History Stories

New CIA head Gina Haspel comes from a small, but proud cadre of high-ranking female intelligence officers. Declassified documents reveal the agency's long struggle with women as agents.

On December 16, 1941, nine days after Pearl Harbor, a mother of three from Maryland named Adelaide Hawkins signed an affidavit with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services [OSS] in Washington saying she would “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Hawkins became an assistant cryptographic clerk at a salary of $1,620/year.

Her real role? Pioneering woman in the field of American espionage.

During World War II, the OSS created the U.S.’s first spy network, and Hawkins managed the agency’s message center in Washington, specializing in secret codes or “ciphers.” She helped train spies working behind enemy lines in communications. After the war, when the CIA was founded in September 1947, she was among the first of the new spy agency’s high-ranking women.

Jump forward to 2018. On May 21, Gina Haspel was sworn in as the first female director of the CIA. The Trump administration called it a battle won in “the war on women.” In fact, a short history of the role women have played in the CIA—using declassified CIA and other documents—reveals a startling story. At times, it mirrors the overall narrative of women in the American workplace. At others, it is decidedly different.

Virginia Hall

A painting of Virginia Hall who was part of espionage operations against Nazi Germany. (Credit: The Central Intelligence Agency)

The First Wave of Female Spies
In the beginning, espionage officials had to confront the question: Could women be good spies? Not everyone agreed. When interviewed by American officials, one European intelligence officer said: “An agent should be calm, unostentatious and reticent. Women are emotional, vain, loquacious. They fall in love easily and without discrimination. They are impatient with the strict requirements of security measures. They withstand hardships poorly.”

Apparently, American spy officials disagreed, as declassified CIA documents show an extraordinary focus early in the agency’s life to promote the role of women. The agency’s boss Allen Dulles reportedly once said that women make “fine spies.” On August 10, 1953, the agency formed, according to internal documents, a “petticoat panel” of women “to examine the advancement problems of professional and non-professional women throughout the Agency.”

Apparently, the panel was effective (Adelaide Hawkins was a member), as the 1950s saw remarkable female agents emerge on the cutting edge of espionage.

Among them: Eloise Page, who joined the CIA upon its founding. Page rose through the ranks of foreign spy operations after the war, becoming a chief of scientific and technical operations. Nicknamed “Iron Butterfly,” she would become the CIA’s first female station chief, in Athens. A predecessor there, Richard Welch, had been assassinated three years earlier.

Then there was Virginia Hall, the CIA’s “Limping Lady.” A Baltimore native with a prosthetic leg (which she named Cuthbert), Hall posed as an elderly farmhand while she worked throughout Europe organizing spy networks and smuggling supplies to resistance fighters. Her efforts helped destroy the Third Reich, which called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” She worked for the CIA into the 1960s organizing resistance groups behind the Iron Curtain.

Eloise Page

Eloise Page’s ID badge. She began her intelligence career in 1942 as a secretary to OSS chief William Donovan. (Credit: The Central Intelligence Agency)

Mad Men and Female Stereotypes
Ironically, as the women’s movement gained broad strength in the ’60s, a Mad Men-style culture took hold at the CIA, according to agency documents. Women complained that they had to work harder to get the same promotions, and that they could not get jobs as case officers. One document from the 1970s confronted the issue head on:

“The women’s liberation movement has raised a lot of controversy, but it is not the ‘gut’ issue for women in the Agency. The real issue is that government salaries are paid by taxpayers, both male and female, black and white. Government agencies are required by law to treat all employees equally and to hire and to promote them solely on the basis of merit. Women’s lib is open to debate, the law of the land is not.”

Was hiring solely “on merit” an excuse to not hire women? Perhaps. Enter Harritte Thompson, a career intelligence officer since 1952. In 1977, Thompson filed a complaint against her employer with the encouragement of her white male supervisor. The complaint claimed that management was “oriented primarily toward male operations officers.”

“Because of my sex, I have been systematically denied essential training courses designed to prepare officers for upward mobility,” Thompson’s complaint said.

A court case dragged on, and as this was happening, gender politics were reshaping the landscape in broader America. In 1978, members of the Congressional Women’s Caucus held a meeting with CIA director Stansfield Turner to discuss the role of women in the Agency. Turner noted how difficult it was to place female intelligence officers in certain parts of the world, such as the Mideast. The Congresswomen wanted to know, however: Were all CIA recruiters men? Could more women be used “for the technical and analytical side of the Agency?”

One thing was clear: The times were changing. Ultimately, Harritte Thompson settled her case with her employer. The CIA gave her a promotion and back pay. And the agency was primed to see a new wave of women in power—all the way to the top.

Gina Haspel

Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director Gina Haspel being sworn in before the Senate Intelligence Committee during her confirmation hearing to become the next CIA director, May 9, 2018. (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Persistent Glass Ceiling
By the time the curtain opened on the 1980s, all the gender politics of the 1960s and ’70s had crystalized into a new feminism—but not yet at the CIA. In 1983, Deputy Director John N. McMahon wrote a memo called “CIA Women.” He had examined statistics on gender employment at the agency. “After being appalled by them,” he wrote, “I am embarrassed.” Ultimately the CIA created a “Glass Ceiling Study” in 1992, which aimed “to determine if career advancement barriers exist for Agency professional employees, particularly women and minorities.”

So…was there a glass ceiling in the spy agency? Absolutely. “Women are concentrated in lower grades than men,” the study concluded. “Although women constitute nearly 40 percent of the professional workforce, they hold only 10 percent of the SIS [Senior Intelligence Service] positions.”

Once again, the kind of thrust to empower women that the agency saw in the 1950s reemerged. Two years after the Glass Ceiling study was published, female CIA agent Jeanne Vertefeuille (who joined the CIA as a typist in 1954) cracked a case to bring down Aldrich Ames in one of the most sensational spy stories of the 1990s. (Ames was a CIA veteran—and a KGB mole. In a fitting twist, he had suggested to his Russian handlers that Vertefeuille could be framed if his activities were ever discovered.) In subsequent years, a handful of women—Nora Slatkin, Stephanie O’Sullivan and V. Sue Bromley—have made it to the CIA’s number-three rung. In 2002, the CIA named Jami Miscik deputy director of intelligence, in charge of President George W. Bush’s daily briefing.

All of which leads to Gina Haspel. Amid controversy over her role in the CIA’s torture interrogation methods in previous years, Haspel was confirmed by the Senate as the first female CIA Director. The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Republican Richard Burr, offered these words during Haspel’s confirmation hearings: “You are without a doubt the most qualified person.”

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