People & Events: Women in Law Enforcement
When J. Edgar Hoover became Director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation in 1924, only three special agents were women. Hoover asked two of them to resign, after the chief of the Washington, D.C., field office said he lacked work for women special agents. The last woman field agent resigned on November 7, 1927, after being transferred to the Washington field office from Philadelphia.
Hoover claimed that women were not suitable to work as special agents due to their unpredictable nature. He said that even though women "probably could learn to fire a gun," he could not imagine them "shooting it out with gangsters."
Ironically, as women were being shut out of federal policing they were becoming more common in law enforcement at the local and state level, particularly as reformers demanded separate facilities for female and juvenile prisoners. Women also sometimes ran for sheriff, a political office; more commonly, they took over for husbands, who were killed in the line of duty, as did Lillian Holley, at Crown Point, Indiana. In his memoirs, Special Agent Melvin Purvis wrote, "[Women] have ever been the protected rather than the protector, and no revolution, no matter how violent in character, can bring about a change in this." Although he did not hold Sheriff Lillian Holley personally responsible for John Dillinger's escape from Crown Point, Purvis did use the incident to illustrate his beliefs. He wrote, "[Holley] was not at fault in this escape, (yet) it should seem extremely unnecessary to say that a sheriff's office is no place for a woman."
Both officials and the press made an issue of Holley's gender. After Dillinger's escape, Chicago Crime Commissioner Frank J. Loesch said, "That's what might be expected of having a woman for sheriff." Holley defended herself from her attackers. She once said, "I'm not a sissy. I can take it on the chin. But I feel that I am getting the blame for this just because I am a woman."
On March 7, 1934, The Tulsa Daily World described Holley as an excellent markswoman strapping on her revolvers and saying, "If I ever see John Dillinger again, I'll shoot him dead with my own pistol."
Holley's position as Sheriff of Lake County, Indiana, was an exception in that few women had positions of authority as police officers or prison officials. A 42-year-old mother of twin daughters, she was serving out the term of her late husband, who had been killed in a shoot-out. Still, most women in law enforcement held secretarial positions. Hoover said, "A man's secretary makes or breaks him." He maintained that women were too valuable as clerical workers to become special agents. His executive secretary, Helen Gandy, worked for him, and kept his secrets, for his whole career at the Bureau -- almost 50 years.
In 1948, 30 percent of FBI employees were women. They worked as secretaries, file clerks, radio operators, fingerprint examiners, or lab technicians. Occasionally, women assisted special agents by posing as their dates on a surveillance mission.
During the Dillinger manhunt, women may have helped special agents try to find him. On three separate occasions, Louis Piquett, Dillinger's lawyer, and Arthur O'Leary, Piquett's legal investigator, were visited by attractive young women who claimed to know Dillinger, and said they needed to borrow money. The last one was a blonde-haired woman claiming to be a friend of Billie Frechette. At one point, she even lifted her skirt to display her legs to O'Leary -- who remained unmoved. He described the young woman to Dillinger, who vehemently denied that Frechette knew her. Piquett, O'Leary, and Dillinger concluded that these women were "G-women," working for special agents.
Despite the gains of the women's movement in the 60s and 70s, Hoover adamantly refused to allow women to become special agents and, despite a direct order from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, refused to hire black agents either. In August 1971, Cynthia Edgar and Sandra Rothenberg sued the FBI for discrimination in hiring. Edgar had been told by an FBI personnel officer that "women do not command enough respect," and that they "could not handle combat situations."
After Hoover's death on May 12, 1972, the FBI announced that women would be accepted as special agents. On July 17, 1972, the first women since the 1920s were officially hired as special agents. Susan Lynn Roley had been a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, while Joanne B. Pierce, a former nun, had been a secretary with the FBI.
Today the FBI's priorities are organized crime, foreign counterintelligence, white-collar crime, and terrorism. In a rapidly changing world, the FBI now actively recruits women and minorities. On August 31, 2001, the FBI officially listed 11,186 special agents. Of these, 1,981 were women.
previous | return to people & events | next