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On September 22, 1975, a woman with short, curly brown hair and sensible shoes stood in the front row to see President Gerald Ford speak at Stanford University. She didn’t look like a radical hippie, with long hair or bell-bottom jeans. She looked like a typical suburban mother — the New York Times would later describe her as “matronly.” As Ford walked into the crowd, that woman took a gun from her purse, aimed at his head, and fired. Her shot missed him by 6 inches.
Sara Jane Moore was the first woman to fire a shot at a US president, and the second woman to attempt to kill Ford within one month. A few weeks earlier, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a follower of cult leader Charles Manson, attempted to assassinate Ford, but the Secret Service stopped her before she could fire her gun.
Even amid heightened security after Fromme’s assassination attempt, Moore was able to get through security and avoid suspicion — largely because of her looks. “She looked like anybody’s neighbor, anybody’s wife,” said Geri Spieler, author of Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford. “She just was very, very generic-looking, and she always saw herself as a very upper-middle-class society lady. And so she dressed very conservatively because she wanted to keep that image, and she just wouldn’t stand out in a crowd,”
Pop culture has glamorized the female assassin with TV shows like Killing Eve and movies like Atomic Blonde that depict women in expensive clothes who stylishly hit their marks. When Atomic Blonde’s Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) heads to Berlin on a mission, she’s wearing a bustier over a blouse and bright red stilettos that she wields as a weapon. Her outfits are sleek and emphasize her statuesque presence, and a lot of people around her seem to take notice when the tall, beautiful blonde walks by. She often tops off her look with a statement coat — including a custom white vinyl coat by designer John Galliano.
Even when Killing Eve’s psychopath killer Villanelle (Jodie Comer) dresses down, she wears designer clothes — like when she kills a man in an office building while wearing a green Miu Miu jacket. When she meets with her handler and a psychoanalyst to sign off on her mental stability, she’s wearing a flowing cotton candy–pink dress by Molly Goddard. It’s perfect to express Villanelle’s playful love of murder, but it’s not exactly unremarkable.
In reality, Moore is one of many female assassins who were able to get close to their subjects in part because their clothing was unthreatening and unassuming. Organizations and governments know that women often garner less suspicion than a man would, so sometimes they seek women out for roles of spies and assassins — and what they wear plays a large part in how they maintain their roles.
North Korean agents recruited two women to help assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of the leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un, in February 2017. As Kim walked through the Kuala Lumpur airport, a woman wearing ripped jeans and a gray sleeveless top got close enough to him to smear a chemical on his face, as Doug Bock Clark wrote for GQ. The chemical was likely one part of the poisonous nerve agent VX2. Immediately afterward, a woman wearing a white shirt with “LOL” on the front in large black letters put another liquid on his face, delivering the activating ingredient. Each woman then went to the bathroom to wash it off her skin. Kim was dead within 20 minutes.
These women are currently on trial for murder. But Clark wrote that the women said they didn’t know what they were putting on Kim’s skin. They say the North Korean agents told them they were going to be on a prank reality show. Whether these women were knowing participants in the assassination or were a victim of government agents, they were ideal people to carry out the murder — a girl wearing a silly shirt is often overlooked and underestimated.
In World War II, Allied governments used women as spies because able-bodied men became part of the war effort, said Clare Mulley, author of The Spy Who Loved and The Women Who Flew for Hitler. So women were out and about on the streets, able to travel unnoticed where a man would have seemed out of place. “Their clothing is very much designed to make them fit in and not stand out, so you’re not getting this sort of fallacy that they were very glamorous, waltzing around in negligees or whatever,” Mulley said.
Christine Granville was a spy for Britain who became one of the country’s most highly decorated agents. Mulley said that she was trained to kill if needed but was not specifically an assassin. To travel through the Alps during the war, Granville dressed as a peasant. In one instance, Mulley said she ran into German guards while she was looking at a map that was printed on silk to keep it from rustling the way paper would. When she saw the guards, she used the silk to tie up her hair in the style that peasants often wore it. The guards didn’t notice the map and let her go.
Mulley said the agents of Britain’s Special Operations Executive sometimes wore clothing that used to belong to refugees, or that was created as exact copies of the refugees’ clothing — but with no labels on the inside. The goal was to be unremarkable, and to do that, spies made sure their clothes, hair, shoes, and even dental work matched the style of the place they were infiltrating. Granville had participated in the Miss Poland national beauty contest, and people spoke about how beautiful she could be. But when she was working as a spy, she used her clothing and appearance to blend in instead of stand out, tamping down her beauty to become more inconspicuous.
“I think all too often, women special agents and women in the resistance are presented in these very romantic and quite often tragic terms, and quite often people describe how beautiful they were, and I just want to make the point there were all sorts of different women of all different races and faiths and nationalities,” Mulley said. “Some were beautiful, and some were not. Some were very plain. Some were very elderly. There were grandmothers among them. One woman had only one leg. So it’s not that they have to be beautiful to go out there; it just happens that Christine was.”
Also in World War II, a woman pilot named Melitta von Stauffenberg joined the famous Valkyrie plot to attempt to assassinate Hitler. Although the plot ended up using a different pilot on the day of the failed assassination attempt, her role was meant to be the person who flew the assassin away from Hitler’s headquarters after he planted a bomb.
She was a good candidate to fly the getaway plane because “a woman of Litta’s reputation would appear relatively harmless even in the highest Luftwaffe circles,” a friend wrote of Melitta in The Women Who Flew for Hitler. Her clothing emphasized both her capabilities as a pilot and her femininity. As a woman, she wasn’t allowed to join the Luftwaffe or wear a Luftwaffe uniform, but she often wore pantsuits that acted like her personal uniform and made her look professional.
But not wearing a military uniform only highlighted that she was a woman — even if she wore somewhat more masculine pants instead of a skirt. Because Nazi Germans held sexist beliefs that women should be passive and nurturing, they were therefore prone to believe that women would not be involved in dangerous, traitorous work.
Female assassins and spies take advantage of society’s views of women. They dress to appear harmless or nurturing to avoid suspicion and carry out their tasks. Sara Jane Moore was often described as looking like someone’s mother — and that’s a big part of why the radical group the Tribal Thumb recruited her to work with them, Spieler said. Her appearance helped her avoid suspicion as she worked with different organizations, became an informant for the FBI, and then acted as a double agent, turning on the FBI for the groups she worked with.
But it’s to everyone’s detriment to underestimate women based on what they wear. Spieler said that while Moore was in prison, Secret Service agents would interview her to learn more about what assassins could be or do, and after her assassination attempt, the Secret Service revised its threat assessment to include a wider variety of people. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you look like, male, female. Anybody in the crowd could be an assassin after Sara Jane. It just threw them into turmoil,” Spieler said. But this lesson was almost learned too late.
Moore didn’t miss Ford because she was a poor shot. She missed because the police had confiscated her gun earlier that week, and she bought a new one with a faulty sight right before her assassination attempt. When she visited gun dealer Mark Fernwood, she told him she was buying the gun for her friend who wanted it for protection.
Spieler wrote that when Fernwood learned that Moore went from buying a gun from him directly to trying to shoot the president, he said there was nothing about her appearance or actions that would have led him to believe she was dangerous.
“‘Look at it another way,’ he said. ‘Here’s a middle-aged woman, a divorcee with a child. She is dressed conservatively. There’s no way of knowing she would do an insane thing like that.’”