ACTIVE CA. 1561 Widowed in 1561 during Japan’s Warring States period, Chiyome kept busy by starting a home for wayward girls in Nagano prefecture, ostensibly for teaching them to become Shinto shrine maidens. Instead, Chiyome—who may have been descended from a legendary leader of the Kōga-ryū school of ninjutsu—turned the girls into “kunoichi,” or bad-as-hell secret agents. The girls gathered intelligence, made split-second situation analyses, and were well versed in the arts of disguise, manipulation, rumor spreading, and behavior modification. They were also pretty fearsome fighters: trained in lightning-fast combat with staves, canes, knives, spears, swords, even their bare hands, the girls used their smaller, more lithe frames to their advantage against large male opponents. Thus prepped, kunoichi could infiltrate the homes of high-ranking men as maids, geisha, or friends in ways that no other spy could. Black Widow, eat your heart out.
CHARLOTTE DE SAUVE
1551–1617 You might know of the super-powerful Catherine de’ Medici—but did you know she had a group of lady spies called L’escadron volant (The Flying Squadron), whose sole purpose was to seduce important court dudes and then report juicy details back to the queen? Well, she absolutely did (although their femme fatale-ness was almost certainly blown out of proportion by misogynists upset with women in court gaining power), and Charlotte de Sauve was one such woman in Catherine’s care. Charlotte went after King Henry of Navarre, using her wiles to become his confidante and eventually wielding a huge amount of influence over him—all likely at Catherine’s behest. But she didn’t stop there: Charlotte would go on to seduce Navarre’s brother-in-law François, too, spurring a fight between the two men over her affections.
C. 1640–1689 Most famous for her writing (perhaps you’ve heard of her novel Oroonoko), Aphra Behn was also a super-radical super-spy. Since she never really stuck to the same story, we don’t know much about her childhood (spies, sheesh), but we do know that she had become involved with King Charles II’s court by 1665, when the Second Anglo-Dutch War between England and the Netherlands had started to go down. In Antwerp, it is believed that Aphra was given the code name Astrea and became a spy for the English court. Eventually, in need of money, Aphra became a scribe for the King’s Company, with her subsequent prolific writing career cementing her place in history as one of England’s first professional female writers.
1728–1810 It is impossible to say that the Chevalier d’Éon was a transgender woman, since such terminology didn’t exist in eighteenth-century France. We do know, however, that the chevalier, though assigned male at birth, spent thirty-three years dressed as a woman and asking to be referred to as such. We also know that in 1756, after graduating law school at age twenty-one, the chevalier joined French king Louis XV’s network of super-spies, the Secret du Roi, and eventually claimed to have infiltrated the inner circle of the Russian empress Elizabeth by dressing as a woman named Lia de Beaumont. Despite wagers on the London Stock Exchange about the chevalier’s “real” gender (gross), the French government recognized and affirmed the chevalier’s identification as a woman, with King Louis XVI even funding a new wardrobe of traditionally feminine clothing for the courtier now known as Madame d’Éon.
1797–1856 La Conquista, the Spanish occupation of South America, was truly terrible: colonists held power for centuries with no regard for the land’s indigenous people. Spain was pretty big on this system for a long time—but the Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar was very against it. He dedicated his life to establishing sovereignty for Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia—an accomplishment that would have been impossible without Manuela Sáenz. After leaving behind her rich English husband to become a revolutionary, Manuela fell in love with Bolívar in Quito, Ecuador, and went on to help his cause by campaigning for women’s rights, operating a spy network, and even saving his life, for which she became known as “the Liberator of the Liberator.” She not only fought in the all-important Battle of Ayacucho but also straight-up stripped a dead enemy of his mustache, which she would later carry around and wear to costume parties.
1906–1975 You probably know this dancer/singer/actress for her infamous banana skirt (or her pet cheetah), but underneath that tasty outfit was a stealthy spy. Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Josephine Baker was an excellent dancer who dropped out of school at age thirteen to perform her act on the streets. Two years later she was hired for vaudeville and quickly became a successful chorus girl in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. Fluent in French, she danced her way to Paris in 1925 and found huge success there, even becoming the first Black woman to star in a major film (1934’s Zouzou). When World War II broke out, Josephine turned spy for the Allies, using her invites to fancy parties to chat people up for information about German, Japanese, and Italian war efforts, which she would then pass along to French military intelligence. As a star, she could travel Europe unquestioned and rub elbows with the fanciest of fascists without anyone suspecting her true motives (writing notes in invisible ink on sheet music). After returning to the United States postwar, Josephine—who was biracial and likely bisexual—spent much of her later life fighting for civil rights.
1912–2011 New Zealand–born Nancy Wake was basically a real-life Agent Carter. At age sixteen, she ran away from her school in Sydney, Australia, and headed to London. After some self-tutoring in journalism, she worked for the Chicago Tribune as a correspondent in Paris during the rise of Nazi power. Once World War II began, Nancy joined the French Resistance and British Special Operations, smuggling Allied internees and POWs out of France. (She was so good at escaping the Germans—often via flirtation—that the Gestapo started calling her the White Mouse.) By 1943 she was at the top of the Gestapo’s most-wanted list, with a five million franc price on her head. But they never caught her—probably because she did things like kill an SS sentry with her bare hands to stop him from raising an alarm. Unsurprisingly, Nancy became one of the most heavily decorated servicewomen of World War II.