Hot and Cold: Perceptions of Female Spies During the Early Cold War Era, by Katherine Fusick

In 1945, a woman “frumpy and drably dressed in a simple flowered print dress and felt hat of the era” walked into the FBI office in D.C. and proceeded to give officials information that filled a dossier of 115 pages in length.[i] That woman was Elizabeth Bentley, and she claimed to have run an extensive Soviet spy ring in the United States for years.

At the start of the Cold War, in the late1940s, the Soviet Union had a series of American women operating as spies in the United States. Perhaps the most famous female spy was Elizabeth Bentley—the “Red Spy Queen” who turned state’s witness in 1945 when she presented the FBI with enough information to knock out Soviet operations for several years.[ii] Another female spy, Judith Coplon, created a media frenzy when she was arrested with stolen documents in the presence of a Russian U.N. Aid in 1949.[iii] Because Coplon and Bentley were described by both their Soviet handlers and their later American prosecutors and defenders, they offer a unique opportunity to compare their representation as female spies. Furthermore, Bentley and Coplon contrast because Bentley turned herself in, but Coplon was caught red-handed.

Despite Soviet-American differences, the American media and Soviet handlers both reduced female spies to their gender roles and sexuality in an effort to reclaim control over increasingly independent women; however, Judith Coplon was savvy enough to use her observations of media depictions of women in attempt to avoid a conviction, even though it was ultimately futile.

Elizabeth Bentley was a Vassar College graduate who developed anti-fascist sentiments and a rebellious streak that would eventually develop into full Communist leanings.[iv] Bentley started as a courier, but gained more responsibility as her relationship with her contact, Jacob Golos, developed. As she told the FBI, Golos became her tie to the NKGB, the Soviet secret police, intelligence, and counter-intelligence force, until Golos died in 1943. Upon his death Bentley began to waver in her commitment.[v] Unfortunately, Bentley had no documentary evidence to back up her story, and the NKGB knew that she had turned and moved quickly to protect their American agents; therefore, almost the entire network was saved from arrest.[vi]

Elizabeth Bentley’s story emerged in the media in July 1948 weeks before she was scheduled to testify before the House Un-American Activities committee. One of the first columns written about Bentley did not include a photograph, and it is clear why. The article referred to her as a “svelte and striking blonde,” certainly an inaccurate description, as she was a middle-aged brunette.[vii] Reporters were determined to sexualize Elizabeth Bentley by forcing her image to match the public’s image of a female spy vixen like the blonde Marlene Dietrich portrayed in the 1931 film Dishonored.[viii] There was also considerable focus on her love affair with Jacob Golos. Papers told of a woman who had fallen deeply in love with her superior, a love that was the only way to bring out the emotion in the repentant woman.[ix]

As it became clear that Elizabeth Bentley was not the imagined seductive female spy, her appearance and position in the spy ring were greatly reduced. She was later called a “self-styled agent for a Communist spy ring” which implies that she only claims to have been an agent.[x] The New York Times described her as “middle-aged” instead of as a young sexy woman.[xi] In short, Elizabeth Bentley did not match the image that people thought of when they imagined a female spy. She became instead, “frumpy and drab”, and therefore, difficult to sexualize. When papers could not make her appear sexy, they made her delusional.

The image of Elizabeth Bentley also underwent a shift in Soviet documents before she presented her confession to the FBI as she went from the control of Jacob Golos to an independent position. Bentley initially appeared in the Vassiliev files as an “intelligent, sensible, and mild-mannered woman.”[xii] After Golos died, she was described as having an “unbalanced and erratic” personality.[xiii] Her contacts said that she was “precisely the type of person who should not be involved with this group, let alone controlling it.”[xiv] Perhaps Soviet agents thought her leadership was viable when controlled by a man, but worried about a woman having so much power. On the other hand, Bentley did arrive at a meeting with “Vadim” in September 1945 half-drunk, and her behavior at the meeting resulted in his conclusion that she was “alien and hostile to us.”[xv] Something had to be done to remedy the problem before the carefully-built network came crashing down.

Bentley’s Soviet handlers decided that a man could be a solution, instead of a distraction. The Soviets who handled Bentley repeatedly mentioned that she could be acting out due to loneliness, and they suggested marriage as a solution.[xvi] The marriage solution implies that male control combined with sexual release would solve Bentley’s rebelliousness. Bentley was going to be matched with someone who could be involved in her espionage efforts, specifically, another operative.[xvii] Soviet intelligence operatives viewed women as erratic creatures who could not control their sexual urges, and needed them regulated by a man. The full page dedicated to outlining Elizabeth Bentley’s love life is proof that the Soviets also had a preoccupation with the romantic sides of female spies similar to the American preoccupation.[xviii]

Judith Coplon was also infamous as an American woman who worked for Soviet intelligence, and received extensive attention from American media. After graduating from Barnard College with an excellent record Coplon was transferred to the Foreign Agents Registration Section at the Justice Department in Washington D.C. on February 15, 1945.[xix] Her new position gave her access to FBI information on internal security investigations, Soviet organizations operating in the United States, and American Communist leaders.[xx] That promotion was significant as it convinced NKGB leaders that they needed to recruit her.

The defection of Bentley destroyed the massive spy network the NKGB had worked to build for ten years, and they needed new operatives, especially those with access to FBI information.[xxi] Judith Coplon offered a perfect opportunity. However, after operating for several years the FBI identified her in a Venona telegram because of a mention of her transfer to D.C.[xxii] They decided in early 1949 to plant a fabricated FBI document with irresistible intelligence and then tailed her, waiting to see an exchange of documents.[xxiii]

On March 4, 1949 Judith Coplon travelled to New York City to meet with her Russian contact, Vladimir Gubichev.[xxiv] There the FBI apprehended her with a purse full of sensitive documents. Later, the defense would claim that Coplon had not met with Gubichev to exchange American secrets, but because they were in love.[xxv]The resulting judicial process would last for almost two decades with two court cases, two convictions, two sentences, and not a single day in jail.[xxvi] The courtroom drama held audiences in thrall in the mid-20th Century.

Judith Coplon was everything the American media wanted out of a female spy. On one occasion, Coplon was hurried into the courthouse between two U.S. Marshalls in order to protect her from the crowds.[xxvii] Newspapers overwhelmingly focused on her appearance, demeanor, and actions during court proceedings. The media sexualized and demonized Judith Coplon throughout her ordeal.

In the early weeks of the case Coplon was described as “sultry-eyed” with “white even teeth which flashed as she smiled.”[xxviii] Toward the end of the D.C. trial a reporter noted that “The blouse was rather thin, inadequate to obscure her figure when she sat forward as she frequently did.”[xxix] The language used by reporters on the case clearly focused on her gender and sexuality to make her into a seductive spying vixen.

In the early weeks of June the press was focused on using language and descriptions of Judith Coplon that sexualized her. However, on June 22, 1949 the knowledge that Coplon had slept with Howard Shapiro while supposedly deeply in love with Vladimir Gubichev hit the papers.[xxx] The fact that Coplon was meeting with Gubichev out of love was one of the main arguments for the defense. Reporters noted that upon the disclosure of Shapiro, the usually calm and composed Coplon “screamed ‘That’s a damn lie!’” and was “blazing with anger.”[xxxi] The press coverage thereafter shifted to her hysteria, transforming her into a hateful, dangerous, insane figure.

Once the guilty verdict hit in papers on July 1, 1949, descriptions shifted once more to marvel at the lack of emotions expressed by Judith Coplon calling her “unflinching to the end.”[xxxii] The public was sure that Judith Coplon was a spy for the Soviet Union, and the media shifted to reflect that image. Throughout her case Coplon was reduced to a sexy spy, then to an overly-emotional woman, and finally an unfeeling Communist.

Similar to Bentley, Coplon’s appearance in Soviet documents can be used to indicate Soviet opinions of her. In Soviet documents Judith Coplon was valued as a “serious, modest, thoughtful young woman who is ideologically close” to the Soviets.[xxxiii] Soviet operatives were also preoccupied with Coplon’s love life, as they were with Bentley. Coplon decided not to marry once she was recruited. With a husband Coplon would have been distracted and tied down by responsibilities as a result of an emotional commitment. Furthermore, a partner who did not share her commitment to communism could complicate matters. Soviet operatives wanted Bentley to marry another operative for the same reasons. Soviets saw sexuality and emotion as weaknesses for female spies, while Americans only saw emotion as a weakness and sexuality as a weapon. However, the common preoccupation with the emotion and sexuality of female spies was present for both. Where did these assumptions originate?

American assumptions about female spies had their sources. Stereotypes for female spies originated in spy novels, pulp magazines, and movies that were popular during the first half of the 20th Century.[xxxiv] In the 1930s and 1940s spy media usually featured a strong male spy with a damsel in distress.[xxxv] Women were either treacherous or helpless, and Communist women specifically were unfeeling man haters.[xxxvi] Those general stereotypes were clearly employed in the American media’s portrayal of Elizabeth Bentley and Judith Coplon.

Films like the 1931 film Dishonored illustrate the image of the female spy who made use of sex in order to obtain information from men whose emotion became her downfall.[xxxvii] The 1940 MGM film Ninotchka conveyed the image of a Soviet woman void of emotion who can be humanized through love and capitalism respectively.[xxxviii] Female spies in the American imagination were powerful, lethal, and unexpected weapons especially effective against men. By employing charm, sex appeal, and intelligence a woman could bring down a man and shift the balance of dominance in the world from male to female. Stereotypes; therefore, were intended to create a mistrust of emotionless, sexual, intelligent women, and drove the perceptions of Bentley and Coplon.

Soviet perceptions of Bentley and Coplon were also powered by ingrained stereotypes. In 1930 the Party decided to mobilize 1.6 million women to fill labor shortages in the Soviet Union.[xxxix] However, in the 1930s industrial work was stratified by skill, and women were never given higher paying, safer, skilled jobs because they were assumed to be held back by “family responsibilities, poor education, and physical weakness.”[xl] The NKGB clearly focused on the love lives and skills of their agents because they did not want agents held back by a woman’s responsibilities.

American sentiments had another deeper source. During World War II six million women flooded the workforce in the United States to supplement and replace the fighting men. They exhibited their capacity to do the same work as men.[xli] In reaction, after the war, men banished women back to the domestic sphere where they belonged. In her book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan asserts that women were taught that the feminine woman did not want a career, higher education, or political rights.[xlii] The percentage of women in college had dropped from 47% in 1920 to 35% in 1958.[xliii] Meanwhile, 68% of women in the mid-50s dropped out of college to get married because they thought that too much education would make them undesirable.[xliv] Reducing the educated, active female spies, Bentley and Coplon, to sexualized women, blindly following lovers into their escapades allowed men to assert control and dominance.

Coplon made use of these same images in her defense. She and her lawyer planned to claim that she loved Vladimir Gubichev to avoid conviction. When the prosecution brought up her nights with Howard Shapiro, she yelled at Palmer; “I told you this would happen!,” revealing the love story to be concocted.[xlv] Elizabeth Bentley’s story was covered by countless newspapers months before Coplon’s arrest, and her story included a romance—a tale of love between a female American spy and her Soviet superior. It seems likely that Coplon was able to use the extensive media coverage of Bentley’s story to attempt a victory. This victory was a compromise for a well-educated, sexually independent, 1930s-style woman who had to use Cold War “domestic containment” of women to the home and bedroom in order to win her case in court.

Media is a reflection of the society in which it is produced. The coverage of Coplon and Bentley; therefore, tells one just as much about the United States on the cusp of the Cold War as it does about the spies themselves.


[i] Michael J. Sulick, Spying in America Espionage from the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 185.

[ii] Ibid., 185.

[iii] Ibid., 211-214.

[iv] Ibid., 185-186.

[v] Ibid., 188.

[vi] Ibid., 190.

[vii] Nelson Frank and Norton Mockridge, “Red Ring Bared by Blond Queen,” New York World-Telegram (New York, NY), July 21, 1948.

[viii] Sternberg, Josef von. Dishonored. Drama, Music, War, 1931.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Clayton Knowles, “Inquired to Ask Spy Witness To Confront Accused Persons,” New York Times (New York, NY), August 2, 1948.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Vassiliev White Notebook #2” 2009, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Alexander Vassiliev Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1.

[xiii] Ibid., 5-6.

[xiv] Ibid., 18.

[xv] Ibid., 23-24.

[xvi] Ibid., 8, 15.

[xvii] Ibid., 8.

[xviii] Ibid., 12.

[xix] Ibid., 212.

[xx] Ibid., 212.

[xxi] Ibid., 211.

[xxii] Ibid., 213.

[xxiii] Ibid., 213.

[xxiv] Ibid., 213.

[xxv] Bill Brinkley, “Ex-G-Girl Tells Court She Was Never Disloyal,” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), June 17, 1949.

[xxvi] Sulick, 214.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] John London, “G-Girl, Red Held in Secrets Theft,” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), March 6, 1949.

[xxix] Bill Brinkley, “Miss Coplon Distrustful of Gubichev,” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), June 25, 1949.

[xxx] Bill Brinkley, “Companion is Described As Justice Attorney,” Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), June 22, 1949.

[xxxi] Associated Press, “Miss Coplon Admits Another Romance,” New York Times (New York, NY), June 22, 1949.

[xxxii] Associated Press, “Judith Coplon Guilty As Spy; Faces 13 Years on 2 Counts; Sentence is Set for Today,” New York Times (New York, NY), July 1, 1949.

[xxxiii] National Security Agency, New York KGB Station-Moscow Center Cables, 1945, Cables Decrypted by the National Security Agency’s Venona Project, Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2010, 23.

[xxxiv] Kathryn S. Olmsted, “Blond Queens, Red Spiders, and Neurotic Old Maids: Gender and Espionage in the Early Cold War,” Intelligence & National Security 19, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 79.

[xxxv] Ibid., 79.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 79.

[xxxvii] Sternberg, Josef von. Dishonored. Drama, Music, War, 1931.

[xxxviii] Ernst Lubitsch, Ninotchka, Comedy, Romance, 1940.

[xxxix] Ibid., 209.

[xl] Ibid., 213.

[xli] Olmstead, 80.

[xlii] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963), 18.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid., 16.

[xlv] Robert Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (New York: Random House, 1986), 118.