Who are the female spies? How does the profession of intelligence changed because more and more women considered this profession as a career opportunity? How to move beyond the “Mata Hari” syndrome: the sexualized, exoticized image of women as the traitors or heroines understanding gender politics of doing intelligence work?
Intelligence has always been just like any other paid employment: with time they were gradually integrated in it; and the level of their involvement well reflected the level of women’s emancipation in the given society. Women who worked for the intelligence services got little agency, their progress was slow and difficult, just like in any other highly prestigious job, and they had to counter workplace discrimination the same way as their sisters with more ordinary occupation.
Intelligence work has an additional special feature: sexism and gender-based discrimination are intrinsic parts of it, because the deployment of femininity as “Otherness” is part and parcel of the trade and the result of deliberate methodological decisions.
Soviet intelligence deployed women to acquire information from men with secret technological expertise. The often used concept of “honey trap” speaks volumes about our modern-day expectations towards gender roles in intelligence gathering. It was at this moment that the “controlling image” of the “good looking Soviet woman agent” became associated with sexual espionage. According to a monograph devoted to the topic, Soviet intelligence services gathered compromising information through for instance placing fake nipples on honey trap women, with microphones attached to wearable batteries charged using body heat. Whatever the microphone picked up was transmitted to the interceptors over the walls, where it got recorded, since no one expected the women spies to be able to retain the information even. Certainly these stories contributed to the further strengthening of the image of the “good looking Soviet woman spy”. According to this image these women are pretty, and their bodies are potential sources of danger, but they themselves are incapable of analyzing data, in other words: they are not real professionals even in a country officially supporting women’s emancipation.
Cold War dichotomy is also reflected in how “controlling images” were used in the two major intelligence services. Another “controlling image” relates to the family members of male intelligence agents: the wives and children are handy informants. American women spies were also expected to be the embodiments of traditional femininity as opposed to a communist subversion of gender roles. While in the public discourse the Soviet women spies were presented either as sexualized femme fatales or as merciless, soulless devices of the system, the American women spies were depicted as good mothers and wives who dutifully returned to the homestead after having saved the nation. Further, sexuality was part of the job and the service, and “honey traps” were used both for blackmailing and for data collection. The framework of sexuality in this context was not necessarily heteronormative.
As I argue women are present in intelligence work as “controlling images”. Intelligence work has an additional special feature to any other profession: sexism and gender-based discrimination are constitutive parts of it which makes the gendered analysis challenging. The deployment of femininity as “Otherness” is part and parcel of the trade itself and the result of deliberate decisions of obtaining information. Intelligence work is a complex, structured process, within which the directing, supporting, and executive functions require different skills and expertise. Therefore, the hierarchy within the profession and the possibility of progress are determined by gender hierarchies, thereby making sexism and gender-based discrimination intrinsic parts of intelligence gathering process on all levels.
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