A Queer Thing: The Older Woman Spy

Rosie White

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The ‘double standard of ageing’ (Sontag, 1973) offers ideal cover for any spy; older women are ignored, perceived as unthreatening and obsolete. Older women who work in espionage can travel below the radar of enemy secret services, as evidenced by the story of a real spy, Melita Norwood, a Soviet agent who was exposed – but not prosecuted – in 1999, after forty years undercover in the British nuclear industries. Norwood was pre-empted by a fictional character. Dorothy Gilman’s popular novels featuring Mrs Emily Pollifax, a retired widow from New Brunswick, New Jersey, present espionage as a logical late-life career choice for any resourceful woman. Connie Sachs in John Le Carré’s Smiley novels has a marginal but pivotal role, while Beryl Reid’s performance in the BBC adaptations offers a powerful vision of an ageing female agent. Academic work on gender and ageing has noted how the process of growing old can be understood in relation to queer theory, unravelling stable notions of selfhood and challenging discourses which present identity as immutable (Sandberg 2008). With reference to these and other examples, this chapter examines the older female spy in conjunction with work on queer identities, proposing that such figures disturb the ontological certainties of Fleming’s famous agent and gesture toward a more productive understanding of ageing femininities.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSexuality and Gender in Fictions of Espionage
Subtitle of host publicationSpying Undercover(s)
EditorsAnn Rea
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781350271371, 9781350271388
ISBN (Print)9781350271364
Publication statusPublished - 28 Dec 2023

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