"Wise Gals" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Nathalia Holt has written a group biography of five intelligent and persistent women who played significant roles in the early days of the Central Intelligence Agency. Using data from the women’s diaries, scrapbooks, letters, photographs, and also, from declassified CIA documents, she reports on how a divorced mother of three, a Ph.D. anthropologist, a secretary, a military widow, and a Lakota Sioux became some of the first espionage officers of the United States. The courageous and groundbreaking actions of these “Wise Gals” aided in shaping intelligence as a profession.
This book presents Adelaide Hawkins, Eloise Page, Mary Hutchinson, Jane Burrell, and Elizabeth Sudmeier as challengers to the post-World War II stereotype of women workers who had been charged with accumulating vital military intelligence in the Office of Strategic Services. President Harry Truman was concerned about the unregulated power the OSS had accumulated during the war so he disbanded it and established the Central Intelligence Group which evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947.
During wartime, these passionate women had risked their lives heading spy operations in Baghdad, London, and other war-torn cities. After the war, they continued their careers by addressing the Soviet threat during the Cold War.
Though the five came from widely different backgrounds, they shared a common frustration: they all had begun their government work at entry-level jobs, (“women’s jobs,”) and had little opportunity for advancement, in contrast to their male, Ivy League coworkers—“male, pale, and Yale” employees who were paid more, promoted regularly, and allowed privileges denied the women. The women insisted they receive the credit and pay their expertise deserved.
In 1953, Allen Dulles became CIA Director. With a new administration in charge, the women saw the possibility of change. They asked Dulles, “(1) Why are women hired at a lower grade than men? (2) Do you think that women are given sufficient recognition in the CIA? (3) And as the new Director of CIA, are you going to do something about the professional discrimination against women?”
In response, Dulles impaneled a group of 13 women to find answers to these questions. The panel was mockingly named “The Petticoat Panel” by one of the top administrators. “Many female employees had advanced degrees and were directing the activities of large teams. They had worked on successful operations and had years of experience in the field. In many cases, they even had the support of male colleagues and the recommendations of their bosses. Yet they couldn’t get a raise.”
The panel’s carefully written report, complete with charts, graphs, and many recommendations, was mostly ignored by the top CIA administrators. When the report was released to the entire agency many of their male coworkers derided the disgruntled women continuing to view them as only placeholders until their positions could be filled with men.
The male workers could not envision the women being as valuable to the agency as they were. They also could not imagine the women sharing the same pay scale and benefits. One man concluded, “It is just nonsense for these gals to come on here and think the government is going to fall apart because their brains aren't going to be used to the maximum.” The agency’s response to the report was a disappointment.
Holt ends the book on a positive note. Despite the dismissal of women’s concerns in the 1950s, the CIA revisited the report in 1972 and began to respond to its recommendations. Now the CIA has many women in prominent positions: “After Gina Haspel was appointed as the woman to lead the CIA in 2018, she brought with her an unprecedented number of female officers into key positions within the agency. For the first time, women were promoted to lead the top three departments, or directorates, of the CIA: operations, analysis, and service and technology.”
“Wise Gals” adeptly covers this breakthrough. History buffs, spy story devotees, and those concerned about national security will be drawn to these true-life stories of espionage. The five’s handling of covert operations, technical achievements, and counterintelligence efforts are just some of the vivid tales Holt beautifully tells. This is an impressive and inspirational read that provides a meticulously researched addition to the canon of U.S. histories.
About the Author: Nathalia Holt has written three other books about women whose achievements went unrecognized for decades: “Rise of the Rocket Girls,” “The Queens of Animation” and “Cured.” Her reporting has appeared in numerous publications including the “New York Times,” “The Atlantic,” “PBS,” “Popular Science,” and “Time.”