The Daring Housewives and Coffee Fetchers Behind America’s Spy Agency

From a Washington Post book review by Denise Kiernan headlined “The daring housewives and coffee fetchers behind America’s spy agency”:

It should come as no surprise that women have been integral to the Central Intelligence Agency since its inception, and still are. It is almost not worth mentioning that, whether they worked as spies, couriers, girl Fridays or other keepers of secrets, these women helped make the clandestine agency not only tick, but hum. Almost not worth mentioning.

Except that it is.

Writer Liza Mundy recognizes how rescuing stories from the past can illuminate bias and abuse, and she does so in her latest book, “The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA.” It’s somewhat familiar territory for Mundy, who took a similar tack in her previous book “Code Girls,” about the female code breakers of World War II.

“The Sisterhood” picks up where World War II left off, from the ashes of destruction and victory into the cauldron of the Cold War. Women who had worked in every corner of the war effort — from the Manhattan Project to the Women’s Army Corps — were expected to return to societal roles that had long been designated to them. Yet even before the Office of Strategic Services became the CIA, a third of its employees were women.

Repairing the historical record is a challenging undertaking decades after the deeds are done, perhaps more so when the history itself is shrouded in secrecy. To accomplish her aims, Mundy employs historical research and documentation along with the present-day recollections of individuals who were — or still are — involved with the agency.

Many of these women’s experiences seem sadly par for the course — almost blasé. As Mundy tells it, in the early days of the agency, they were relegated to typing, fetching coffee, taking dictation, all the while enduring belittling commentary and sexual harassment ranging from micro aggressions to macro offenses. Some were willing to work unpaid to perform a job at which they knew they could excel, one they wanted or felt called to do.

Ironically, the agency’s and society’s tendency to devalue these women and their abilities made them blend into the woodwork, unseen, and thus they became far more effective and influential, as they often used the obstacles placed in their path to their advantage. Women asked to create filing systems, for example, had access to and eyes on everything. Women taking dictation heard all. A “housewife” was not merely a societal or familial designation, it was, in many cases, the ultimate cover.

The underlying power of this narrative lies in juxtaposition: We witness contributions downplayed and overlooked, while comprehending their vital value to the agency. This was not simply an affront to the women; in some scenarios it proved a threat to national security.

“The Sisterhood” covers a lot of ground, from the origins of the OSS to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, to the appointment of Gina Haspel as the CIA’s first female director in 2018 and beyond. The women — and men — vary in background, race and likability. Not every woman is a supportive ally, not every man a demeaning ogre. Along the way there are a lot of firsts and plenty of names and places to keep track of. For some readers, the earlier history may be more compelling, if only because the hurdles to be surmounted were so high, and the tenacity of those who cleared them feels that much more inspiring.

Still, “The Sisterhood” offers a different and valuable inside look at an agency that has long fascinated American culture. Women’s roles today have expanded, yet many of the same challenges remain for those devalued because of their gender, race, sexual identity and more. The more we commit to sharing these stories, the more courage we will have to recognize who is being overlooked.

Denise Kiernan is the New York Times author of “The Girls of Atomic City,” “The Last Castle,” “We Gather Together” and others.

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