Who were the Cold War’s women spies? And how has the intelligence profession changed as an increasing number of women came to pursue it for their careers? Andrea Peto goes beyond the “Mata Hari” syndrome – the sexualized, exoticized image of women working in spy craft – in her latest research, published in the Journal of Intelligence History. Peto’s article “A Gender History of Hungarian Intelligence Services During the Cold War” is based on the positions and activities of women employees from the interwar period up to the 1980s, from an analysis of Hungarian intelligence services archival sources.
Professor Peto asserts that female employees were deployed as “controlling images” for the men working in intelligence. Developed by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, the term “controlling image” refers to an image that naturalizes and normalizes sexism and posits it as an unavoidable part of everyday life. “For women, contrary to the exoticized representations in the media, intelligence work has always been like any other form of paid employment: over time they were gradually integrated into the field, with the level of their involvement an accurate reflection of the level of women’s general emancipation in a given society,” Peto notes. “Women who worked for intelligence services attained little agency, their professional advancement was slow and difficult, just as with any other highly prestigious job, and they had to counter workplace discrimination the same way as their sisters in more ordinary occupations.”
Sexism as Part and Parcel of the Trade
“Intelligence work is a complex, structured process, within which the directing, supporting, and executive functions require different skills and expertise,” highlights Peto. “Hierarchy within the profession and progression are determined by gender, thus making sexism and gender-based discrimination intrinsic parts of this process on all levels.”
Writing about the integration of “the Other,” in this case the “feminine” into the originally male-only intelligence profession brought up methodological issues. “The history of intelligence is usually analyzed within the framework of institutional history, which all too often conceals the generic features of intelligence work that points beyond its institutional backing. Differently from others, I examined the gendered aspects of intelligence work within the frameworks of representation theory, cultural studies, organizational theory, and lastly, sociology”.
The Agent’s Wife as Champion of the Socialist Lifestyle
Andrea Peto analyzed original training manuals from the Historical Archives of the State Security Services in Budapest, which proved to be quite revealing with respect to gendering and workplace hierarchies. In Hungary, the systematic training of agents’ wives began in the late 1970s. These women were often employed at embassies or in the intelligence services, where they could help with time-consuming chores such as coding. The children of intelligence officers were also mined as useful sources of information – as they participated in the life of the local community, they could acquire information about their classmates’ parents simply through everyday interactions at school. As wives and daughters, women often performed unpaid or part-time embassy work – through which they participated in data gathering – but this was undertaken in a space honored and protected by men. As revealed from the documents seen by Peto, women were not integrated in substantive tasks within military intelligence until as late as the 1990s, because military training, a basic prerequisite for serving in military intelligence, was not open to them.
Career intelligence agents had to present a normative, heterosexual family life. As one of the training manuals for agents declared: "An agent should be exemplary in his devotion and steadiness to upholding his marriage, as well as his family, and should be the schoolbook example of a socialist family. An agent must feel responsible for maintaining the socialist spirit and lifestyle within his family. He is expected to raise his children to become valuable members of our socialist society and true campaigners of socialist ideology and society.”
Documents viewed by Peto reveal that the family members of undercover agents were well aware of what line of work the head of the family was involved with. She observes: “Consequently, in the event that a cover was blown, they knew exactly how to behave – like the wife of the Hungarian trade counselor in Rome, who got in a car with her two children, drove off to an unknown place, and was never again seen afterwards. Family relationships followed heteronormative expectations, and so for women the family was their primary field of agency.”
Rivals in Intelligence: American and Soviet Women Spies During the Cold War
According to the study, the “controlling images” constructed of women working for intelligence services gradually boil down to three stereotypes: the lustful, wanton dancer; the self-sacrificing, noble-spirited woman patriot; and the woman seeking revenge for the death of a loved one. American women spies were also expected to embody traditional femininity … as opposed to a communist subversion of gender roles. While in the public discourse Soviet women spies were presented either as sexualized femme fatales or as merciless, soulless devices of the system, American women spies were depicted as ‘good mothers and wives’ who, having saved the nation, dutifully returned to their place in the home.
“During the Second World War the American airmail censorship station on the island of Bermuda exclusively employed women. The recruitment requirements were fluency in a European language and good ankles,” Peto revealed. “In her memoirs, Stella Rimington (the first female head of MI5), mentioned nice legs as a selection criterion at MI5 – whereas men had to be capable of taking notes whilst handcuffed and riding a horse. Stella Rimington herself was recruited as the university-educated, bored, destined-for-more wife of a trustworthy clerk in foreign affairs.”
As part of the technological rivalry of the Cold War, Soviet intelligence deployed women to acquire information from men with secret technological expertise. Peto identifies this as “the moment that the ‘controlling image’ of the ‘good-looking Soviet woman agent’ became associated with sexual espionage.” According to one source, upon occasion the Soviet intelligence services gathered compromising information by attaching fake nipples to so-called honeypot women, armed with microphones attached to batteries charged by body heat. Whatever the microphone picked up was recorded, as no one expected women spies to be capable of retaining information. “Certainly, these stories reinforced the image of the ‘good-looking Soviet woman spy,’” Peto noted. “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.”
In today’s media, and especially in film, the image of a beautiful but dangerous female spy who is less professional than her male colleagues is changing. “The traditional binary: the amoral femme fatal versus the self-sacrificing patriot is slowly disappearing. Recent films present traditional labor conflicts where women crash the glass ceiling and have to cope with unsupportive bosses or sexual harassment at the workplace. Due to advances in technology, women can work in front of a computer for eight hours a day, and gather information while raising several kids at home, which of course poses other challenges. The de-enchantment of the profession in film actually helped bring new topics such as gender equality in the workplace to the screen,” Peto concludes.
Andrea Peto is professor in CEU’s Department of Gender Studies.
“A gender history of Hungarian intelligence services during the Cold War” is published in the Journal of Intelligence History (June 2020, Taylor & Frances)