Declassified documents reveal female CIA officer secrets

Newly declassified interviews with female CIA officers have spoken about the sexism and other problems they faced working in the male-dominated agency during the sixties and seventies.

The women, who entered the CIA as typists before working their way up to head international branches for the agency, became assets to the organization – often by playing up on perceptions of them as being ‘dumb’.

One female CIA officer, Carla says an embassy bomb plot was foiled after an enemy spilled secrets to her as she was “just a woman who wasn’t very bright”.

Carla says: “I got credit for a recruitment but I never actually had to pitch the guy”.

“Anyway I was sort of the ”Dumb Dora” personality to survive, and ”Golly” ”Gee!” and ”Wow!,” she says. “And this [redacted word] that was it, he would seek me out. ”Oh, could we talk?” She adds, the man would say: ”I just love talking to you because you’re not very bright.”

“And I would just sit like this [innocent facial expression], and I would get home and my spouse would say, ”Well how was it?” ”Golly! Gee! You know? Wow!”

Carla add: ‘But it worked. And finally, unfortunately, the recruitment ended because he told me about a plot to bomb the embassy [redacted word] and we arrested him and his gang of merry men as they crossed the border. He just told me everything and I got tons of intel out of him because I was just a woman who wasn’t very bright.’

Another female CIA officer, called Meredith, says she started working for the CIA in 1979 as her husband was an operations officer. Meredith revealed another way in which being a woman helped her as a CIA agent, saying her taste in expensive clothing came in useful when trying to pick out foreign surveillants who were undercover, the Mail Online reports.

“I always said if I ever wrote a book, I would start it with ”You could tell ’em by their socks”. You would always know surveillants [redacted word] at the time by the socks and shoes”, Meredith says.

”We digress here, but with all the [redacted word] having such horrible clothes and horrible shoes and socks, the surveillants had good ones.” She adds: “That would never occur to my husband to look at it.”


The conversations with female agents were recently released by the agency as part of its collection called ‘From Typist to Trailblazer: The Evolving View of Women in the CIA’s Workforce’.

From Typist to Trailblazer… is comprised of letters, memos, studies and other items which capture attempts to raise the perceptions of female CIA workers from 1947 through to today.

Among the items are artifacts from 1953’s ‘Petticoat Panel’. In the fifties, 40% of the CIA’s workforce were female (10% more than the United States average), only one in five had reached a middle-level salary – while 70% of their male counterparts had.

Women’s role as mothers was then seen as a problem by heads of the CIA, with Chief of Operations Richard Helms saying: “You just get them to a point where they are about to blossom out to a GS-12, and they get married, go somewhere else, or something over which nobody has any control, and they are out of the running.”

Perceptions of women has changed little by the seventies, with one memo revealing female workers in the Clandestine Service were “limited in their operational potential”.

However, at the end of the decade things started to change at the CIA. Deputy Director E. Henry Knoch demanded a committee was put together to look into the absence of females in senior positions at the agency.

A lot has changed over the last two decades, with strong female CIA agents represented positively and frequently in popular culture. Although a woman has not yet been director of the CIA in 2011, 44% of its top level workers were female – an increase of over a third from the 1980s.

This year, Avril Haines became the first deputy director of the CIA after being instilled by President Obama. However, some say there is still some way to go in improving the status of female CIA officers.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE