News & Politics

The Women of the CIA Are Finally Getting Some Recognition

Liza Mundy’s new book follows up “Code Girls.”

Liza Mundy. Photograph by Magdalena Papaioannou.

It’s been six years since the release of Code Girls, Liza Mundy’s bestselling history of female codebreakers during World War II, and Mundy still gets multi­ple emails about it every week. “They’re from people whose mothers did something intelligence-related during the war,” she says, “and they want my help finding out what their moms did.” Some were military cryptographers, but others were in the world of espionage—first with the Office of Strategic Services, then with its successor agency, the CIA. Mundy’s new book, The Sisterhood, tells their story, tracing the history of women at the Agency from its inception to the present.

A native of Roanoke, Mundy has been a journalist since the 1980s, and she’s worked at both Washington City Paper and the Washington Post. Today, she lives in Georgetown with her husband, the beloved TV scientist Bill Nye. We spoke by phone about her reporting on the CIA, where women were often brought in as secretaries or archivists, then fought to become case officers and division chiefs. Many histories of the CIA treat female contributions as absent or incidental, but Mundy’s shows that women—despite their gender but also because of it—have always been key to the Agency’s success.


What first got you interested in the women of the CIA?

That came out of my book Code Girls. During World War II, at the same time that women were being recruited [as military cryptographers], there was another group of women who were being recruited to build America’s espionage and intelligence-gathering capabilities for the Office of Strategic Services. Julia Child, of course, is the most famous female OSS officer. So I was aware of this parallel effort to bring women into the espionage effort during the war.

And then, like many espionage-­related endeavors, I got a mysterious summons. It was from the CIA’s history office—they have a lot of historians working for the Agency, in many cases generating classified histories, but al­so histories [that are available to the public]. And they wanted to talk to me about the Agency’s own history of women intelligence officers and analysts.

So I went to—I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an undisclosed location, but it was a suburban office building, and we chatted about a few groups of women whose achievements have been particularly noteworthy. That would be the mostly female group of analysts who identified Aldrich Ames as a traitor in the 1990s. And then there was a group of female analysts who were calling attention to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11. There was also a group of women targeters and analysts involved in the hunt for bin Laden. So that was a bit of information for me to chew on. And I thought, okay, I’ll see if this story is reportable.

Reporting on the CIA can be tricky. How did you do it?

I started by reaching out to some women analysts, and I placed notices in a couple of publications for retired CIA officers, soliciting interviews with any women who wanted to talk about their service. Once that request got out in the ether, I started hearing from a lot of women—a surprising number of women—who wanted to talk about their experiences in the CIA.

I actually ended up doing way more interviews than I had expected, and I came to realize that this was going to be a much bigger history; if you wanted to understand why a group of women analysts were paying attention to al-Qaeda during the 1990s and why they weren’t listened to the way that they should have been, you really had to understand the whole history of how women had been discriminated against and pigeonholed at the CIA, even as they were absolutely necessary to the existence and effectiveness of the CIA.

Keys to success: CIA typists at work in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Central Intelligence Agency.

What were some of the important roles women had early on at the CIA?

When the Agency was created in 1947, it needed thousands of women to run its offices. People forget that when CIA operatives are undercover in countries all over the world obtaining secrets, all that information comes back to headquarters and it has to be typed and distributed and archived. These super-classified records have to be kept, and they were kept by what were known as the “vault women,” who knew all the secrets.

If an espionage officer was working in Moscow and he was targeting a certain KGB officer for recruitment, he would let this be known to the vault women and they would give him a summary—who did this officer know, who was his father, was his father in the KGB—this incredibly useful information that enables operatives to go out there and recruit their assets. So the vault women were the data keepers, the organizers, the brains and memory bank of the CIA. They were a really important cohort of women, but they were seen as support—they were called, as a sort of derogatory term, “sneaker ladies,” because they were on their feet all day, so they wore tennis shoes.

Women were allowed in roles that were seen as secondary, but they were not often operatives in the field.

The most prestigious job to have at the CIA was—and is—to be a case officer. This is an elite group of people who fan out into the world, operate undercover, and recruit citizens of other countries to hand over secrets. So that’s the most prestigious job, and it’s also the job that then leads to higher career jobs, like being head of a division.

It was long believed, or at least held, that women couldn’t do that work—that they didn’t have the moxie or the skills or the clout. But there was an incredibly talented and tenacious cohort of women who overcame enormous discrimination in the ’60s and ’70s and made huge personal sacrifices to prove that women could [be case officers]. And in some settings, they could actually do that work better than men.

How so?

Particularly during the Cold War, it was just assumed by foreign governments that women were unimportant. So if [American] women were in a foreign country, it was assumed that they were secretaries, wives, or office support. Early women espionage officers were underestimated, and when you’re underestimated, you can move around unremarked—the Soviets just didn’t think we’d be using women as spies, so they could move around with less surveillance than some male operatives might have attracted.

Part of their abilities may have also had to do with emotional intelligence. One of the important aspects of being an operative is that, once you recruit an asset, you have to take care of that asset. It’s called handling—it’s making sure that person stays safe, that you’re in touch with anything that might be going on in their life, taking care of any glitches or personal problems. And I don’t think it’s stereotypical to say that taking care of people is a fundamental skill that women have tens of thousands of years of experience doing.

What was the toughest part of reporting on the CIA?

The thing that turned out to be hardest was getting records—actual printed and written records. When I was working with the NSA’s history office for Code Girls, the public-affairs office put me in touch with the historians at the NSA, and then I never had contact with the public-affairs office again—I could talk to the historians freely. But at the CIA, they’re much more controlling, is my experience. I don’t want to say that they were unhelpful, because they did facilitate some interviews with people who are still working for the Agency, but it’s an opaque process.

It sounds like your in­terviews with retired and current CIA officers yielded more.

It’s funny. Just to contrast the two agencies, I think officers who work at the NSA or are retired are actually very nervous about talking. Whereas retired CIA officers, I would say, are more forthcoming, both analysts and operatives. I was pleasantly surprised. They all had an understanding of what they could and couldn’t say—people weren’t being reckless, they knew what was classified—but I had many relaxed and entertaining interviews with people. And as I say in the acknowledgments, a lot of retired CIA officers have either written a memoir or a screenplay that’s stuck in a drawer somewhere. I’m not saying they’d try to publish it, but because their lives are so fascinating and their jobs are so surreal, it’s sort of too good not to want to share.

A lot of your writing is about women and work—The Sisterhood and Code Girls, but also The Richer Sex, your book on female breadwinners, and some of your magazine journalism. How did this become an interest for you?

I had a 20-year career at the Washington Post, writing mostly for the magazine, and I came into that job in the ’90s. Up until that point in my career, I hadn’t exclusively written about gender—and I didn’t always, even after that—but there was a lot of confusing gender-related turmoil going on that I was writing about: abortion politics, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. I was writing about Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and dealing with this very ambiguous position that she was in. It was this chaotic time in Washington, at the highest levels of government and in workplaces all over the country—a confusing and pivotal period for women in the workplace.

Do you have a sense of what’s next for you?

During the pandemic, when I was interested in following up on Code Girls, I filed a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests with the NSA. The responses have been trickling in over the past year. I’ve gotten a lot of intriguing brown paper envelopes that I haven’t had a chance to open yet. So I’m looking forward to sitting down with about 20 envelopes of declassified material and seeing what’s there.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer