10/15/2014 12:36 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST

Mata Hari and Edith Cavell: Women, intrigue and WWI propaganda

[Listen to the radio documentary “The Vixen and the Virgin: Women, Espionage and Propaganda in WW1” on CBC Radio One’s Ideas on Oct. 15 at 9:05 p.m.]

Scholars commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War are turning their attention to female icons of the era — two of whom were used in propaganda campaigns after their deaths to bolster the war effort, albeit in very different ways.

One was notorious exotic dancer and courtesan MataHari.

The other was revered British nurse Edith Cavell.

Both of these iconic women were convicted of treason.

Both were executed by firing squads.

And both were mythologized after their deaths in ways that neither one of them would have sanctioned.

The ‘Bad Girl’

At the crack of dawn on Oct. 15, 1917, 41-year-old Mata Hari (nee Margaret Zelle) was brought to a military firing range after being convicted of espionage for the Germans.

“Mata Hari was a woman of courage,” says biographer Julie Wheelwright, author of The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage.

The notorious femme fatale Mata Hari was elegantly dressed and refused to be tied to the stake. She also refused to be blindfolded, staring down the 12 soldiers assigned to the firing squad.

The soldiers were given the signal to fire.

“And then MataHari fell into what one witness described as nothing more than a heap of petticoats,” says Wheelwright. “And I find that description really poignant because it brings back to earth the fact that she really was harmless and it was really an unnecessary death.”

Convicted on flimsy and fabricated evidence, she went from being the most sought-after exotic dancer and courtesan in Europe to the most vilified spy.

“MataHari was quite open about the fact that she had all these lovers. She was quite open about the fact that she enjoyed sex, and that she moved around and took her clothes off on stage. All of those things make her all wrong.”

Wheelwright argues that the execution sent a clear message at the time – especially to women.

“It was a message of ‘stay in your place,’” says Wheelwright, who points out that the propaganda machinery at work during World War One perpetuated fears of women who were autonomous sexual beings breaking social conventions.

“And certainly in France during the war, the images of women are images of caretakers, not of voluptuous women out to be artisans or courtesans.”

The ‘Good Girl’

Just a couple of years prior to Mata Hari’s execution, another woman was executed by firing squad – this time in German-occupied Belgium. British nurse Edith Cavell was 49 years old when she was convicted of treason for helping Allied soldiers escape the country.

Her death on Oct. 12, 1915, was quickly turned into a rallying point to recruit British soldiers to avenge her. In the 10 weeks following her execution, recruitment to the British military doubled from 5,000 a week to 10,000.

And the war propaganda around her death took liberties with her story to suit the needs of the state at the time.

“She’s often shown to be quite young and vulnerable-looking,” says historian Tammy Proctor, author of Female Intelligence: Women, Espionage and Propaganda in the First World War. “A lot of the tributes to her emphasize her purity because she was unmarried. She embodies this notion of what women should be – nurturer and nurse who suffered for her country. That’s why her image becomes so important.”

But there is a profound misinterpretation of what motivated Edith Cavell during her lifetime, argues biographer Diana Souhami. “She didn’t want any young men to die in the trenches.”

Cavell was a devout Christian who eschewed war, and as part of her nursing creed she believed it was her duty to help anyone who was sick or suffering, regardless of nationality.

“She was not motivated by patriotism. It wasn’t a flag-waving thing,” Souhami says.

The night before Cavell’s execution an English pastor met with her in her cell and said she would be remembered as a martyr. According to the pastor’s account, Cavell responded: “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Yet there are more monuments to Edith Cavell than any other female figure from the first world war – including a 10-foot white marble statue just off Trafalgar Square in London. When her body was repatriated to England after the war her coffin was paraded through the streets of London on a gun carriage escorted by 100 soldiers. It was draped in the Union Jack for the state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

“People want symbols,” says Souhami. “To say that here was the spirit of good as opposed to the spirit of evil.”

Womanhood and the war effort

It’s no accident that both Mata Hari and Edith Cavell’s stories were torqued to suit the war efforts at a time when women became necessary symbols of the state’s stability, argues Proctor. And it was important for nurturing role models like Edith Cavell to be celebrated at a time when women were taking on less traditional jobs.

“The spirit of the monuments [for Edith Cavell] was of patriotism and bravery. Not of subversion, and method and scheming. None of that,” says Souhami. “There was a profound misinterpretation of what she was doing.”

And as for Mata Hari: “One of the reasons why she was considered suspicious is because she was a single woman, travelling on her own,” says Wheelwright.  “And she wasn’t owned by any male person, she wasn’t owned by any family. She was outside society.”

There was a tremendous fear of at the time of ‘kaki-mad’ unmarried women spreading venereal disease, which would reduce the men’s fighting strength on the frontlines.

​Nations at war passed laws explicitly targeting sexually active women. In Britain, the Defense of the Realm Act gave the government wide-ranging powers to target suspicious behaviour. Included in this was the right to detain and examine women who were overtly flirtatious with male soldiers.

“There was a fear of lowering the fighting ability of the men, and sexually active women means higher rates of venereal disease which will pull men out of the front lines,” says Proctor. “And there was a cultural anxiety that women will not want to go back to the homes and provide stability in a post-war world.”

All of this helps explain why women like Mata Hari were vilified, and why Edith Cavell was celebrated as a saint.

“There was a real fear of women being the downfall of men,” says Proctor.

[Listen to the radio documentary “The Vixen and the Virgin: Women, Espionage and Propaganda in WW1” on CBC Radio One’s Ideas Oct. 15 at 9:05 p.m.]