Hidden Heroes in a Sexist World

Posted on February 25, 2020

by Tracy Walder

Tracy Walder, author of The Unexpected Spy, discusses the history of women in the intelligence community and how it affected her life as both a CIA operative and an FBI agent.

Julia Child. Well-known French chef, author, TV personality, and undercover CIA agent.

Like most professions, with exceptions such as nursing, the CIA and the FBI have a history of sexism and gender discrimination. One of the two agencies, though, has been working toward gender equality for decades.

In World War II, women were recruited for what was then called the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) which eventually became the CIA. Women were considered better map-readers, more patient, with a sharper eye for detail. By 1953, forty percent of the agency was made up of women. This was far better than the national female workforce in the U.S., which was only 30 percent. Very few women had high-ranking positions, but they were there in the offices and out in the field. Often a woman was recruited alongside her husband, as a secretary or file clerk. This wasn’t the case for Julia Child who met her husband while working for the O.S.S. Yes, that delightful woman, sipping wine as she cooked beef bourguignon on television, was also an undercover operative.

Elizabeth MacIntosh’s name is far less familiar than Julia Child’s, but the two women worked together in the OSS, in a position called “Morale Operations.” Together they spread misinformation via fake reports, documents and postcards, all intended to weaken Japanese morale. MacIntosh was already a woman ahead of her time. She spoke fluent Japanese and was a reporter in Hawaii. Among other things, she covered the bombing of Pearl Harbor. MacIntosh’s feats weren’t limited to pen and ink, however. She delivered what looked like a lump of coal to an undercover operative who planted it on a train carrying Japanese soldiers. The operative put the “lump” in the engine and the train blew up. That a woman took part in such warfare might still feel unsettling for people today, whereas it’s easy for most to see a man in the same position as a hero. 

In May 1953, newly sworn-in CIA Director, Allen Dulles was asked by a woman during his introductory speech what he was going to do about gender discrimination at the CIA. In response, Dulles formed the “Career Service Board Panel on Women in the CIA,” or what the chairwoman of the panel referred to as the “Petticoat Panel.” This group was charged to “study the problems of professional and clerical advancement to determine for themselves whether they believe there is any discrimination as such against women for advancing professionally.”

More women were brought in following the Petticoat Panel, including Jeanne Vertefeuille who joined the agency in 1954. Vertefeuille, who spoke German and French, started out as a typist. Her intense, focused drive was quickly noticed and over the next several decades Vertefeuille became one of the CIA’s experts on the Soviet Union.

In the mid-1980s, it was noticed that many Russian double-agents who were working on behalf of the CIA were “disappearing.” Vertefeuille had a hunch there was a mole in the agency and so she assembled a top-secret, five-person team to uncover the mole and figure out why the CIA was losing so many Russian spies.

After eight years of relentless work, Vertefeuille’s team proved beyond a doubt that the CIA’s Aldridge Ames had been selling information to the Russians for millions of dollars. He lived in an expensive house and drove luxury cars which were well beyond the means of the average CIA operative. Ames’ reports to the Soviet Union had led to, among other things, the assassination of eight Russians who had been working on behalf of the United States. 

One of the CIA’s former director’s is quoted as having said, “You may have seen Jeanne [who retired after nabbing Ames] staring out from a full glossy page of Time, billed as ‘the little gray-haired lady who just wouldn’t quit.’ She was holding a spyglass reflecting the image of Aldrich Ames. I can imagine some relative sitting down at the breakfast table, opening Time Magazine, and exclaiming, ‘My word, that’s Aunt Jeanne. I thought she was a file clerk or something.’”

In 1977, E. Henry Knoche, then the Deputy Director of the CIA, brought a renewed focus to the “womanpower” the agency was overlooking. In a memo, he inquired: “What kind of careers do you want for [your daughters]? Do you want to see their opportunities limited to the GS-07 or GS-08 [low-ranking] level where the majority of women in the Agency remain today?” He asked at a time when even a man in bell-bottoms with long, tufty, sideburns would likely not imagine a woman spy. Because the CIA does not release information about their operations or their spies, it’s only possible to track women operatives after they’ve left the agency and only then, if they’ve decided to “out” themselves in one way or another. Even then, most CIA triumphs remain in the vault so as not to jeopardize the ongoing work of operatives around the globe. But I do know firsthand that progress was made beyond the publicly-known heroes like Vertefeuille, as I joined the agency a year before the September 11 attacks. 

Though women weren’t a visible majority in the CIA, I interacted with many that were well-placed and high-ranking. I was the only woman working in the Predator Program, alongside George Tenant and President Bush, but it was a small group. Like the others, I had been selected for what was then a top-secret mission because of my particular skills and promoted beyond it for those same skills.  In my next position as a counterterrorist operative one of my supervisors was a woman. She was someone I admired and emulated. She made me feel like anything was possible for me within the agency. 

None of the men I worked with in the agency acted in any discriminatory ways. Maybe when lives are on the line, and true talent, dedication, and skill are necessary to succeed, discrimination is more likely to fall away. 

When I traveled overseas undercover, however, I faced immense discrimination from spies from other agencies. From Africa to the Middle East to Europe, I was underestimated by most people I encountered. I learned to appreciate this, as the fact that people expected so little of me gave me a great advantage. When I interrogated high-ranking al-Qaeda terrorists, I provided a baffling mixture of youth, Americanism, and femininity. They didn’t understand the threat I posed. Few, if any, ever knew that behind my white-toothed smile, I was worm-holing my way into, and unraveling, their WMD plots so quickly they barely had time to understand what had just happened. 

Today, it is estimated that half the positions in the CIA are held by women. Women also hold most of the top executive spots. In light of the agency’s pro-active history, this does not surprise me. The CIA awarded me for my achievements, promoted me, listened to me, and took me seriously. So much so, that I never imagined how backwards things would be when I left the agency and joined the FBI. 

J. Edgar Hoover worked in the Bureau of Investigation in the 1920s. By 1935 he had helped create the FBI, which he ran until his death in 1972. When Hoover became director only three women worked in the FBI. By the end of his time, not a single female officer had been added. If you Google “famous female FBI agents,” all you’ll get are firsts: first woman, first African American woman, etc. Historically, there haven’t been enough well-placed women to create any heroes. 

Things in the FBI barely felt different from the Hoover era when I showed up at Quantico as one of only six female recruits in the Spring of 2004. Discrimination ran rampant. I was called Malibu Barbie, was punished for wearing clothing that made my male supervisors “uncomfortable,” and was held to a standard that was much higher than my male counterparts. Unfortunately, once I got out into the field, things were no different. That I had shut down chemical plots overseas, that I had traveled around the world undercover, that I had come face to face with some of the most notorious terrorists in world history did not lend me any gravitas in the FBI. Instead, I was handed what was perceived as gender-appropriate roles: the babysitter for children when their parents were brought in; the friend to the wife when her husband was arrested; the domestic help who sorted through the garbage of suspects while the male agents were out following them. 

The CIA, could go even further in achieving full and absolute equality for women. Still, they remain miles ahead of the FBI. 

The FBI, on the other hand, is currently in the middle of a discrimination suit from a group of women who bravely made public the type of discrimination that I, during my time in the agency, was too timid to bring forth. 

I regret that I didn’t speak out then. Today, no one can shut me up.

© Kent Barker Photography

Tracy Walder is a former Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and a Special Agent at the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office specializing in Chinese counterintelligence operations and has taught high-school history and government courses at Hockaday School in Dallas, Texas. Now Walder is the Board of Directors for Girl Security, a non profit, non partisan group that brings national security curriculum to girls in high school throughout the US.

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