Why Don’t Female Spies Grow Up? Women in Contemporary Spy Literature

June 19, 2018 | 8 books mentioned 4 5 min read

“A normal teenage girl…who is also a spy” was my favorite type of young adult fiction. The girl had to balance crushes and homework alongside solving international crimes and defeating bad guys. In this genre, authors emphasize the protagonist’s very normal teenage girl behavior juxtaposed with her super-sleuth espionage skills. For example: A few pages into the first book in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You, 15-year-old Cammie explains, “even though the Gallagher academy is a school for girl geniuses, sometimes the emphasis should be kept on girl.” Like, obviously! The protagonists were always super smart, highly trained in combat, and of course, also had to deal with their crush not liking them back. They were everything.

Nostalgic for these YA spy stories, I sought out contemporary spy fiction with female leads. The premise of Mick Herron’s This Is What Happened seemed promising enough: Maggie, the protagonist, is “just the kind of person MI5 needs to infiltrate the establishment and thwart an international plot that puts all of Britain at risk.” But as I started reading, about a quarter of the way through, it turned into not a spy story but an abusive-man-keeps-woman-hostage-and-gaslights-her-to-keep-her-prisoner-in-his-basement story. All I wanted was a strong female being sneaky, kicking ass, and thwarting the bad guys. Not another story of a victimized woman. Is that too much to ask? Not as a teenager.

coverFemale spies populate young adult fiction and are nowhere to be found in contemporary spy fiction. This is for two reasons: One, female authors dominate YA—and female authors often write female protagonists. Two, YA spies are based on a fantasy (teenage spies don’t exist), not the reality of the intelligence world (as contemporary spy fiction draws from).

Young adult fiction has female spies galore. Like many YA books, these spy stories allow teenagers to imagine that, under different circumstances, they, too, could be a hero. In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Perfect Cover, Toby, a quiet, shy high school sophomore is recruited to the cheerleading squad, which is actually a cover for teenage spies (duh!). When she passes the tests, the captain describes the squad to her as “Charlie’s Angels meets James Bond meets Bring It On…We’re the best of the best. We’re pretty, we’re smart…we’re in perfect physical condition, and best of all, we never get caught. After all, who’s going to suspect the cheerleaders?”

cover Girl spies flourish when female authors write them into existence. Ally Carter, Robin Benway, Shannon Greenland, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Kat Carlton, T.A. Maclagan, Annabel Monaghan, Laura Pauling… the list goes on; these eight women are just a sampling of authors who have written contemporary YA books featuring female teenage spies. And the amount of them should not be surprising, yet I am still taken aback by the dominance of women in the genre.

Contemporary fiction does not have nearly the same number of women. The “great authors” of the contemporary spy genre are men who typically place male protagonists at the center of their novels. As Paul Vidich describes the genre at Electric Literature, “the spy genre, perhaps more than any other genre, has been the province of men, often men who once served in the intelligence community.” In “Bias She Wrote,” a 2010 analysis of the New York Times Best-Seller List, Rosie Cima found that authors of spy/politics fiction best-sellers were 97 percent male and 3 percent female. Wikipedia’s list of notable writers in spy fiction includes 124 authors—only six are female.

coverNotably, among the few female contemporary spy fiction authors, there’s Stella Rimington. Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5 and held the position from 1992 to 1996 (she’s also rumored to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s “M” in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies). After retiring, she began writing a fictional series about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle; the first novel, At Risk, was published in 2004. Remington has now published nine Liz Carlyle novels. In 2015, Rimington told the Edinburgh International Book Festival that her goal was to “rescue spy stories from the blokes.” She went on, “When you think about it, all fictional spies are blokes, and spy writers when I started were chaps too. So I was certain that my character was going to be female. I wanted her to reflect accurately what a female does in my former service.” Rimington’s Carlyle is remarkable. In At Risk, she is at lunch with a rival and asks him why he joined the service. In response, he tells Carlyle, “Really, of course, it was the women. All those glamorous Foreign Office secretaries. I’ve always had a Moneypenny complex.” Carlyle coolly responds to his misogyny, “I don’t see many Moneypennys in here.”

Other female authors, like Gayle Lynds and Francine Mathews, worked in the field before turning to writing. Their intelligence backgrounds are notable; it is as if publishing houses only took them seriously in such a male-dominated genre because of their career experience. Mathews, who spent four years at the CIA before becoming an author, wrote in a blog post:

Women populate the clandestine landscape as thickly as men. But women are not always admitted to exclusive clubs, and even more rarely to the literature of spying. [John] le Carré‘s women are usually victims; [Ian] Fleming’s are always babes. They stumble in their high heels, arms outstretched, and die on the word James. Women are not the point of the safehouse and the glass of whiskey; they live on the fringe, in the bedroom and near the hearthfire. They are never in control. It’s hard to love spy fiction as a woman in America. The club doors are closed, and we’re all out in the cold.

cover This idea that “women are the victims, never in control” reverberates throughout contemporary spy fiction; the ladies who do exist are femme fatales—or martyred. Male authors rarely write female protagonists (something that is not unique to espionage stories). That’s not to say men cannot write female characters or that female spies do not exist in the works of male spy writers; females take the reins in William Boyd’s Restless and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. But the default of spy fiction is (white) male. Natasha Walter explains in The Guardian, “despite its richness, I have often felt alienated by spy fiction because it has often seemed so rigidly masculine.” The female characters in traditional spy fiction, as Walter writes, are characters who are “subsumed into the needs and desires of the male hero.”

cover So why don’t the teenage spies grow up? Perhaps because teenage girls are less threatening to the “rigid masculinity” of espionage. One may find it easier to imagine a cheerleader taking down the bad guys—because it’s so implausible—than to think a woman could be the CIA’s best agent. The fantasy element of teenage spies is key. Of course teenage spies don’t exist, and since they don’t exist, sure, they can be female. And this fantasy is at the heart of the power of YA fiction: escapism. As Meghan Lewit writes in The Atlantic, “The stories and the genre itself represent a world of limitless potential. As a young reader, I didn’t comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory.”

cover Hopefully, contemporary spy fiction catches up with its YA counterpart. Even though YA spy fiction has its own problems—the protagonists are overwhelmingly white and straight—it’s remarkably gender equal. A good start is Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? Knecht, unlike her female spy writer peers, has no intelligence background (…that we know of). The novel could be defined more broadly as literary fiction than spy fiction—yet it is a classic spy story. The titular Vera Kelly, recruited by the CIA, is sent to Argentina in 1962. Kelly navigates understanding her sexual identity, her strained relationship with her mom, and finding any KGB sleeper agents in Buenos Aires. The story follows her from her troubled teenage years to how she eventually got recruited by the CIA. She’s the teenager who grew up that the spy genre needs.

Image: Flickr/CLAUDIA DEA

is a freelance writer based in New York. She can be found on her book blog and her website, but mainly on Twitter at @emburack.


  1. I co-wrote two novels published by Grand Central Publishing about the adventures of Jackie Kennedy, when she was Jackie Bouvier, working as a neophyte agent for the CIA in 1951 and 1952. The two novels are Paris to Die For and Spy in a Little Black Dress, and are based on an actual career choice she had to go to work for the CIA.

  2. It surprises me that this article doesn’t mention Helen MacInnes, a great female spy novelist from 1940 – 1985. She never created an iconic character, like James Bond. Each novel featured a new protagonist. That may be why she is less well-remembered today. Four of her novels were made into movies though and all of them were NY Times best sellers.

  3. Regarding the disparity of male/female writers in the genre, the main component is the level of interest in spy stories between men and women. It would be more accurate to say men getting admitted to these “clubs” more often than women is a sexist thing if there are equal amounts of interest from both sexes and the result is 97% men. These stats tell me that there is just more interest in spy fiction from men than women in general, but thats not to say that if the amount of interest was equal, the percentage would also be equal. The reality is this is a sexist world in favor of men, but the percentages wouldnt be so lopsided as 97%-3%.
    And as a male writer, I often write male characters as central characters more than female characters simply because I am a man and have never been in the mind of a woman before, not because I believe woman are inferior or something ridiculous like that. Oftentimes, for my female characters, I need to confer with my girlfriend whether she thinks a female character would act, react, or think a certain way based on the particular characters’ personality and past because I dont want to get a female character wrong; likewise, when writing male characters, the only time I need to consult other males is usually when I need info on a profession or activity.
    I’m not against you lobbying for equality here but I think a more effective method would be to write an article describing to women why spy fiction is incredible and fun to read and encouraging them to write so the number of female interest increases, rather than writing solely about the disparity between male/female published authors in the genre.

  4. “Who is Vera Kelly?” was refreshing but far from good in my humble opinion,on the other hand Luke Jenning’s “Codename Villanelle” is about two strong women, one is a spy the other an assassin but the male writer’s touch is palpable. It got adapted into a TV series by women (Killing Eve) and became a brilliant piece in the espionnage genre.

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