The Women Who Helped Build the CIA

From a Wall Street Journal story by Nathalia Holt headlined “The Women Who Helped to Build the CIA”:

From the agency’s start, its female staff broke ground in espionage, but they had to fight for decades against the disdain and discrimination of their male colleagues.

Elizabeth Sudmeier loitered outside a cafe in Baghdad one day in early 1954, taking care not to draw attention to herself. It was not easy for a young American woman in the Middle East to blend in, but Sudmeier, her colleagues would later attest, was practiced in making herself disappear in any setting.

In a few minutes, the man she had been anticipating, the one she had spent months persuading to meet her, arrived, handed her an envelope and moved on. Sudmeier, one of the female intelligence officers who helped start the CIA, had just stolen Soviet secrets. In her hands were the blueprints for the MiG-19 jet fighter, just gifted by Moscow to the Iraqis to gain favor in the region.

When the U.S. entered World War II, it had no central spy agency, so President Franklin Roosevelt appointed William Donovan, a decorated war hero, to build one from the isolated units serving the military and the Treasury and State Departments. Donovan’s vision included a diverse “cross section of racial origins, of abilities, temperaments and talents,” as he put it later, and that included a lot of women, increasingly pressed into new roles during the war but rarely suspected of being spies. After the war, the mission of Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services was broadened and handed to the new Central Intelligence Agency, which was created 75 years ago this month. Many operatives, including women first hired by Donovan, continued in their roles.

As now declassified documents from the era show, however, female officers found it difficult to gain full acceptance in the postwar CIA, and friction developed. “She has an inborn (perhaps feminine) tendency to resist direction,” read the 1952 personnel report of Mary Hutchinson, for instance, a counterintelligence officer with a Ph.D. in archaeology who was fluent in four languages. The agency began hiring women for less vaunted responsibilities, such as writing field reports, rather than for running operations. Still, even women officially employed in such analytical jobs—Sudmeier among them—often performed the work of operations officers anyway, recruiting and developing their own spy networks.

When Allen Dulles was sworn in as the agency’s second director in 1953, Sudmeier and nearly two dozen other women—known as the ‘‘Wise Gals” among their male colleagues for their intelligence and sharp, often biting humor— decided to confront him. At an employee session with Dulles after the ceremony, he invited questions, and a number of the women spoke up, in an unusual challenge for the time. CIA records preserved the exchange: “Why are women hired at a lower grade than men?” “Do you think that women are given sufficient recognition in the CIA?” “As the new director of CIA, are you going to do something about the professional discrimination against women?” In response, Dulles said, “I think women have a very high place in this work, and if there is discrimination, we’re going to see that it’s stopped.” He then signed onto an agency self-examination of the work and treatment of its female officers, led by his inquisitors themselves. The effort soon received its own nickname: the “Petticoat Panel.”

The term was used mockingly, but the group adopted it as a symbol of what they were up against. Their analysis in a 77-page report later that year revealed some reasons for deep dissatisfaction among women at the agency. Women comprised 39% of all CIA employees, far above the 25% across the federal government as a whole. Yet their median pay grade was three levels below the men they worked beside. Not a single woman occupied an executive position within the agency.

Reaction among male administrators was dismissive. “The statistical charts got me dizzy for about twenty minutes after,” said one member of the panel’s oversight committee, according to meeting minutes. “It is just nonsense for these gals to come in here and think the government is going to fall apart because their brains aren’t going to be used to the maximum,” another opined. “Very feminine report,” replied another. The agency adopted none of the panel’s many proposed reforms, such as formally recruiting female officers from clerical staff into operations (following the path of Sudmeier, a former stenographer, and others).

Still, the report succeeded in highlighting the worth of the agency’s female staff. After the panel, a number of women received new freedom and funding to build spy networks.

Eloise Page, a secretary for Donovan during the war, had worked her way up to chief of scientific and technical operations at the CIA by 1951. Known as the “Iron Butterfly” for her strong personality, Page received a pay raise after the panel’s report, as well as funding to spread her network deep into Soviet laboratories.

These intelligence assets helped her to accurately predict the details of Sputnik, the first satellite in space, launched by the Soviets in October 1957. “I know everything there is to know,” Page told a colleague in May, according to later interviews. “We have the angle of launch, the size of the craft, the apogee and the date.” In the early 1960s, Page directed Operation Lincoln, which sent American scientists on vacation to the Soviet Union and gained technical intelligence from casual contacts with their counterparts. In 1973, she became the CIA’s first female station chief, going to Athens after her predecessor there was murdered by terrorists.

Adelaide Hawkins, a single mother of three children who had worked in the wartime message center, was chief of covert communications in the 1950s, analyzing data coming from the agency’s spy planes and satellites. In 1956, stationed in the U.K. thanks to the recognition her work received from the panel, she was reviewing images from U.S. spy planes when she spotted the signature swept-back wings of French Mystere bomber-fighter jets, 60 of them, in Israel. That was three times Israel’s negotiated allowance. Next Hawkins and her team noticed an uptick of coded communications among Britain, France and Israel. Their intelligence helped warn the U.S. that its allies were secretly plotting to seize the Suez Canal.

And in Baghdad, Elizabeth Sudmeier continued to recruit, develop and handle spies within the Soviet military. She built her espionage network using resources that would have been unlikely for her male colleagues: a hair salon and a dress shop. In 1958, when Iraq experienced a revolution and Westerners were immediately targeted and killed, Sudmeier was the lone CIA officer to remain in the country, risking her life to protect her spy network and making her the first woman to earn the Intelligence Medal of Merit.

Injustices toward the women of the CIA lingered despite such accomplishments. “There is a general feeling that handling reports is women’s work,” read one 1960 agency memo, “to be avoided like the plague by any promising and ambitious young man who wants to get ahead in operations.” Yet the legacy of the Wise Gals is palpable. Today, 43% of officers promoted to senior positions are women, up from 21% in 1953, and they are presided over by Avril Haines, the first female director of national intelligence. “Although it took decades for full fruition,” read a 2003 CIA review of the impact of the “Petticoat” report, “the seeds of today’s diversity were first nurtured by this 1953 panel.”

Dr. Holt’s most recent book is “Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage” (Putnam), from which this essay is adapted.

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