Secret Agent Ma’am


Tasneem Raja revisits the early days of women in the CIA:

A few years ago, four veteran CIA officers, with more than a 100 years of collective experience over four decades, were asked to speak frankly about serving in the agency as women. The taped conversations, used for internal review by the CIA, reveal encounters with male attitudes from the officers’ early years that aren’t surprising—it was indeed a Mad Men world, albeit with security clearances. The transcripts, part of a trove of recently declassified CIA documents, also contain wry, Peggy Olson-esque recollections in which being a woman proved an asset—and hardly in the “femme fatale” vein of intelligence gathering.

Carla, who joined the agency in 1965 and was Deputy Chief of the Africa Division by the time she retired in 2004, recalled a time when male higher-ups in the agency warned that women would be ineffective for recruiting agents and gathering intel abroad. She recounted a successful assignment debunking that notion:

I never actually had to pitch the guy. I [played] sort of the “Dumb Dora” personality, and “Golly” “Gee!” and “Wow!” He would tell me, “I just love talking to you because you’re not very bright.” And I would just sit like this [makes an innocent expression]. The recruitment ended because he told me about a plot to go bomb the embassy in [redacted] and we arrested him and his gang of merry men as they crossed the border. He just told me everything and I got tons of intel out of him because I was just a woman who wasn’t very bright.

An internal survey from 1953 dubbed “The Petticoat Panel” shows that while women accounted for 40 percent of the agency’s employees at the time—better than the overall US workforce then, which was 30 percent female—only one-fifth of those women were above the midlevel GS-7 on the government’s salary grade, which went to GS-18. Meanwhile, 70 percent of men in the CIA were higher than G-7, and 10 percent topped GS-14, a grade no women had reached at the time. …

Yet, while men made up the lion’s share of highly paid roles in the agency, women accounted for 60 percent of the agency’s jobs in statistical analysis. Linda McCarthy, a CIA historian and former agency analyst, says that’s unsurprising: “During World War II, when it came to numbers, the war department went after women,” she told Mother Jones. “Same with maps and codework: They specifically wanted to find women for that kind of work. They were simply better at it.” McCarthy said the prevailing notion in the agency at the time ascribed women’s aptitude for stats, geography, and code breaking to maternal instinct. “They figured, you have to be patient to raise children, and you have to be patient to make maps by hand, so it must all be connected.”

For more on this subject, a reader recommends Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS, a book about a World War II intelligence agency called the Office of Strategic Services.

(This CIA device, designed to look like a makeup contact, features a code that’s revealed by tilting the mirror at the correct angle. Photo: The Central Intelligence Agency)