How the CIA’s Top-Ranking Woman Beat the Agency’s Men at Their Own Game
This article was adapted from “THE SISTERHOOD: The Secret History of Women at the CIA,” by Liza Mundy. Published this week by Crown, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.
In the early history of the CIA, marked by towering male figures like Allen Dulles, William Colby and William “Wild Bill” Donovan, few careers proved more remarkable — and unlikely — than that of a Southern blue blood named Eloise Randolph Page. Page anticipated the launch of Sputnik when just about everyone else was taken by surprise. She was the top female officer in the CIA’s clandestine service in the 1960s and 70s and the first woman to head a major overseas station. She was physically tiny but larger-than-life, reactionary but visionary, snobby but able to overcome patriarchal provincialism to wield unheard-of influence, at a time when the agency’s sexist culture ensured most women’s career tracks were limited to secretarial and clerk roles.
Born in 1920, Page began her intelligence career during World War II as a secretary at the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor. She was assigned to Donovan, the OSS chief, who liked to recruit from highborn families and must have been delighted that “Eloise,” as everybody called her, came from not only one such family, but two. The Randolphs and the Pages were two of Virginia’s oldest White families, with roots that went back to the origins of the commonwealth, and to slavery. “She was a classy woman,” as one female officer put it, “who belonged somewhere on a plantation.”