Happy Women’s History Month! Given the long history of the intelligence community (IC) and as a Women-Owned Small Business ourselves, it is worth taking time to appreciate five influential women and their impact in the IC.
Often compared to Q from the James Bond series, Jonna Mendez was a former Chief of Disguise in the CIA’s Office of Technical Service. Through her 27 year career at the CIA, Mendez was responsible for disguises used in clandestine operations in multiple different theaters and eras, such as during the Cold War when Mendez’ travelled to Havana, Beijing, and Moscow. When her first husband revealed to her three days before their wedding that he worked for the CIA, Mendez took this as an opportunity to begin her career, starting as a secretary. Mendez worked hard and was eventually sent to the CIA’s training facility, “the Farm,” to take courses on espionage photography. Whilst there, Mendez was hazed by some of the men who decorated the darkroom with photos of nude women. Nevertheless, Mendez’ perseverance bore fruit as demonstrated by her rich career. Jumping in time, women, many of whom went unrecognized, contributed to the mission of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. One of these women, Marion A. Frieswyk, joined the OSS in 1943 and later went on to become the CIA’s first female intelligence cartographer. Frieswyk noted that some girls from her town went to finishing school, but she hoped for a different path for herself and graduated college in 1942. While in a graduate school course, she was recruited by the OSS. Frieswyk recalled that there were two men for every woman on the OSS mapping team, but she emphasized that the ability to contribute mattered more than gender. At 21 years old, Frieswyk was working to produce a three-dimensional topographic map of Sicily for the Joint Chiefs during one of the heights of WWII. The maps created by this team went on to influence troop movements during the War.Next up is Letitia Long, the former director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) from August 2010 to October 2014. Upon taking up her post, Long became the first woman to head a major intelligence agency. Long worked 32 years in government service, and over twenty of those years being in the IC. She began her career in service in 1978 while serving as a civilian engineer training for the Navy. Subsequently, she began the arduous climb up the career ladder and worked for Naval Intelligence, the CIA, the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the DIA. At most major intelligence agencies, women usually served as second-in-command. Long herself spent the four years preceding her directorship appointment as the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Under her leadership, the NGA notably provided critical support to the operation to kill Usama bin Laden, among other high level operations.Sue Gordon, who also served at the NGA, was the fifth Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence (PDDNI) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) from August 2017 to August 2019. Sue was a key advisor to the President and the National Security Council and at the time of her appointment, she became one the highest ranking career intelligence officers in the field. Before taking up this role, Sue spent over three decades at the CIA and the NGA. She earned a reputation as an innovative tech leader. Gordon advises young women in the intelligence community of three things: to be open to trying various options; becoming a decisive decision-maker as those are rare and valued; and trusting in oneself more than trusting in the system. Last (but certainly not least), we take a look at Martha Peterson. Peterson did not aspire to work for the CIA—it was her husband’s profession, but after his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in 1973, she took up where he left off. Upon joining, Peterson immediately began her training to be an undercover operative during the Cold War. During this training, she was explicitly told that should she be captured by the Soviets, they will not care if she is a woman and she will be tortured just as painfully as they would a man. Peterson went to work in Moscow, and she was captured by Soviets while out delivering a package for TRIGON, another undercover agent. She recalls the look of surprise on the Soviets’ faces when they captured a woman! She was soon released and continued to work for the CIA until her retirement in 2003. Her career reflects the countless untold stories of brave women working undercover.