BOOK REVIEW: The Sisterhood (The Secret History Of Women At The CIA)


Ask a young American girl to name the first female director of the Central Intelligence Agency and she might offer a toss-up between Spy Squad Barbie and Jessica Chastain, star of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Gina Haspel, who left the position two years ago after only three years, is hardly a household name. Neither are the scores of women profiled in Liza Mundy’s The Sisterhood: The Secret History of Women at the CIA, which is a fitting follow to her 2017 book (Code Girls) about female code breakers of World War II. It is also an excellent adjunct to Spies, The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, by Calder Walton, an encyclopedic history of the decades of espionage between east and west which was reviewed by Asia Sentinel on November 4.

Perhaps they should be recognized, but Mundy makes a convincing case that the subversive totality of their impact on the CIA and global spy craft once controlled only by men is what we need to understand. Despite some nail-biter scenarios worthy of a movie script, the book is as serious as waterboarding. Considering the density of detail in this well-researched tome, some readers might be forgiven for wishing for a spreadsheet. Haunting the reader from the author’s note until the conclusion is this question: “Could it be…that one reason the 9/11 attacks seemed to catch America’s leaders so flat-footed was because of sexism and women’s difficulty in getting institutional buy-in to what they were seeing?”

Women didn’t start helping each other in the CIA until the 1970s, according to Mundy. The sisterhood didn’t exist for at least two decades after the agency was created in 1947. As with every American institution, men created it in the image of men working “outdoors” and women “indoors.” While some male division chiefs were kiddingly dubbed “barons,” the women who filled the typist/clerk positions in the early decades were quietly considered “brides of the agency.”

“Mad Men” had nothing on The Sisterhood as a template for misogyny and sexism. While men like former CIA Director George Tenet wrote books where women could be seen more as ghosts than spooks, Mundy leaves nothing to the imagination. From the start, CIA culture was one of “reckless sexual infidelity.” (Mundy named names, including well-known CIA marriages that favored spouse-swapping and reports of trainees having sex with each other in the backseats of cars.)

Before WWII the biggest job open to women was teaching school. But war accelerated technology and besides factories seeking Rosie the Riveter, government agencies competed for educated women. At the early CIA, men had their cliques. Women who rose from typists and filers did so without the help of other women, since being known as a feminist was the job killer. Women rewrote men’s intelligence reports, processed their cables, and even married them, which gave perfect cover for voluntary spy work.

As Mundy reports, in time women “ran an operation” against the very institution they worked for in order to advance their own and each other’s careers. Warned against marrying or having children from the 1950s and 1960s onward, the women endured loneliness and stress exacerbated by male superiors repeatedly withdrawing—without explanation—promises of international intrigue after the women passed training.

Among unexpected tidbits is when one woman operative in a dangerous situation used pig Latin to communicate with a trusted colleague over the phone. Then there is the ubiquitous CIA employee signature of “Grace Sullivan,” invented by public relations women for written responses to the public. And for readers who failed to read Gloria Steinem’s memoir (and the after-publication fallout against America’s number one feminist), there is the revelation that she worked for a CIA-front organization in the 1950s and 1960s at international youth festivals often sponsored by American adversaries. Why would the kids go for communism with Steinem there for the Stars and Stripes, wondered the female operative?

For those who have missed newspaper accounts of prominent lawsuits against the agency’s impeding the advancement of women, The Sisterhood presents the record. In 1977, Harritte Thompson showed in her complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity office that men made more and were promoted faster than women; later, she won a lawsuit over the issue. In 1994, Janine Brookner filed a federal sexual discrimination lawsuit. Although the agency settled, her case became part of a class-action lawsuit involving more than 200 officers, all of whom were reportedly kept from higher positions as retaliation.

It is fitting that Mundy chooses to close the history with scenes of a few profiled “sisters” bonding today in their retirement.

What remains to be written is whether a history of women in the CIA will influence its culture. Last month, a CIA trainee, who says that she was sexually assaulted in a stairwell at headquarters in 2022, filed a lawsuit against the agency. It said that the CIA “repeatedly and improperly” discouraged the female trainee from lodging a criminal complaint, and engaged in “criminal witness tampering” on behalf of her assailant, who was convicted of assault and battery in August.

As “Politico” reported, at least two dozen women came forward with complaints over how the agency treated them months before the lawsuit was filed.