Book Review

Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage

Review by Linda Parker

Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage

Nathalia Holt

Wise Gals is an unusual and interesting contribution to the history of the USAs intelligence history. The author points out in her introduction that the heroines of the book saw many biographies of their male contemporaries published while their story has until now remained unknown.

The ‘Wise Gals’ came from differing backgrounds and situations and in an age when female employees of the Government were only considered fit for secretarial duties, used their talents to work alongside make colleagues becoming experts at codebreaking, counter intelligence turning enemy agents and the development of ‘spy gear’ to make themselves indispensable.

The author has described the way in which Adeleide Hawkins, Mary Hutchinson, Eloise Page, Elizabeth Sudmeier and Jane Burrell use their undoubted gifts and specialisms to rise above the difficulties that beset then as women in intelligence to pursue highly successful careers, also forming a committee known as “The Petticoat Panel“ to examine inequalities of pay and promotion in the CIA.

A major aspect of the book is that of the role these women played in the formation and success of the CIA in the post war years, in which former allies, especially Russia, became enemies.

The narrative goes back to the Second World War when these women cut their teeth by working For William Donovan in the Office of Strategic services, for example Jane Burrel, responsible for running double agents in occupied Europe and tracking down Nazi Criminals after the war and Adeline Hawkins   decoding in Washington. Jane Burrel died in a plane crash in 1948 while on a mission,but had been influential in developing a system for recruiting and handling spies.

The Central intelligence agency was established in 1947 the emphasis became one of covert operations against the Soviet Union, including the issue of protecting USA’s nuclear secrets while obtaining Russia’s. The Wise Gals narrative continues into the 1950s and 1960s and the career of Elizabeth Sudmeier the only female member of the 16 members of the first JTC or Joint training group, who was “a master of disguise” and was sent to the near East after her training and who faced he dilemma of love versus her career. 

A crucial development in the story of women in the CIA and one justly emphasised by the author came in   February 1953 when the four wise girls were temporarily in Washington. After the swearing in of Alan Dulles as director, he was inundated with questions from the four and other female operatives on the discrimination against women in the service. This led later in 1953 to another meeting of women to begin the uphill struggle for equality of opportunity, promotion and equal pay, examining vast amounts of data to prove their points and making list of Misogynistic comments about why this did not happen. They compiled a long and detailed report which was ignored. The fast-paced narrative continues with the protagonists’ involvement in spy planes and crisis in Israel and Hungary. Eliose was particularly concerned in gathering intelligence about Intercontinental missiles, a subject which reached its height in the Cubam Missile Crisis.  Mary played a key role in sophisticates intelligence operations relating to Cuba and Addy was involved in finding evidence of the Russian missiles on Cuba. Liz experienced treachery among the CIA in Baghdad.

Today Women are prominent in the CIA and this book describes the long road to achievement through the previously untold stories of the women who gave their whole lives to using intelligence as a “weapon of peace“ and opening the door to women’s achievements not only in the Intelligence services but in wider American Society.

Icon Books 2022

Pages 382 B and W illustrations

 Price £25

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