In the upcoming feature film Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence stars as double-agent Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who’s forced to join a secret intelligence service called the Sparrow School. Based on the novel of the same name by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews, the film combines high stakes, oozing seduction, and sumptuous storytelling with the careful attention to detail you’d expect from a writer with actual spy experience.
But is Egorova’s story fully a tale of fiction? Not so fast—there’s a long history of female spies who risked their lives to serve the needs of their country. While none of them are prima ballerinas turned double agents, they’re all individuals whose pages in the history books are sorely lacking. Frankly, we should all know their names. The next time people talk about the machismo brilliance of James Bond, show off your knowledge and mention the real-life women who in some way changed history. Here’s a crazy idea: maybe they can even have their own stories told on the big screen someday.
Manuela Sáenz (1793–1856)
Sáenz is known for her active role in the liberation of New Granada. After leaving her wealthy aristocratic husband in Peru, she became the lover of Simón Bolívar—a revolutionary who formed several independent nations in South America, ending colonialist Spanish rule. Sáenz became an active member in the conspiracy against the Peruvian government by gathering information and distributing political leaflets. Often overlooked in history, she has become a feminist figure, seen as an active participant in the wars of independence that swept through South America in the 19th century.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1839 to date unknown)
Born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, and later freed by the Van Lew’s family, Bowser became an integral part in the Union’s efforts to defeat the Confederacy. Elizabeth Van Lew was a staunch abolitionist, and during the Civil War she helped manage a spy system in the Confederate capitol. Bowser was the most trusted and successful source of information for Van Lew. She went undercover as “Ellen Bond,” a slow-thinking but able servant to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Suspicions eventually fell on Bowser when Davis discovered there was a mole. Before she fled, her final act was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House, which was ultimately unsuccessful. But her work aided in the war effort to improve the lives of countless others.
Mata Hari (1876–1917)
Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer gaining fame in 1905 for her revealing dress—a bejeweled bra—and dance style, becoming one of the leaders in the early modern dance movement. She accepted an offer to spy for France in 1916, agreeing to pass military information gleaned from her conquests in Germany to the French government. It wasn’t long after that she was wrongly accused of being a German spy and was executed by French authorities.
Yoshiko Kawashima (1907–1948)
A Chinese princess of Manchu descent—Kawashima was raised in Japan and served as a spy for the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. She would often be in disguise, dressed up as a man. After the war she was accused of being a traitor to China and was executed. But it is Kawashima’s character as an independent, articulate, and informative agent that endures. She once said to the Japanese press, “I was born with what the doctors call a tendency towards the third sex. And so, I cannot pursue an ordinary woman’s goals in life.”
Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944)
Khan is seen as Britain’s first Muslim war heroine during the Second World War. She was the first female radio operator sent into Nazi-occupied France by the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Given the codename ‘Madeline,’ she would send allied forces information from France until it led to her untimely end when she was betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo. Reportedly, after continued torture in prison, she refused to reveal any information on British military strategy and was then killed in Dachau concentration camp. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949.
Virginia Hall (1906–1982)
Hall was an American spy with the British Special Operations Executive during World War II. She had numerous aliases, including “Marie Monin,” “Germaine,” “Diane,” and “Marie of Lyon.” Hall was sent to Vichy, France, in 1941, which was occupied by Germany and was given the cover as correspondent for the New York Post. When Germany seized all of France in 1942, Hall barely escaped to Spain. She had an artificial foot, which received its own codename, with the German’s calling her the “limping lady.” She became the Germany’s most wanted spy on the Allied forces.
Anna Chapman (b. 1982)
Now, we come full circle back to Russia, where Red Sparrow takes place. Making headlines in 2010, Chapman was arrested with nine others on suspicion of working as a spy for the Russian government. Chapman plead guilty and was deported back to Russia in the biggest spy swap deal since 1986. Chapman ran her own real estate company in Manhattan while she attended the trendiest nightclubs acting as her cover while she reportedly worked on a secret mission to attain “sensitive information.” Chapman became notorious for using her seductive qualities, as one model Dennis Hirdt said, “[she was] an expert at using her femininity to get information.”
Red Sparrow opens nationwide March 2nd.