Book Review: Wise Gals by Nathalia Holt

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls comes the never-before-told story of a small cadre of influential female spies in the precarious early days of the CIA—women who helped create the template for cutting-edge espionage (and blazed new paths for equality in the workplace) in the treacherous post-WWII era.

The United States of America’s Central Intelligence Agency would not exist as it is today without the exemplary efforts of five brave and often undersung women. This lack of recognition, to a certain extent, is part and parcel of working with the CIA: it would never do to publicly laud work that is best done in secret, after all. That said, Nathalia Holt’s masterful biography of these five women not only points out how criminally underappreciated they were even by their employers but also posits that a greater appreciation of their work and opinions would likely have kept the agency out of much of the trouble it’s run into in and since the latter half of the 20th century.

The women in question are Jane Burrell, the first CIA operative killed in the line of duty; Adelaide “Addy” Hawkins, the high school graduate turned codebreaker and communications mastermind; Eloise Page, the Southern socialite who would become the CIA’s first female station chief; Mary Hutchison, the spymaster who chafed at being seen as merely a CIA wife, and Elizabeth “Liz” Sudmeier, the intrepid officer who single-handedly ran Iraq when her colleagues were forced to leave in the wake of revolution. Their careers spanned the majority of the 1900s, beginning in World War II and ending, for the most part, with mandatory retirements as the century closed. As such their stories are very much a history of the CIA itself, from its roots as the Office of Strategic Services through its tumultuous transition into its current form, spanning the defeat of Nazi Germany and the USSR before facing the dawn of modern terrorism.

The book is organized on a linear timeline, with Ms. Holt describing what each woman was up to while in the thick of world events. They were each recruited during World War II, from different backgrounds and via different entry points: one of the few good things about times of war and duress is how easily prejudices are set aside in favor of getting the job done. But peacetime brought back all the old indignities. By 1953, matters had come to such a head that the female employees of the CIA—including all the women featured here except Jane, who died in 1948—heckled incoming director Allen W. Dulles about their pay and benefits disparities. To his credit, he promptly set up the Committee on Professional Women, or the Petticoat Panel as it was more commonly known, to look into the matter. Addy, Eloise, Liz and Mary took to their new task force with gusto as:

[T]heir work was not just about gaining equity for female employees–it was about saving the agency they loved from itself. Every year since the CIA had been established in 1947, it was hiring fewer women into professional positions. The agency was moving quickly away from [founder William J.] Donovan’s vision of a diverse force of officers. This increased homogeneity lent a vulnerability to their operations. The lack of diversity, in both thought and outward appearance, weakened their missions–and even potentially made their officers easier to identify in the field.

The lessons these women learned from decades of fieldwork were, they found, increasingly disregarded, as a potent combination of misogyny and political arrogance was shunting aside the elegantly clandestine work of information gathering in favor of more brute force covert action. This refusal to believe in the competency of anyone but a certain type described as “pale, male and Yale” hit a nadir with the Bay of Pigs incident, when experienced polyglot Mary was allowed neither an active role in information gathering despite the paucity of Spanish-speakers on the American side nor the ability to influence strategy, much less policy. She and her fellow officers were forced to listen in impotent horror as almost 1200 Cuban exiles the US had trained and armed in an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro were either killed or thrown in prison in a covert attack that was unsupported by local intelligence.

She wasn’t the only one to receive excessive pushback from her male colleagues when it came to what was considered “good work.” In 1975, Eloise finally attained her long coveted position as CIA station chief. She had refused cushy assignments to lead quiet stations like Bermuda, knowing they weren’t a good use of her skills. After the station chief in Greece was assassinated, however, Eloise stepped right in, ready to tackle one of the most active terrorist environments in the world. Some of her agents in Athens were not, however, on the same professional wavelength:

Eloise’s experience over the decades had taught her that manipulating human nature generated far more reliable intelligence than threats or physical violence. There were those who disagreed with her at the agency, men Eloise called “cowboys,” who were more interested in exerting power than in gathering information. Two of these men were working for her in Athens, and Eloise was harsh when dealing with them. One of the men was particularly aggravating because of his disdain for “women’s work.” He would not, under any circumstances, touch a typewriter, believing the task to be beneath him. He insisted that a secretary write up all his reports. It was evidence of what Eloise already knew to be true: Women were better at espionage. They did not let their ego get in the way of the work.

The stories of these five women are stories of quiet heroism, of putting country before self, of getting the job done no matter the personal risk or cost. They all hid behind clerical covers, doggedly persisting in their real work in order to prevent war, preserve life and keep bloodshed to the absolute minimum they could, no matter what bluster or opposition they faced. Ms. Holt brilliantly showcases their lives and heartaches, their tribulations and their triumphs, in a book that’s just as much a reflection on the CIA and American society as it is on these women. As deeply intelligent and empathetic as the group it’s named for, Wise Gals is required reading for anyone interested in either the history of espionage or of the United States in the 20th century.

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