Celebrating Women Special Agents: Burdena Pasenelli (2012)

Retired Special Agent “Birdie” Pasenelli was a policewoman and detective in Seattle prior to joining her FBI. Throughout her career, she achieved many firsts for women in the FBI, such as becoming the first female assistant director. She also served as special agent in charge of the Anchorage and Seattle divisions.

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I was with the Seattle police department before I joined the FBI, first as a police woman, and later then promoted to detective. In the police academy many of our instructors were FBI agents, particularly in the law area. And when the FBI opened up to women I was recruited then to apply early on. But prior to coming with the police department, the way I ended up in this profession was when I was in high school I had to write a paper on what I wanted to do. And I learned in the process of doing some research that police women if they were sworn officers and carried a gun got equal pay to men. And I had observed in my school that women teachers got paid less than men teachers and it did not matter the amount of experience and I thought that was patently unfair. And I swore that was never going to happen to me because I was raised on a farm and I worked outside and I could work as hard as any man could. So I figured that I was worth just as much as any guy. So I found a profession where I was equally paid.

Everybody has to prove themselves at Quantico. Some of the things were extremely easy for me. Firearms, I was a member of the Seattle police pistol team, so I was a really good shot the minute I got to Quantico. I qualified the first time I ever fired. And then the classroom was easy because I had a degree in police science. I’d been through the Seattle Police Department academy. I had done lots of interviews. I knew how to take statements. So that part and the legal part, all that was very easy to me. The physical fitness was difficult but not impossible. I worked at it every day. The staff helped me and I passed. I did 35 pushups once in my life and that was to graduate from Quantico.

That first day I got there I was introduced to my training agent. And pretty soon everybody in the office left and I was there by myself. And I thought, wow this isn’t going to be so good. But I didn’t say anything to anybody. My training agent came back in and we went out and met his wife … and we went out on interviews and all that because it was a stressful time for them. Men suddenly were working with women and they had never done that. So then the next morning I come in and my partner says to me “Want to go to coffee with us?” So it took me less than 24 hours to be accepted. Because they had all gone to coffee. And that’s where they had all gone and I was part of the group.

Everybody has to prove themselves. Every time you get a case you have to get results. And for me that was pretty natural thing because I had lived a life of producing results. I knew what investigations were about, I got cases, I made cases, I went on arrests, I never really felt that terrible pressure to prove myself to other people. I just felt pressure—it’s an internal pressure—to always do the best job I can.

One of the things that even though I didn’t set out to do that, I was successful as an ASAC. So then that fear of women being ASAC’s was gone. I was successful as an SAC and I remember one of my agents coming back from in-service right after I had been appointed and he said I was the most popular guy in the entire in-service. And I said you’ve got to be kidding me. He said, no everybody wanted to know what it was like to work for a woman. And he said, I told them you wouldn’t believe her. She reads all her teletype, she knows our cases, and if there’s something going on, she walks over and talks to us about our cases. She actually cares. And so things like that were very good for me. And so you know when, that was good for me but also good for the Bureau and there wasn’t that fear of appointing a woman to this job. And the same with an assistant director job and so on. Because when I wanted to go back to Seattle, go back to the field, the Director was reluctant about it but he understood. I had accomplished what he wanted, he asked me to do some things and I accomplished those, but my first love was cases.

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