Women Spies in Cold War Fiction

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Berlin Wall border fortifications at Potsdamer Platz, 1961
Berlin Wall border fortifications at Potsdamer Platz, 1961

Whether pulp paperbacks or modern classics (a distinction not always sharply drawn), spy stories offer special insight into the workings of superpowers in stalemate. As the world slides toward Cold War 2.0, spy fiction again provides a space to explore fears of international conflict old and new.

Until recently, spy narratives have focused almost exclusively on the powerful male operative caught between duty to his profession and adherence to his personal code of behaviour, no matter how ruthless. Women characters, from accomplices to full-fledged spies, now play a more complex and vital role. Their presence raises new questions about the connection between the personal and the political, the “right” response to conflict, and more.

In this seminar we’ll trace the development of the female spy in three sophisticated literary thrillers: John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) and The Little Drummer Girl (1983) and Jennie Rooney’s Red Joan (2014). We’ll ask why women agents are portrayed as either willing or unwitting accomplices to male operatives, or as independent characters devoted to political activism.

Our investigation of the le Carré novels will centre on the moral ambiguity of male spies that both appeals to and repels the female characters drawn into a world of deception and violence. In Red Joan, heroine Joan Stanley (based on the real operative Melita Norwood) acts out her own deeply held political beliefs to become one of the most effective Soviet agents of the Cold War. We’ll consider how these narratives of women caught in—or seduced by—the dangerous game of international espionage shed light on the public’s fear of nuclear war, authoritarian governments and feminist ideas.

Learn more about Cold War spy fiction in Joyce’s article The Cold War Canadian Jewish Spies.

“This isn’t about you. Your feelings are irrelevant here. This is about saving the Revolution. It’s about saving the world.”

– from Red Joan



Joyce Wayne is the author of Last Night of the World, a historical spy novel about a female Soviet operative embroiled in the case that started the Cold War. She won an award for literary journalism for her work at Quill & Quire, the Canadian book publishing industry’s magazine. Joyce also launched the Sheridan Center for Internationally Trained Individuals, a program for refugee and immigrant journalists, at the college where she was a professor and head of the journalism program for many years.


Use ISBNsearch.org to find the required editions.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John le Carré
(Penguin, 2013)
Canadian ISBN-13: 978-0143189824
US ISBN-13: 978-0143124757

The Little Drummer Girl, by John le Carré
(Penguin, 2008 [Canada] and 2013 [USA])
Canadian ISBN-13: 978-0143168379
US ISBN-13: 978-0143119746

Red Joan, by Jennie Rooney
(Doubleday Canada, 2013)
ISBN-13: 978-0385680042
Please be sure to purchase this Doubleday Canada edition.

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.

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