March is National Women’s History Month.
July 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of women FBI agents.
In this episode, active and retired FBI agents review historical documents and share stories about Director Hoover’s initial rejection, the Bureau’s eventual acceptance of female agents in the FBI, and their personal FBI career journeys as women.
It’s almost inconceivable that, at one time in the FBI’s history, women could not become special agents. In the following excerpt from a 1971 policy statement, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover explains his policy.
“It is not the intent of the FBI to confine the special agent position to males without there being very good reasons to do so…”
“Lurking in the minds of those bent on defying the law must be the ever-present concern for the prowess and the ability of the FBI agent…the response by our agents must be quick and is frequently military in nature with one man, supported by others, making the initial move, such as bounding into a room…he must create the impression that he is intrepid, forceful, aggressive, dominant, and resolute, our work involves basically man against man and is a body contact profession.”—Director J. Edgar Hoover
Despite what Hoover believed and everything he did to prevent women from joining the FBI as agents, here we are celebrating the 50th anniversary. But this milestone applies only to the modern-day women agents.
If we go all the way back to the early years when the FBI was known simply as the Bureau of Investigation, this year would actually be the 100th anniversary of women agents.
The very first female agents were hired between 1922 and 1924 and were on staff prior to J. Edgar Hoover being named acting director on May 10, 1924.
The first woman hired as a special investigator/special agent was Alaska P. Davidson, appointed on October 11, 1922. Her duties were the detection and prosecution of crimes. On May 26, 1924, Acting Director J. Edgar Hoover requested her resignation because of a “reduction in the workforce.” He accepted her resignation on June 10, 1924,
The second woman hired as a special agent was Jessie B. Duckstein. She began her career with the Bureau as a stenographer/typist, and then as a confidential secretary to Bureau Director William J. Burns. Duckstein began training as an agent in November 1923. However, when Hoover took over as acting director, he requested and accepted Duckstein’s resignation on May 31, 1924.
The above information on agents Davidson and Duckstein is from an article on the first female agents written by Lynn Vines published in the FBI’s The Investigator magazine. You can read the article here.
Then there’s Lenore Huston, the only woman hired and fired as a special agent by Director Hoover.
Retired Agent Jane Mason: A review of the results of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FOIPA) request Mason filed for Lenore Huston’s personnel file, documenting her FBI story. The papers and correspondence reveal that the urging of several powerful men, such as Congressman Graham of Pennsylvania, Acting Director Hoover was requested to change Lenore Houston’s designation from special employee to special agent. She was sworn in on December 1, 1924. Philadelphia was her first office of assignment where she worked White Slave Law violations. Lenore Huston’s resignation was accepted, four years later, on November 7, 1928.
There were no more women hired as special agents during J. Edgar Hoover’s 48-year tenure as director of the FBI.
Special Agent Christina Riebandt: A review of her investigation into the origin story of the infamous “Hoover letter” filed and framed by generations of female agents. She wrote an article for The Investigator about her conversation with Miss Nancy McRae, recipient of the Hoover Letter.
Hoover had been determined to keep women out of the FBI, but just a week after his death in May 1972, Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, III announced women would be considered for the FBI special agent position.
Two-months later, on July 17, 1972, Joanne Pierce, who had been a nun in New York for 10 years before joining the FBI in 1970 as a researcher, and Susan Roley, a 25-year-old former Marine, were sworn in as FBI special agents. They began training at the FBI Academy for 14-weeks and graduated in October 1971. Here’s a link to video interviews with retired agents Pierce (Misko) and Roley (Malone) at FBI.gov.
On February 17, 1976, a 26-year-old lawyer named Sylvia Elizabeth Mathis made history and became the FBI’s first female African-American agent. She served for four years before resigning in 1980. You can learn more about Agent Mathis here.
Retired Agent Carol Philip Sydnor: A conversation about women in law enforcement and the recruitment and unique issues of women of color in law enforcement.
Special Agent Bridgette Trela: Despite Trela growing up in an “FBI family,” she initially questioned if being an agent was the right position for women. She talks about how her attitude changed and proudly receiving her credentials and badge engraved with her late father’s identification numbers, as her mother and aunt cheered her on.
Cathy Schroeder and Candace Calderon: In producing an episode about the history of women FBI agents, I wanted to show the evolution of our role in the Bureau. I found the perfect opportunity to do just that by comparing the careers of two sisters who joined the FBI 24 years apart.
Women in the FBI have succeeded as leaders in the field and in management. Nevertheless, women only make up 22 percent of the special agent workforce. Many still question if the job’s right for them.