August 3, 2012

Celebrating Women Special Agents

Part 3: Early Pioneers Tell Their Stories

Woman Agent at Firearms Training

Agents at firearms training in the 1980s.

“It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. And you know, I hope in some small way, maybe I made it easier for women after me.”

That sentiment—shared by former Special Agent Linda Dunn, who served from 1973 to 1976—was echoed by many of the trailblazing women who signed up to be the first female agents in the modern era.

Their compelling and often moving stories can be found in a series of interviews of retired Bureau investigators—both women and men—conducted by the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI and posted on the website of the National Law Enforcement Museum.

It was in 1972—40 years ago this year—that women were allowed to join the ranks of FBI agents, reversing a policy that had been in place since the 1920s. Their reminiscences several decades later reflect the diversity of their motivations, experiences, and achievements. Yet, as you read their stories, you can see that these early female pioneers wanted the same things—to serve their country, to make a difference, to be successful at what they did...just like the men.

They faced their share of challenges, to be sure. The physical requirements of the new agent training, originally developed for men, were difficult. Some women struggled with pushups or running; for others, it was boxing and wrestling. Some said they even faced resentment for taking a man’s place at the Academy.

Once on the job, some women agents encountered bosses who weren’t supportive or an occasional chauvinistic man. Many were thrust into the most dangerous undercover work, since criminals didn’t suspect that females would be agents. For these early women, the standards of success were often higher than that of the men. As former Special Agent Nancy Fisher (1978-2004) pointed out, “You had to be very good. … My friends and I, the female agents, would always say, ‘Why is it we have to work so hard to just to be considered average?’”

For the most part, though, these early female agents were given plenty of support and opportunities to succeed. During the Quantico training, most men were accepting and helpful, going out of their way to run or workout with the women, for example. Former Agent Yvonne Graham (1978-2001) said, “The guys couldn’t have been more supportive, more generous of their time…”

Once in their field offices, the women soon proved any doubters wrong with their work. They found the support of their supervisors and colleagues incredibly helpful. Former Special Agent Natalie Gore (1976-1986) said, “My first office was Seattle, and that SAC (Special Agent in Charge) there was very much in favor of me being there. And that made a huge difference in how the entire office dealt with women in the field.”

These women agents went on to work some landmark cases—the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Reagan assassination, the Unabomber murders, and the attacks of 9/11, to name just a few. Over time, they made lasting contributions, not only by paving the way for their colleagues but by becoming leaders at every level of the organization.

Former Special Agent Birdie Pasenelli—the first woman special agent in charge and assistant director—summed it up by saying, “All I ever asked for is, give me an equal shot at doing this, and I’ll prove myself.”

She certainly did, just like all these pioneering women agents.