Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage
“The Wise Gals who started at the CIA paved the way for the many women coming after them and still provide an inspiring model. And thanks to this book, they’re now a part of our history.”
Nathalia Holt has written about unrecognized women before, those who worked in early aerospace and animation. In Wise Gals, she turns her keen eye on five women who worked in espionage during the first years of the CIA. She follows a complicated history as she traces the careers of distinctive women, each making major contributions in the field, while also outlining the history of the CIA itself, the new intelligence agency created by President Truman after shutting down “Wild Bill” Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services.
Some may object to her wholehearted approval of Donovan, creator of the CIA after his earlier unit, the OSS was disbanded by Truman as having too much unregulated power. Many in the intelligence community considered him careless, arrogant, and sloppy. In fact, Elizebeth Friedman, mentioned in this book as a mentor to one of these women, was tasked with setting up secure communications for the new OSS and was so concerned about Donavon’s attitude, she wrote a detailed memo on how to ensure the agency was efficient and leak-proof. Perhaps the positive spin on Donovan here is a reflection of what was felt by the women Holt chose to profile. Still, it would have helped Holt’s reliability to mention other views rather than presenting such single-minded hagiography.
The book opens in 1953, as the women, late in their careers, form a group mockingly called “The Petticoat Panel” to investigate why so many women have left the agency.
“The problem wasn’t that the women weren’t being given responsibility, either; it was that they weren’t being paid for it. 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.”
These women took the same risks as their male peers. In fact one of the women profiled in the book has the sad honor of being the first CIA officer to die in the line of duty. Holt introduces the inherent unequal treatment and frustration of the women, then homes in on each of their work, from the beginning of their careers to when each retires. After going through their immediate post-WWII missions, she returns to the findings of “The Petticoat Panel.” Their carefully written-up report, complete with pages of objective diagrams and graphs is presented to the top administration only to be ignored. The clear findings seemed improbable to the men. They felt that women in the agency got good opportunities, fair treatment, and appropriate pay. As one 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.”
Fortunately for the CIA, these women did use their brains to the maximum, even at the lower pay they received. Holt describes specific spy missions, running double-agents, developing techniques to pass on massive amounts of information, all done by these women in different parts of the globe. Post-report, her focus in on the 1950s and ’60s, during the intense spy war with the Soviets, but Nazi agents also take up a large share of the pages as these women tracked down stolen treasure and war criminals.
This is an impressive book, covering a lot of ground, including incisive critiques of the missions and focus of the CIA, the change from spying to “covert operations.” Holt juggles a lot of material and the reader goes back and forth between the different women, tracking their careers during and after WWII in a complicated zigzag. It’s a testament to Holt’s careful research that the narrative all holds together, made vivid by the many details she uncovered.
Holt ends the book on an upbeat note. Despite the dismissal of women’s concerns in the 1950s, the CIA now has many prominent women:
“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.”
The Wise Gals who started at the CIA paved the way for the many women coming after them and still provide an inspiring model. And thanks to this book, they’re now a part of our history.