The Jewish Woman Whose Story Rebukes Hollywood Stereotypes of Female Spies


Hollywood has a hang up with women spies. Tinsel town can’t envision them other than as one dimensional women whose espionage is sex driven.
There are the femme fatales who erotically lure men into dangerous or compromising situations, obtain their secrets, and then betray them. Consider a 2014 episode of “Homeland,” where CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) seduces a teenage Pakistani asset and then uses the love struck boy as bait to catch a terrorist but succeeds only in getting the boy killed. Essentially, a misogynistic concept of women spies as destructive to men.
Then there are the women who are forced into spying as a form of bondage. Think “Femme Nikita” (her choice: life in prison or become a spy) or the recently released “Red Sparrow” in which Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina who suffers an injury that ends her ballet dancing. As the movie tells it, she has no career alternative or means to care for an ailing mother other than to enroll in spy seductress-assassin school, where her sexuality is weaponized.
A Jewish woman, Sarah Aaronsohn, is one curative for Hollywood’s unfair women spy tropes. In fact, she puts the lie to them because she was the skilled leader of Great Britain’s most effective espionage network in the Middle East during World War I.
She was born in 1890 in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, to Jewish settlers from Romania. When World War I began in 1914, Sarah was married to a Jewish businessman in Constantinople (now Istanbul). In late 1915 Sarah returned home to Palestine for an extended visit. By a coincidence of timing and geography, her three-week train trip took her through the heart of the genocide the Turks conducted against the Armenians.
The nightmarish journey convinced the deeply shaken Sarah that unless the British defeated the Ottoman Empire, the same fate would befall the Jews of Palestine. Little more than a year later, at age 27, this housewife had become the leader of a pro-British spy network, code-named Nili.
Operating from behind enemy lines in Palestine, Sarah recruited spies; conducted her own espionage in places like Jerusalem, Nazareth, and along the Mediterranean coast; managed the unruly Nili men, several of whom were in love with her; and delivered her intelligence reports to a British spy ship that made clandestine visits to Palestine from British-controlled Egypt. Sarah’s intelligence was vital to the British victory over the Ottoman Empire, which brought Palestine under British rule, called the British Mandate, which in turn was the stepping-stone to an independent Jewish state.
At a time when women held an inferior status in society, and as the modern era of espionage dawned, Sarah demonstrated that a woman could manage an espionage network as well as a man. Her courage and commitment impressed everyone who came in contact with her, including the Turks who eventually caught Sarah in October 1917 and tortured her for days. She taunted them in return, “You think that since I am a woman I will be weak.” One Turkish officer on the scene commented, “She is worth a 100 men.” Sarah never broke.
Sarah’s exploits in that war could have come to symbolize women in espionage.
But history went in a different direction when on October 15, 1917, a one-time Dutch-born nude dancer was led at dawn before a firing squad in Vincennes, France.
Her name was Margaretha Zelle but before the war she had danced under the stage name Mata Hari. After the war started, when men were dying by the millions, interest in nude dancing dropped off and so Mata Hari needed a new gig. She promised diplomats and military officers on both sides of the trenches great espionage coups in return for money. Her con spectacularly backfired when the French arrested her as a German spy, accused her without evidence of using predatory sexual powers to seduce French officials into revealing vital military secrets, convicted her after a sensational trial, and sentenced her to death.
The command “Feu!” was given and the myth of the femme fatale spy arose from Mata Hari’s crumpled body. Spy novels featuring seductive but treacherous women spies began appearing, followed by movies and later, television and cable shows. As a Newsweek article on women in espionage recently put it, “Hollywood has convinced us all that women in the CIA belong to a sorority of badass bitches who stab by day and seduce by night.”
In the age of #MeToo, one wonders how much longer these harmful stereotypes will endure. Sarah Aaronsohn’s story, like those of other skilled and courageous women spies, demonstrates that Hollywood certainly doesn’t lack for a compelling narrative that does justice to women in espionage.
Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and author in New York. His most recent book is “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, March 2018). Visit

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