The CIA is one of the most well-known and powerful government organisations across the globe. But who’s responsible for its creation, and why have they been overlooked by the history books?
In the wake of World War Two, four agents were critical in helping build this new organisation. Dubbed the ‘wise gals’ by their male colleagues due to their sharp sense of humour and even quicker intelligence, Adelaide Hawkins, Mary Hutchison, Eloise Page, and Elizabeth Sudmeier are the unsung heroes of the CIA’s history. These smart, courageous, and groundbreaking agents were instrumental in shaping the future of espionage – and in insisting that they receive the credit and pay their expertise deserved.
They played dangerous roles behind enemy lines, recruited double agents, and helped track down stolen Nazi art – their contributions to world history are unrivalled, so why aren’t they more well-known? Nathalia Holt’s book, Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, tells their story and is our Book of the Month for February 2023. In her book, Holt uses firsthand interviews with past and present officials and declassified government documents to uncover the never-before-told stories of these four inspirational female spies
Here we explore more about their story.
The ‘Wise Gals’
During World War Two when Bill Donovan (the ‘father of American intelligence’) was building the Office of Strategic Services, he specifically recruited a large number of women, believing that a diverse workforce would translate to better results in intelligence collection. After the war, these women continued their work, playing a role in the CIA’s early formation and bringing their various strengths with them.
The ‘wise gals’ worked for the agency for decades on a wide variety of operations worldwide, and their work played a critical role in preventing war. What’s different about this group of women is that they continued to work at the CIA, rising in the ranks and fighting for the role of women at the agency, despite the barriers they faced in the 1950s and being blocked from being given the pay rises and full recognition they’d earned.
In 1953, Allen Dulles had been brought in as the new Head of the CIA. During his swearing in ceremony, the ‘wise gals’ bombarded him with questions about what he was going to do about the role of women, prompting him to promise to stop discrimination. The women formed the ‘Petticoat Panel’, gaining access to records that proved to the top echelons of the CIA that there was a gender pay gap. Inevitably their findings were not met with much concern, so in response, the women decided to work together collectively, starting by hiring as many women as they could whilst rising in the ranks themselves.
We spoke to Nathalia about the ‘wise gals’ on our Warfare podcast:
Holt studied the stories of several women in particular:
Adelaide Hawkins was a high school graduate and a single mum of three. When at the OSS, Hawkins found she had incredible skill in organising communication and breaking codes, and became Chief of the OSS Message Centre. After serving in World War Two, she worked for the CIA until her retirement in the late 1970’s, ushering in the technological age of the CIA.
During the Cold War, Adelaide played an important role in technology and communications development. She was a liaison that worked with the CIA and with the NSA, working with satellite development and new crypto-systems that advanced how spies communicate with each other. Her expertise were needed at some of the critical moments in the Cold War. She also worked closely with Eloise Page (below), another powerful woman in the CIA.
Hawkins never revealed anything to her family about her work – it wasn’t until after her death that her son even realised she was part of the CIA, let alone at such a high level as Head of Covert Communications.
Unlike Hawkins, Hutchinson left detailed diaries and letters all about her experiences that revealed what she’d been feeling at the time. Hutchinson had a PhD in archaeology, was fluent in 4 languages and had served during World War Two – when she applied to the CIA, she expected to get a high office level position, so was shocked when the man interviewing her offered her a secretary position. Stating this was unacceptable, she was hired as an officer and sent to Germany, along with her husband (also a CIA officer).
Hutchinson played an important role in the Cold War, forming a web of double agents to gain intelligence on soviet operations and the balance of power in the Ukraine. This led her to approach a Ukrainian group and build partnerships and allegiances – leading to the relationship we have with the Ukraine today.
Sudmeier was also critical in forming a network of double agents. Women weren’t usually suspected of being a spy and could move through countries as wives, embassy workers or secretaries – hiding their real role, providing an advantage that many of their male colleagues didn’t have.
Sudmeier had grown up on a reservation in South Dakota, served in World War Two, then entered CIA Junior Officer Training – the first woman to do so. She already knew several languages, and after her training was sent to Baghdad. She posed as a secretary and blended into her environment well. Using tailor shops and beauty salons she formed a spy network that none of her male colleagues had access to. She would go in, make friends, learn what their husbands, sons, brothers did, and when she identified women who knew men working with the soviets, she befriended those families, finally approaching them to ask them to work for America.
These contacts would then leave intelligence on deadly Soviet weaponry in pre-arranged locations. Sudmeier would retrieve the materials, make copies to send to Washington (translating important bits from Russian) then return these documents back to her contacts.
When Baghdad experienced revolution in 1957, the CIA station was evacuated. Sudmeier remained the only CIA officer in the country in order to protect her spy network, and her work was essential to preventing war in the region. Her bravery led to her boss recommending her for the Intelligence Medal of Merit. Washington initially refused the request as they didn’t believe she had been in this position.
Eloise Page served as a secretary to Bill Donovan in World War Two, but then rose through the ranks to become Chief of Scientific and Technical Operations – the most powerful woman at the CIA. She played a role in a huge number of operations, including working with Sudmeier in Baghdad to gain essential intelligence.
For a long time she’d wanted to serve as chief of a CIA station, but every time she felt the country she was offered wasn’t enough of a challenge. When the chief of the CIA station in Greece was assassinated, she assumed the role and became the CIA station chief there. She wielded influence on scientific and technical operations worldwide, ultimately exposing global terrorism threats.
As Nathalia Holt’s book shows, the ‘wise gals” daring foreign intrigues, domestic persistence, and fighting spirit have been and continue to be instrumental to the world’s security.
Nathalia Holt is the New York Times bestselling author of The Queens of Animation and Rise of the Rocket Girls. Her work features The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science and Time. She lives in California. Her book, Wise Gals: The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage, is our Book of the Month for February 2023. It is published by Icon Books and available to buy now.