Hoover's Ghost

A short history of women at the FBI

The matter of J. Edgar Hoover's racism and its reflection in the practices of the FBI was settled over 30 years ago with the release of the COINTELPRO papers and of Hoover's file on Martin Luther King Jr. His attitude toward women has remained less well-known, but it likewise helped to define the culture he left behind--which, according to Jane Turner, has changed little in many respects over 30 years later.

Hoover's aversion to the thought of women agents was hardly a secret. He viewed the feminine hordes through the lens of his Victorian upbringing: There were good women and there were bad women. Good women were the most exalted creatures on earth, bad women the most deadly. Neither would do as an FBI agent. Hoover proclaimed that women "could never gunfight, and all our agents must know how to do that." He did respect and fear what he saw as their cunning, however. Of Machine Gun Kelly's wife, Kathryn, Hoover railed, "When a woman does turn professional criminal, she is a hundred times more vicious and dangerous than a man"--this just after putting her away for 26 years by suppressing evidence that exonerated her. (He also persisted for years in the idiosyncratic but firmly held belief that the female miscreant "always has red hair. She either adopts a wig or has her hair dyed red.")

There were three women agents at the FBI when Hoover came to power in 1924. Before he had even been confirmed as director, he fired two of them, Jessie B. Duckstein and Alaska P. Davidson, on grounds of workforce reduction--possibly making the FBI's first two female agents its first two victims of downsizing as well. The third, Lenore Houston, had a political connection in Congress. Hoover made her an agent. For three years she earned excellent marks in the Bureau's Philadelphia office. Then she was called back to Hoover's sphere in Washington, where her ratings hit the skids. Her last job review said, "This agent has performed satisfactory investigative work, but her attitude in connection with her position impairs her efficiency." Houston resigned in 1928, and a December 1930 note in her file indicated that she presently resided in a mental ward, where (in the words of a 1981 magazine article) "she was suffering from hallucinations and had threatened to shoot Hoover as soon as she was released."

Only in 1971, the year prior to his death, did Hoover relent from his dictum that women must wear dresses or skirts to work even in the depths of Washington's cold, wet winters. Women, unlike men, were proscribed from smoking at their desks in the Hoover era: unladylike. In his last year, Hoover was sued by two women denied entry to the FBI Academy, and he fired two women clerical workers who attended peace protests. Anthony Summers's book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover quotes a former male agent named Cril Payne as saying that women were tolerated at Hoover's FBI "only to perform the boring clerical functions required to keep the Bureau paper flowing. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that it was perfectly all right to bullshit 'em and ball 'em; just don't tell 'em any secrets."

Hoover was found dead in his bed on May 2, 1972. ("Jesus Christ!" exclaimed Richard Nixon when he heard the news. "That old cocksucker!") Two months later, in July, the FBI admitted the first two women applicants to its training program. The FBI has long denied any connection between these two occurrences.

Today women comprise 18 percent of the Bureau's special agents (see "We Are Your FBI").

A local footnote: The first female agent killed in the line of duty was a St. Paul native. In the course of trying to apprehend a man who had fled prosecution on armed robbery charges, Robin L. Ahrens was shot to death in Phoenix in 1985 by fellow agents who said they mistook her for an "armed associate of the fugitive."

 
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