Spy Girl Names: Real life femmes fatales

Appellation Mountain‘s Abby Sandel, one of nameberry’s favorite guest bloggers, now looks for–and finds– some intriguing names in the world of international espionage.

Fictional spies have glamorous names to go with their stiletto heels and hidden daggers. But for every femme fatale we find in books or movies, there’s a real life Spy Girl who risked all for her cause.

Ian Fleming created legendary super-spy James Bond, but also invented a bevy of Bond girls, some capable, some less so, most with outrageous names. Fleming based at least one character on a real-life spy:  Vesper Lynd, she of Casino Royale fame, was modeled on Polish-born British agent and saboteur Krystyna Skarbek, also known as Christine Granville.

Female spies can be found throughout history. During World War I, the Dutch-born Mata Hari assumed the identity of an Indian dancer and was executed by France as a German spy.  There’s no proof that Mata Hari ever engaged in espionage. On the opposite side, hospital matron Edith Cavell conspired to help wounded English and French soldiers escape their captors. She, too, was caught and sentenced to death.

Women spies flourished during the World War II era.  Some volunteered; others were recruited.  Many of them had fascinating biographies before they entered the spy game.  It was dangerous work, and many lost their lives.  Just a few of the heroines from the era include:




BETTY (Pack, sometimes called Cynthia or Amy.  In her obituary, Time magazine called her a “Blonde Bond” for her code-stealing feats.)



CLAIRE (Phillips, also known as Clara Fuentes.  Like Mata Hari she passed as a dancer from a foreign land; unlike Mata Hari, she successfully passed on significant information about the war in the Pacific.)



ELENI (Karayanni, a member of the Greek resistance, also known as Lela)



HANNAH (Sensech; along with Haviva Reik, she parachuted behind enemy lines)

HAVIVA (Reik; born Marta, sometimes called Ada – along with Hannah Sensech, a female parachutist)

JOSEPHINE (the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker was part of the French Resistance)





NANCY (Wake, a journalist turned courier)

NOOR (Inayat Khan, an Indian princess and author of children’s books, also known as Nora Baker)




VERA (Atkins, as well as Vera Leigh, also known as Simone)


VIRGINIA (Hall.  Considered one of the most dangerous spies, the Germans nicknamed her Artemis)


If you’re looking for a strong feminine name, many of these would wear well.  They’re pleasingly retro, but there’s no denying the chutzpah each Spy Girl needed to even consider taking on such daunting tasks.

ABBY SANDEL, creator of the terrific website Appellation Mountain, lives in Washigton DC and is the mother of two small children.

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11 Responses to “Spy Girl Names: Real life femmes fatales”

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Charlotte Vera Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 2:42 am

Oooh, fascinating blog post! It’s strange how little we hear of true female spies, although fictional ones crop up often enough. I must go and read up on these courageous women.

Elizabeth Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 3:14 am

Julia Child was once a spy.

Abby Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Elizabeth, someone mentioned Julia Child to me last night!

I wrote about Vesper as a Baby Name of the Day a few months back and stumbled about Krystyna Skarbek – and that led to exactly your reaction, Charlotte – how can there be SO many brave women and so little written about them?

Elisabeth@YCCII Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 6:43 am

What a timely post! Love it. So many exciting names here.

Apparently raising a little spy is on my to do list. Cecily, Josephine, and Violette were all stongly considered for my little ones. What are their surnames?

Of course there’s also Harriet the Spy!

Kidding (but she may be my favorite one).

Moonie Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 1:17 pm

This was a great post. It’s so wonderful to look at the names (and stories) of strong female spys and codebreakers. And Elisabeth@YCCII, there was a “Harriet the Spy” – Harriet Tubman.

I will share a great online exhibit I found when looking further into this topic:

Abby@AppellationMountain Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 2:40 pm

How cool, Moonie – I live a stone’s throw from the future National Women’s History Museum and I was only dimly aware how very close it is to being a reality. Thanks!

JNE Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Fantastic – so interesting! And the names – wow! Odette, Vera, Eleni and Muriel are favorites from the list.

Kathryn Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Who knew my daughter shared a name with a spy?

Abby Says:

July 13th, 2010 at 7:26 pm

I love Harriet, spy or no. And I adore Noor, too.

Kathryn, I’d love to know your daughter’s name!

Rose Says:

July 14th, 2010 at 10:02 am

You forgot Hedy Lamarr. She was an actress and an inventor of equipment used for spying (a frequency-hopping machine). Her real name is Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Cool lady with a cool name!

Gonzalo Garden Says:

October 21st, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Intriguing…undoubtedly food for thought. I hope you do not mind if I send this on to a couple of other folks I know.

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