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WISE GALS by Nathalia Holt


The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage

by Nathalia Holt

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2022
ISBN: 978-0-593-32848-4
Publisher: Putnam

The hidden lives of pathbreaking women.

Drawing on considerable archival material—diaries, letters, interviews, reports, memos, scrapbooks, and photographs—cultural historian Holt, author of Rise of the Rocket Girls and The Queens of Animation, creates a vivid group biography of five strong-willed women who held significant positions in the early years of the CIA: Adelaide Hawkins, a divorced mother of three; Mary Hutchison, married to a CIA staff officer; Eloise Page, admiringly known as the “Iron Butterfly”; Elizabeth Sudmeier, who had begun her career as secretary to Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan; and Jane Burrell, “the model of a tough, successful CIA officer” whose short-lived career ended in a plane crash in 1948. The women had joined the agency during World War II, when it was known as the Office of Strategic Services. Led by Donovan, it served as the source of vital military intelligence. After the war, President Harry Truman quashed Donovan’s vision of a global web of intelligence-gathering agents, but as the threat of communism grew, Truman reinstated the agency as the Central Intelligence Group. With expanded powers, in 1947, it evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency. Holt reveals the frustration these women felt surrounded by misogynist “male, pale, and Yale” co-workers who were paid more, promoted to higher positions, and allowed privileges—to marry a non-American, for example—denied to women. In the 1950s, Allen Dulles, the new CIA director, set up a panel to address women’s concerns, but the detailed report by what some derisively called the “Petticoat Panel” was ignored. The author traces each woman’s challenging career, which involved recruiting and training foreign agents, designing a secure system for their communications, handling spies, engaging in counterintelligence, and heading operations around the world—Baghdad, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels, and Rome—as the CIA’s focus shifted from containing communism to monitoring nuclear weaponry to tracing terrorists. She makes a strong case for recognizing their talents and sacrifices: Each lived “a life of necessary duplicity.”

Well-researched profiles in courage.