The Spies who Built the CIA and Changed the Future of Espionage
“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.”
–Leon Panetta, former Director of the CIA (2009-11) and U. S. Secretary of Defense (2011-13)
“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.”
–General Stanley McChrystal, U.S. Army (Ret), author of My Share of the Task and Team of Teams
"Fine material for a beautifully art-directed streaming series, with set pieces in postwar Paris, nineteen-fifties Baghdad, and nineteen-seventies Greece, where Page was the C.I.A.’s first woman station chief."
–The New Yorker
“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.”
“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.”
–Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls and The Woman They Could Not Silence
“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.”
–Jason Fagone, author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies
“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.”
–Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women and The Residence
“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.”
–Tim Brady, author of Three Ordinary Girls
“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.”
—Amaryllis Fox, author of Life Undercover
"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.”
—Tracy Walder, former CIA operative and FBI special agent and author of The Unexpected Spy
"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."
—Kristin Harmel, author of The Forest of Vanishing Stars and The Book of Lost Names
“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."
—Marie Benedict, author of The Only Woman in the Room
“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.”
—Sarah Rose, author of D-Day Girls
In the wake of World War II, four agents were critical in helping build a new organization that we now know 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 humor 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.
Throughout the Cold War era, each woman had a vital role to play on the international stage. 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. Through their friendship and shared sense of purpose, they rose to positions of power and were able to make real change in a traditionally “male, pale, and Yale” organization—but not without some tragic losses and real heartache along the way.
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 our country’s security.
The Reading Group Guide can be found here