Our 5 Historic “Bond Girls”

The Real American “Bond Girls” in History

As the latest James Bond movie hits theaters on November 9th, the National Women’s History Museum wanted to recognize some incredible female spies throughout American history. Here’s our list of women that we believe Bond would have wished were his “Bond girls”.

Historic “Bond Girl” #1

Who: “Agent 355”
During the Revolutionary War
Skills: Concealing her identity for over 230 years
About: She is considered by intelligence historians to be America’s first female undercover operations officer. It is speculated that “355” came from a wealthy New York Tory family that would have allowed her access to British forces operating nearby. Abraham Woodhull, speculated head of the Culper Ring spy organization, wrote that she “hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence” and could “outwit them all.” She was given the name “355,” which was the code-number for “lady” from the encryption code system used by the Culper Ring. While defending against the British in and around New York, George Washington came to rely heavily on the information she supplied him. “355” is even credited for helping uncover the treasonous Benedict Arnold-John André plot that eventually led to André’s demise. Agent 355 is heralded as one of the best intelligence officers because her identity is still unknown to us today after almost 230 years.

Historic “Bond Girl” #2

Who: Mary Elizabeth Bowser
: The Civil War
Skills: Deception, disguise, and a photographic memory
About: Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. Later emancipated by Elizabeth Van Lew in 1851, Bowser stayed with the Van Lew household. When the Civil War broke out, Van Lew created an elaborate Union spy ring in the Confederate capital. She positioned Bowser under the name of “Ellen Bond” in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He assumed Bowser was illiterate and left important dispatches on his desk in plain view.  She memorized Davis’ important documents and passed the information along to Elizabeth, who in turn distributed it to Union officers. While Elizabeth Van Lew gained substantial credit for her spying, Bowser was never compensated nor recognized by the Union army.

Historic “Bond Girl” #3

Who: Anna Wagner Keichline
World War I
Skills: Inventor, architect, jack-of-all-trades with a taste for danger
About: What couldn’t Anna Wagner Keichline do? She went to school for architecture and became the first woman to practice as one in the state of Pennsylvania. While at school she was also a class officer, member of the drama club and on the women’s basketball team. And she was an inventor and would, over course of her lifetime, receive seven patents. If that was not impressive enough, in 1918 Keichline volunteered for the US Army. She was assigned as a Special Agent in the Military Intelligence Division in Washington, D.C. When Keichline felt that her menial research and report-generating tasks were not satisfying enough, she informed Captain Harry Taylor of the US Military Intelligence Division that she deserved more. She wrote to him declaring that she was “physically somewhat stronger than the average. Might add that I can operate and take care of a car…should you deem it advisable to give me something more difficult or…dangerous, I should much prefer it.” What Keichline did exactly with intelligence-gathering remains a mystery to this day.

Historic “Bond Girl” #4

Who: Virginia Hall
World War II
Skills: The original “guerrilla girl” and mistress of disguise
About: Virginia Hall dreamed of working for the US Foreign Service, especially after spending much of her youth traveling around France, Germany and Austria. Unfortunately a hunting accident resulted in the loss of part of her lower leg as well as her chances. A new opportunity for Hall to become involved in foreign affairs came during World War II. Living abroad at the time, she became a Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Britain and Spain. When she went back in the United States in 1944, Hall joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), requesting to be assigned to occupied France. Her wish was granted and she assisted occupied France in transporting supplies, often disguised as an old, limping peasant woman. She also directed guerrilla missions targeting German communication and transportation lines. For her services during the war, she was granted the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II.

Historic “Bond Girl” #5

Who: Marlene Dietrich
World War II
Skills: Propaganda siren of song
About: Marlene Dietrich first gained fame as a singer and actress when she was living in Berlin. Lured to the US by Paramount Pictures, Dietrich moved to California and eventually became a US citizen in 1939.  When World War II broke out, Dietrich decided to use her acting and singing skills to the United States’ advantage. Volunteering in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944, she worked with the US government to record popular songs in German as part of their musical propaganda unit. These were sent to war-weary German troops as part of psychological warfare to lower their morale. Dietrich also entertained frontline Allied troops throughout the war, often placing herself in danger.

Which ones do you think Bond would have recruited?

View these and other incredible women in our online exhibit: “Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage.” Link here: http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/spies/1.htm

2 Responses to “Our 5 Historic “Bond Girls””

  1. Brian Schell says:

    As a social studies teacher for 34 years, I really appreciate the revelation of these heroic women. These are the stories that do not appear in today’s history books but would be important for all students to know. And also as a teacher I know the importance of tying historical events of the past to the contemporary events of today (i.e., linking the women spies of the past to the “Bond” Girls of the present day movie). My favorite Bond Girls were 355, because of the importance of her espionage and Elizabeth Bowser, because it was a great story of how they thought that she was illiterate , but she was not. Very interesting and should be required reading of all students ! Well Done !

  2. Lois Leveen says:

    While it is especially apt to think of Mary Bowser as a “Bond Girl,” my extensive research on her has turned up no evidence that she ever used the alias “Ellen Bond,” although she did use several other aliases, both during and–interestingly–after the war (when racism still flourished, and Bowser, working as a teacher to formerly enslaved blacks in Virginia and later rural Georgia, feared for her safety, and theirs). For more on recent research regarding Bowser, see “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/a-black-spy-in-the-confederate-white-house/ ). The new book *The Secrets of Mary Bowser* (HarperCollins) interweaves historical research on the black community in Richmond to imagine Bowser’s life in slavery and in freedom.

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