, therefore, gender neutral. But we remain for the moment focused on operatives like James Bond. (You seldom see Bond at a computer, unless he is taping it to some explosives as a detonator so he can blow up the villain’s lair.)
Men Underestimate Women
Women have a natural advantage in covert activity as well: most men underestimate women by default. There is an assumption (again flawed) that a female spy must be beautiful and willing to use all her wiles (ALL her wiles) to get the information out of the target. Some national intelligence agencies have been very active in their use of this approach, called ‘the honeypot’ (notably the former Soviet Union). But this assumes that a man, once he has got what he wants from the random beautiful woman who just seduced him, will immediately tell her everything about his plans for world domination, stolen nuclear missiles, underwater bases and all. But rival spies or other people of interest to intelligence agencies – politicians, security forces commanders, business magnates, scientists and so on – don’t tend to be stupid. That said, they can have foibles that leave them open to compromise, hence the continuing value of the honeypot approach. Foibles aren’t limited to an eye for the ladies either.
More likely, though, is the simple fact that many men simply don’t pay any attention to women. British intelligence agencies deployed women in the fight against the terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army, the IRA: but in the guise of, say, barmaids, or innocuous women pushing prams along the road, listening while senior terrorists chatted amongst themselves about their next planned attack and where they had hidden the loot from their last bank raid (terrorism is an expensive hobby). The IRA did, on the other hand, use women to lure off duty soldiers to their deaths, playing on the baser instincts of young soldiers.
A Woman’s Advantage
There are also cultural mores that work in women’s favour beyond the fact that many spies or terrorists (or men in general) just don’t think a woman could possibly be a threat. Somalia’s al-Qa’ida linked terror group, al-Shabaab, is on record as using the trusted wives of its fighters to raise finance through running businesses (everything from clothes shops to construction firms, apparently) to conducting intelligence gathering in government-controlled areas – because no-one questions or searches women, never mind thinks they might be raising funds or actively scouting out a target for an attack. Al-Shabaab has also gone one step further and used female assassins, although the mission is usually a one way trip for the woman that ends in self-detonation.
So what does she look like, a woman James Bond? Yes, she will be fit, but not to the extent that she resembles a Soviet-era female weightlifter. She simply needs to be fit enough to endure long hours, high levels of stress and, sadly, be able to take the pain if compromised. She might be stunning, she might not. If anything, someone who blends into the background might be just as useful as someone who turns every head in Monte Carlo. Spies often assume cover roles as journalists, business owners, and even missionaries – you don’t have to be a former catwalk model to fill any of those roles.
She might well be of a nationality other than Caucasian: a woman of, say, the Mediterranean or Arab operative could feasibly operate anywhere from Morocco to Afghanistan, while a black female spy could operate anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean (and the US).
What she will be, though, is clever, mentally robust, resourceful and committed: just like James Bond. She may even allow herself the occasional martini as well.