264: History of Women FBI Agents

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In this episode, active and retired FBI agents review historical documents and share stories about Director Hoover’s initial rejection, the Bureau’s eventual acceptance of female agents in the FBI, and their personal FBI career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 

Alaska Davidson, Lenore Houston, Houston’s canceled Special Agent credentials, Houston in a hat, first FBI Academy class with women agents in July 1972, first Black female agent Sylvia Mathis.

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 Houston, 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 Houston’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.

The infamous “Hoover Letter,” Nancy McRae Paterson with the framed original, Nancy at 16 years-old when she received the disappointing letter from Director Hoover, DEA agent Nancy McRae on the job.







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.

Carol joined the Baltimore PD in 1979; Receiving her special agent credentials at her Quantico graduation (EOD 1/26/1986); Receiving the Director’s award from Director Mueller in 2008 for Outstanding Counterintelligence investigation.








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.

Special Agent Jack Trela (on left), worked Organized Crime in Boston Field Office in the mid-1970s; father and daughter vacationing in Lake George New York, approx. 1975; Mother (former steno Kathleen Cooney) and father at the FBI Albany Clam Bake,1970; father and daughter horseback riding during a TDY to in Phoenix, 1989.







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.

Candace and Cathy; Cathy (EOD 10/4/1976) at her FBI Academy graduation with father (S.L. “Spud” Clements – FBINA 91st Session), Director Clarence Kelly, mother Mary Lou Clements; Candace’s (EOD 10/22/2000) FBI Academy graduation – receiving credentials from Cathy; Candace with 3-year-old son and Director Louie Freeh.







To learn more about what it is like to be a woman in the FBI and honor one who made the ultimate sacrifice, listen to these FBI Retired Case File Review episodes:

265: 50th Anniversary of Women FBI Agents – Panel Discussion

266: Martha Dixon, Line of Duty Service Martyr

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 (23.5% – as of 3/1/2024). Many still question if the job’s right for them. May the stories shared in this episode inspire them to apply.

March 6, 2023 – FBI Pledges to Advance Women in Policing

If you’re interested in applying for a position with the FBI, please visit FBIJobs.gov and listen to FBI Retired Case File Review’s recruiting episodes.

257: FBI Special Agent Hiring and Training Update

258: Listener Q & A – SA and Analyst Positions, FBI Academy Training

Read more about women FBI agents on the FBI website 50th anniversary celebration feature stories post.










Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 300 episodes available on all popular podcast apps and YouTube.


  1. Romy HarrarApril 9, 2024

    Dear Mrs.Williams,

    My name is Romy Harrar, I am a 12th grade student at Sevigne’s high school in Paris and I am contacting you in order to gain more information on the underrepresentation of women in the American police force in the United States.

    Indeed, as a high school student, I’ve come to wonder about how does socialization influences the underrepresentation of women in the American police force and decided to write a study on it.

    One reason why I’ve chosen to reach out to you is because I would really love to know more about your input on the issue and how it affects your professional life as a policewoman. Furthermore, I read your article on the History of Women FBI agents and found it very interesting.

    1. Jerri WilliamsApril 9, 2024

      I’m happy to speak with you. I’ll respond further via email.

  2. DanielleAugust 8, 2023

    I don’t understand why you’re so proud to work for such an obviously sexist and racist individual/ organization. I couldn’t finish the episode I was so disgusted. It’s like you’re defending his actions too.

    1. Jerri WilliamsAugust 8, 2023

      I certainly understand your comments. Please remember every one of the women on this episode are retired and joined the Bureau at least 25 to 40 years ago when women represented 5 to 15% of the special agent workforce. We are all, therefore, trailblazers who should be celebrated for paving the way for today’s women agents. Law-enforcement positions have historically been considered “men’s jobs.” As more women and a more diverse population join the FBI, the B.S. behaviors of our era will not be tolerated and continue to diminish. Hopefully, women coming into the FBI now will never face the same roadblocks the brave women on this show had to face. I listen to the episode with pride.

  3. NotmyrealnameMarch 17, 2023

    Would you be able to post the scanned letter? I was inspired by the episode and as a newer female SA, I would love to print it and put it on my desk, but I can only find the small cropped image. Thanks!

    1. Jerri WilliamsMarch 18, 2023

      I don’t have the best copy, but I save it as a printable pdf. link as “Hoover letter” in the show notes. I’m thrilled that it will inspired you as it did me and our retired colleagues.

  4. BobJuly 6, 2022

    I am a retired teacher white male. 20 years ago a female African American teacher that I was co teaching in the classroom and she was doing a great job , even behavioral students that other teachers could not handle were put in our class. She was set up by a principal to write insufficient evaluation, had counselors , students and parents of students complain about this teacher. I went and testified for 4 hours proving that complete lies were told and supported this teach ! I still to this day have been affected by this experience and it really hurts that I wasn’t able to prove that she was a great teacher and they fired her ! I could not make it through your podcast on females in the FBI ! To think 1 man not only effected women but harmed society as a whole by denying women a place as an agent!

    1. Jerri WilliamsJuly 6, 2022

      Thank you for your support of women! Hoover didn’t win. Women agents have had successful FBI careers for 50 years.


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