“My first son was my 1993 World Trade Center bombing baby,” says Gina Bennett, a veteran CIA analyst who has spent her career tracking down the perpetrators behind some of the worst international crises in recent memory. Bennett, a divorced mother of five, can match the birthdate of each child by the bad guys she was pursuing at the time. She calls her second son her “Khobar Towers baby” (born shortly after the 1996 bombing of a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia); her third child, a daughter, her “African embassy bombing baby” (she arrived a few weeks before the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania); and her fourth, another son, her “9/11 baby.”
Bennett was in the early stages of her pregnancy during that attack, and despite all of her morning sickness, “most people didn’t know I was pregnant,” she says. Her fifth child, a girl, was her “Fallujah baby.”
We’re sitting in the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, surrounded by framed posters of blockbuster thrillers like Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and Spy Games. Ever since British secret agent James Bond appeared on film in the 1960s, Americans have been entranced by covert spies leaping onto moving trains moments after bedding exotic babes, or military-grade muscle men slicing through society’s criminal underbelly with the latest guns and gadgets.
We don’t picture Bennett: a woman, a mom.
Bennett wrote the first report warning of Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s, years before 9/11, and she was one of the six women in the CIA’s “band of sisters” that tracked down bin Laden and inspired the 2012 thriller Zero Dark Thirty. She briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice while in labor and has brought newborns to the office so she could lend her expertise during crises. (After the Africa embassy bombings, Bennett’s boss, who loved babies, whisked away her 3-week-old daughter for hours while Bennett typed up a cable. It wasn’t until weeks later that she learned her daughter had been in the CIA director’s office for a meeting about President Bill Clinton’s order for a retaliatory bombing raid on Afghanistan.)
Women have been central to American spycraft since 1776, and they continued to play important roles in the World War II–era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s predecessor. Even so, the agency has a long history as a chauvinistic old boys’ club rife with sexism. “People treat it as only men have a calling to serve their country and it’s unnatural for women to do it,” Bennett says. “Women have been extremely involved and integral! It burns me up to no end. Women in intelligence is not new. We’ve always been important, and there’s nothing strange with us wanting to do this role.”
Hollywood hasn’t prepared us for women like Bennett—or, say, Maja Lehnus, the CIA’s deputy chief financial officer, who’s been married for 29 years, has two children and was the first woman to hold six different leadership positions at the agency, including serving as the first female chief of the center responsible for combating the spread of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
“I lived in a world where every day we talked about incredibly nasty foreign weapons developments,” Lehnus says. “There’s reason to be afraid. There’s reason to be afraid all the time!” She laughs. “People would say, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ And I’d say, ‘I’ve got a list of nine, and I rotate through them,’ because there were just so many bad things that could happen, whether it’s a loose nuclear weapon or North Korea deciding they are gonna lob one over…. So I say, ‘My job is to worry for you.’” She laughs again. “It’s a bad world. We’ve got bad things going on out there.”
At a time when the country may be just weeks away from electing its first female president, many Americans still have no concept of who’s keeping them safe—and that women play a critical role in that effort. Some may think CIA women were confined to the counterterrorism unit that pursued Osama bin Laden, which gained extraordinary attention after his death. In fact, women are operating at unprecedented levels on every floor of CIA headquarters and throughout its far-flung global outposts. Perhaps hoping to combat this misconception, the CIA granted Newsweek access to seven women from all parts of the agency, including a clandestine operations officer, a bombing expert and a weapons and space analyst. A handful of them are undercover and cannot share their names because of the sensitivity of their work (their names appear here in quotes). Some are married and have children. Two are single mothers. One was the first CIA officer to come out as gay and not get fired for it. And if you found yourself sitting across from any of them on the New York City subway, she’d look more like a tourist from the Midwest than a master spy.
Despite their extraordinary accomplishments, these women have faced double standards and sexism, and for some, success has come at great personal cost. As former covert CIA Operations Officer Valerie Plame says of many women she worked with, “They were smart and ambitious and funny, but to be very honest, they had stepchildren. They had not raised their own children. Or they were divorced. Or they went home to cats. They had really paid a personal price.”
“The work can break you,” says “Vivian,” a scientist and explosives expert. “It is 24/7. It is always at a high pace, and if you don’t step outside of it every once in a while, it will eat you alive.”
Hollywood has convinced us all that women in the CIA belong to a sorority of badass bitches who stab by day and seduce by night. From Homeland ’s Carrie Mathison to State of Affairs ’s Charleston Tucker, we have become so accustomed to this repository of interchangeable female CIA screwups and honeypots, and their unstable, erratic behavior, that we forget that the job involves saving lives and preventing atrocities, and you must be able to compartmentalize your emotions at precisely the most horrifying moments. Thanks to Hollywood’s clichés, the American public has been largely kept in the dark about Virginia Hall, who joined the OSS in 1944, organized sabotage operations across France, mapped drop zones, and helped POWs to safety—all while disguised as an elderly female farmhand and with a prosthetic leg she named Cuthbert. The Gestapo considered her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”
“It was easier to be a woman in the OSS than in the CIA in the early days,” says Toni Hiley, the CIA Museum director. Eloise Page was one of 4,500 women who served in the OSS. She began her career as the secretary to General William Donovan, head of the OSS, and ended it as the third-highest ranking officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the home to case officers who carry out covert assignments and recruit spies. Page, who was known among some colleagues as “the Iron Butterfly,” also became the first female station chief, the highest-ranking job for case officers abroad, and the first woman to head a major intelligence community committee. Before Julia Child introduced American families to French cuisine, she, too, worked for General Donovan and the OSS.
“In the early days, it was benign neglect. There were more men than women. They didn’t even think about [us],” says former clandestine officer Suzanne Matthews, who joined the CIA in 1975 as a secretary. When she entered the operations training course, the precursor to becoming a case officer, she was one of “three or four” women in her class. “Some of the instructors down there misbehaved and made sexual advances to the students—and they were rebuffed, of course—but the students were just trying to get through this very intense program,” she says.
“They tried to push all the women into becoming analysts. Or reports officers. That was acceptable,” says Janine Brookner, who joined the CIA in 1968. “I insisted on going into operations.” She says she was one of six women in her 66-person officer training program. When she landed her first job as a case officer in Asia, her station chief saddled her with “ridiculous” paperwork and assignments. “In the meantime, I went out and met people. I used my training and background. By the time my next chief of station got there, I knew people from the presidential palace all the way to the Communist Party. I was in my 20s—this little blond woman. No one ever suspected who I worked for,” she says.