Top 10 Woman Spies In History

Top 10 Woman Spies In History
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Sarah O'Sullivan
These female spies were the best in the biz. For this list, we'll be looking at some of the most cunning and courageous women in espionage throughout history. Our countdown of the top women spies includes Sandra Grimes, Mata Hari, Vera Atkins, and more!

Top 10 Woman Spies

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Woman Spies.

For this list, we’ll be looking at some of the most cunning and courageous women in espionage throughout history.

Do you know about other women spies who deserve to be on the list? Please tell us in the comments! (Bonus points if you write in code)

#10: Sandra Grimes

Sandra Grimes was a CIA agent for over twenty years, but her most famous achievement occurred toward the end of her career. In the late 1980s, the CIA realized that several US agents in the USSR were compromised. One of their own spies had betrayed them, but who? They assigned a team to catch the mole, including Grimes, who had previous experience in the Soviet Bloc. In 1992, she made a crucial discovery: one particular agent had been secretly making large bank deposits right after meeting his Russian contact. That agent was Aldrich Ames, a man with alcohol use disorder who was struggling to pay off a huge divorce settlement. After confessing his treasonous acts, Ames went to prison for life; and Grimes, to a well-earned retirement.

#9: Edith Tudor-Hart

Edith Tudor-Hart was a British/Austrian photographer committed to documenting the hardships of civilians in World War II. She just also happened to be one of the Soviet Union’s best recruiting agents in England. Tudor-Hart found other young idealists and won them to her cause, while staying under the radar. She was the catalyst for the “Cambridge Spy Ring,” a group of highly-placed British agents who sent information to Russia for decades. Due to her idealism, Tudor-Hart refused payment for spying throughout the war, and unlike most foreign agents, she was abandoned by the USSR afterwards. She died alone and impoverished in 1973.

#8: Noor Inayat Khan

The “Old Boys” of England mostly scoffed at the idea of employing women as spies, but when World War II broke out, they were desperate. They especially needed wireless operators to transmit messages – an incredibly vital, incredibly dangerous job. So Noor Inayat Khan, a shy young writer whose musical training gave her an edge in tapping Morse Code, was parachuted into occupied France. But her mission did not last long. The agents of her section had been betrayed, and the Nazis were after them. Despite the danger, Khan decided to remain. She managed to evade capture for several months, but in October 1943, her luck ran out. She was arrested, interrogated, and eventually executed, along with several other British agents.

#7: Ursula Kuczynski

Kuczynski was a German-born spy with many aliases, but not for the reason you might think. In fact, for most of her career she was known simply as “Agent Sonja.” Her name changed several times because she married several times. So while completing difficult and dangerous work for the Soviet Union, Kuczynski also had to deal with pregnancy, and then keep her children safe. But that didn’t hold her back. Kuczynski recruited British, German, and American agents who were willing to share information, and she carried messages between the USSR and high-profile scientists–including Klaus Fuchs, a physicist and double agent who helped develop the atomic bomb. Not many people were tough enough to be spies during World War II, let alone wives and mothers, too!

#6: Mata Hari

Even though she died over a century ago, Margaretha Zelle – better known by her stage name, Mata Hari – still captivates storytellers. The idea of an unhappy young woman recreating herself as an exotic dancer in Paris, then becoming a French spy in World War I, is certainly worthy of a romance; but the mysteries surrounding Mata Hari are even more intriguing. While spying for France, she apparently gave up some information to the Germans; whether she was truly a double agent, or just trying to gain their confidence, is unknown. To French authorities, however, she was a murderous traitor – and perhaps a handy scapegoat. She denied the accusations, but it did no good. Mata Hari was executed in October 1917. Her story survived.

#5: Josephine Baker

Although she was a famous African American performer, decorated war veteran, and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker is largely unknown in the US. She only became successful after moving to France, which made her a huge asset to the French Resistance in World War II; none of the high-ranking officials she mingled with at parties suspected that the alluring singer, dancer, and actress was secretly gathering information for the Allies. She even carried messages written in invisible ink on her sheet music. After the war, she went back to the US to fight for civil rights, but eventually grew discouraged and returned to France. That may explain why few Americans remember this remarkable woman, who deserved recognition in her homeland, and never got it.

#4: Krystyna Skarbek

Krystyna Skarbek had all the qualities of a movie star, and a life that made movies seem tame. She was called “Britain’s most glamorous spy” and “the bravest of the brave.” Winston Churchill even named her his favorite agent, after she sent him evidence that Hitler planned to invade the Soviet Union. Skarbek achieved many of her greatest feats with words – starting with a mission proposal that convinced skeptical British officials to make her their first female spy in the field. However, Skarbek’s most famous feat involved rescuing two agents from a German prison, where they were about to be executed. After hours of argument, she persuaded the warden to release her comrades, in return for a bribe and preferential treatment after the Allied invasion.

#3: Virginia Hall

Virginia Hall was nothing if not determined. She applied to work for the US State Department, but was rejected. They almost never hired women, let alone disabled ones, and Hall had lost part of her leg in an accident. So when World War II began, Hall became an ambulance driver in France, where British Intelligence recruited her to help form spy networks. Yet somehow, Hall ended up doing far more than that. She organized recruitment, supplies, and communication across German-occupied France – and in doing so, became a primary target for the Gestapo. Hall eventually had to flee over the Pyrenees mountains, a highly dangerous journey even for people with two good legs. However, she returned, undaunted, to organize final support for the Allied Invasion.

#2: Vera Atkins

Vera Atkins was not just a spy; she was a spy master. During World War II, she was the head intelligence officer for the French division of British intelligence. She recruited spies, trained them, and monitored them in the field. In fact, Atkins worked with several agents on this list, including Khan, Skarbek, and Hall. Before sending them into France, Atkins would personally meet with each agent to discuss any last concerns. She also made sure they knew the odds: only about half of those who went in survived. Those caught by the Nazis were usually interrogated and killed. After the war, Atkins personally tracked down her missing agents and found out what happened to them, so they could be recognized for their service.

#1: Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the American hero who rescued so many enslaved people, was also a spy? She sure was. During the Civil War, Tubman used those same stealth and tracking skills to lead covert missions behind enemy lines. Her information about underwater mines enabled Union Army ships to safely navigate the Combahee River and mount surprise attacks on plantations in South Carolina. Soldiers from the ships were aided by enslaved people on the ground, who had been warned ahead of time. Tubman led the Black soldiers, making her the first woman to lead US troops in an armed assault. Sadly, however, like many of the agents on our list, Tubman was abandoned by her government after the war was over and died in poverty.