Wise Gals (Paperback)
The Spies Who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage
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** TO BE READ ON BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK FROM 30 JAN 2023 **
'As much le Carré as it is Hidden Figures.' AMARYLLIS FOX, author of Life Undercover
'A sweeping epic of a book [which] rescues five remarkable women from obscurity and finally gives them their rightful place in world history … A book you won't regret reading. Five women you won't forget.' KATE MOORE, author of The Radium Girls
'As entertaining as it is instructive.' GENERAL STANLEY MCCRYSTAL
The never-before-told story of a small cadre of influential female spies in the precarious early days of the CIA – women who helped create the template for cutting-edge espionage (and blazed new paths for equality in the workplace).
In the wake of World War II, four agents were critical in helping build a new organisation now known as the CIA. Adelaide Hawkins, Mary Hutchison, Eloise Page, and Elizabeth Sudmeier, called the 'wise gals' by their male colleagues because of their sharp sense of humour and even quicker intelligence, were not the stereotypical femme fatale of spy novels. They were smart, courageous, and groundbreaking agents at the top of their class, instrumental in both developing innovative tools for intelligence gathering – and insisting (in their own unique ways) that they receive the credit and pay their expertise deserved.
Adelaide rose through the ranks, developing new cryptosystems that advanced how spies communicate with each other. Mary worked overseas in Europe and Asia, building partnerships and allegiances that would last decades. Elizabeth would risk her life in the Middle East in order to gain intelligence on deadly Soviet weaponry. Eloise would wield influence on scientific and technical operations worldwide, ultimately exposing global terrorism threats.
Meticulously researched and beautifully told, Holt uses firsthand interviews with past and present officials and declassified government documents to uncover the stories of these four inspirational women. Wise Gals sheds a light on the untold history of the women whose daring foreign intrigues, domestic persistence, and fighting spirit have been and continue to be instrumental to the world's security.
A sweeping epic of a book, Holt's Wise Gals rescues five remarkable women from obscurity and finally gives them their rightful place in world history. This is a fascinating story of pioneers and patriots, of science and technology, of ambition and sacrifice…of female spies. I particularly admired the Cold War sequences, with their insider accounts of both the space and nuclear arms races, but it's the breathtaking scale of this story that truly stuns: spanning continents and decades with impressive skill and impeccable research, yet simultaneously sharing the tender secrets from each woman's life to make this political history personal. A book you won't regret reading. Five women you won't forget.
A sparkling tale of secrets and spies, Wise Gals uncovers a group of exceptional CIA women who helped build the modern intelligence community even as they fought for equal pay and standing with their male colleagues. Holt has a gift for illuminating hidden worlds, and she delivers a story for the ages.
Spies are not supposed to be remembered, but we can all thank Nathalia Holt for returning a handful of unsung, trail blazing women to the center of CIA history-where they belong. Tracing the end of WW2 through the Cold War to the crisis in Ukraine today, Wise Gals is fast paced, encyclopedic in scope, and packed with women on the rise, Nazi art dealers on the run, Soviet spy satellites, Middle Eastern military coups, and the unending, ceiling-cracking fight for equality.
From my experience as Director of the CIA, it was clear that both men and women played critical roles in defending our nation. Unfortunately, history and legend focuses largely on the men who were part of the CIA – "male, pale and Yale" summarized the makeup of early spies. But the reality is that both men and women made up the "silent warriors" who put their lives on the line to gather intelligence. There always were influential female spies who led dangerous missions behind enemy lines. Because of the great research by author Nathalia Holt, their story is finally being told in Wise Gals. Their patriotism will be an inspiration to both men and women who want to serve this country.
Utterly thrilling and meticulously researched, Wise Gals is as much le Carré as it is Hidden Figures – a riveting portrait of the dazzling women who safeguard our world from the shadows.
Wise Gals is not only the inspiring story of women who excelled at espionage in the Cold War – they were also courageous and determined pioneers in the struggle for equality in the secretive world of the CIA. A hidden history revealed.
Nathalia Holt weaves a spellbinding narrative as compulsively readable as a good spy novel. She shines a spotlight on the women who put their lives on the line during World War II and later during the Cold War. They never sought any attention but I am grateful that Nathalia has given it to them.
Nathalia Holt's Wise Gals is a much-needed addition to the history of the OSS and CIA. It shines a bright spotlight on the long-neglected role women played in the shadowy Cold War world of spies and their handlers. Deftly employing multiple narratives and shifting locales, Holt illuminates the trials and adventures of the troupe of savvy female operatives who helped steer the course of post-World War foreign policy for the U.S.
Explosive and enthralling insight into the little-known 'petticoat panel.' The way that the biographies of these brave women is woven within their harrowing work overseas makes this work read like a spy thriller. Holt's access and research into the world of gender inequality at the CIA should be required reading; she has given these women their rightful place in history.
With the lyrical ease of a natural storyteller, Nathalia Holt weaves deep research into an impossible-to-put-down tale that reads like historical fiction, though every word is true. Spanning continents and decades, Wise Gals shines a necessary spotlight on the extraordinary women who quietly shaped the CIA during its early years, and on the obstacles they had to overcome simply to selflessly serve their country. Both a vital addition to our understanding of the role of women in the 20th century intelligence community, and a fascinating, page-turning read about the perilous years after WWII–and the women who risked it all in the name of protecting their country.
In this page-turner of book, Nathalia Holt pulls back the curtain on the world of espionage to show us the women responsible for our safety. The intriguing and timely Wise Gals declassifies the secret roles women played in the formation of the CIA, to whom we are beholden even now for our security.
Too often we argue about where we should go when we have little idea how we got to where we are. Nathalia Holt's Wise Gals is the engrossing story of a group of dedicated women who not only served the nation as intelligence professionals, but also helped to forge a path towards equality and opportunity. As entertaining as it is instructive.
Americans owe a great deal to Adelaide Hawkins, Mary Hutchison, Eloise Page and Elizabeth Sudmeier, the four 'wise gals' of Holt's title who helped build the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services into the Central Intelligence Agency. What they accomplished, in a full moral accounting, might be up for debate, but in the annals of espionage that is too often focused on men, understanding how these women not only contributed to but also contravened the nascent world order is vital.
[An] impressive book, covering a lot of ground, including incisive critiques of the missions and focus of the CIA, the change from spying to 'covert operations.' Holt juggles a lot of material and the reader goes back and forth between the different women, tracking their careers during and after WWII in a complicated zigzag. It's a testament to Holt's careful research that the narrative all holds together, made vivid by the many details she uncovered.
Entertaining … [A] revealing and vibrant look at the critical contributions women have made to the CIA.
Holt returns with another intriguing collective history of an overlooked group of women…[Her] dedication to making her five main characters stand out and come fully to life is to be lauded. With a rich, always relevant subject, Holt's latest is a good choice for book groups.
Well-researched profiles in courage … A vivid group biography of five strong-willed women who held significant positions in the early years of the CIA.
Holt vividly chronicles [the Wise Gals'] careers, including multiple incidents from the field. . . Holt also details the work of the Petticoat Panel, a massive effort (involving Sudmeier, Hutchison, Hawkins and Page) to report on and improve the status of women at the agency. At every turn, Holt showcases the women's intelligence, knowledge and grit, while also highlighting the ways they didn't get the recognition they deserved. Insightful and gripping, Wise Gals is a fitting tribute to the brilliant women who shaped the American intelligence landscape.