Book Review: Agente: Female Secret Agents in World Wars, Cold Wars and Civil Wars


by Douglas Boyd

Stroud, Eng.: The History Press / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2017. Pp. 256. Illus., notes, index. $29.95 paper. ISBN: 0750966947

Women who Spied, Sabotaged, and Subverted

Boyd, author of a number of works, including Daughters of the KGB, on Soviet female agents, and Voices from the Dark Years, on Occupied France, gives us an overview of several score of women who engaged in covert activities – spying, conducting sabotage, running escape lines and safe houses, and more – from Biblical times to the present.

Some of these women are reasonably well-known, such as the Civil War’s Elizabeth Van Lew, Rose Greenhow, and Belle Boyd, or the Great War’s Mata Hari and Edith Cavell, but most are less famous, such at the Comintern agent Sonya Hamburger.. Some of their stories are inspiring, but many are tragic, ending in execution, often after horrific torture, as was the case of the British agent Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan at the hands of the Germans.

The book is full of all sorts of trickery and treachery, double and even triple crossing, daring escapades and escapes, and death in the experiences of these women.  Some of them, such as Nancy Wake, had adventures while spying on the Germans in World War II France that would seem improbable in a cinematic thriller. Boyd fits the work of the women into the events in which they played part, but he wisely notes that the real importance of some agents – male as well as female – may never be known.

Boyd also makes some useful observations about attitudes toward women agents. Although their motives differed little from those of their male counterparts – ideology, patriotism, loyalty, profit, opportunity, survival, etc. – they had to confront sexist beliefs that they lacked sufficient dedication or courage, or were too “emotional” for covert work. He notes the vastly different attitudes toward male and female agents who made use of sex in their work.

While not a definitive history of women in covert operations, Agente offers a good overview of the many ways women have served in covert operations.

Note: Agente is also available in several e-formats.


Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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