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The Petticoat Panel: CIA's First Study -- in 1953 -- on the Role of Women in Intelligence

March 8, 2021

CIA has come a long way since its founding in 1947. Strategically, the world of intelligence has grown and continues to grow tremendously in both scope and scale, the result of new, evolving, and increasingly complicated threats. Culturally, CIA has experienced similar growth and change, due in large part to the insistence of officers in its own ranks.

Following a 1953 address to officers in CIA’s 10th Agency Orientation Course, newly sworn-in Director Allen W. Dulles fielded a slew of questions from a group of “wise gals” – a name given later by a senior CIA manager – who wanted the Director’s thoughts on the role of women at CIA. Pressing the new Director on his earlier promise to “devote the balance of [his] time [at CIA] to build up the Agency’s esprit de corps, its morale, its effectiveness, and its place in the government of the United States,” the women asked “(1) Why are women hired at a lower grade than men? (2) Do you think that women are given sufficient recognition in the CIA? (3) And as the new Director of CIA, are you going to do something about the professional discrimination against women?”

The questions from these ‘wise gals’ would prove to be the catalyst for CIA’s first ever study on the role of women in intelligence and, more broadly, on discrimination in the workplace. Dulles quickly mandated that the Inspector General (IG) look into the matter, sharing; “I think women have a very high place in this work, and if there is discrimination, we’re going to see that it’s stopped.”

Forming the Petticoat Panel

Lyman Kirkpatrick, CIA’s IG at the time, decided – following discussions with Dulles – to convene a panel of women employees who could analyze the issues of representation, discrimination, recognition, and general barriers to advancement for women at CIA. The panel would be composed of 13 members and nine alternates representing a wide array of Agency disciplines and offices. “The Petticoat Panel,” as the group would be known, was charged “to study the problems of professional and clerical advancement to determine for themselves whether they believe there is any discrimination as such against women for advancing professionally.”

Panel members decided, in their first few meetings, to take that charge a step further. As they saw it, their mission would be twofold: “first, to determine whether there is or has been discrimination against women in the Agency, and second, to make recommendations toward a program giving maximum opportunity for careers for women in the Agency.”

The Members

Women who served on the panel were chosen for a specific reason: each had worked for CIA since its earliest days, and would be able to speak authoritatively about the business of intelligence and their role in either informing or shaping that process. They also represented a relatively new (and growing) segment of the professional workforce: career women, many of whom joined the intelligence community during WWII and who sought full careers afterwards, continuing to serve their country.

On 31 July, 1953, just over two months after Director Dulles’ address at the Agency’s 10th Orientation Course, members of the Petticoat Panel met for their first official meeting. Dorothy “Dottie” Knoelk was elected chairman and Bertha Bond was appointed secretary.

Petticoat panel members (L-R): Dorothy “Dottie” Knoelk, Bertha Bond, and Margaret McKenney, who would go on to become Chairwoman of CIA’s Women’s Advisory Panel in the early 1970s.

In a 1954 performance evaluation, Knoelk’s supervisor noted that “she piloted the Women’s panel through its deliberations for the Career Services Board with force and diplomacy and with substantial results.” Together with the other 11 members and nine alternates of the panel, Knoelk and Bond worked diligently to produce a comprehensive and well-researched report for members of the Career Services Board (CSB).

The Findings

Members of the Petticoat Panel didn’t mince words when, in the final report delivered to the CSB, they concluded that “this Agency…has not, in common with other employers, taken full advantage of the womanpower resources available to it.” Pointing to a thorough review of employee data, members highlighted some alarming statistics. Among other things, they found that only 19% of Agency women were in grades higher than GS-7, compared to 69% of men. In CIA’s Directorate for Plans (DDP) – predecessor to today’s Directorate of Operations – women represented just 7% of field-based officers, and 25% of headquarters-based officers.

The report backed up its statistical findings with observational insights, pulled largely from performance evaluation documents and other official judgments on performance and suitability. Citing a list of “opinions expressed by Agency officials,” the report included a litany of quotes from male supervisors which “come from a traditional attitude toward woman which will be affected only through a slow evolution of sociological change.” Comments such as “women are more emotional and less objective in their approach to problems than men” or “women can’t work under the pressures of urgency” were used as tangible examples of discrimination.

The Results

Concluding that “except for a few rather narrow fields, career opportunities for women have been limited in the Agency in nearly every professional area,” the Petticoat Panel delivered to the CSB a report that showed very real discrimination against Agency women and provided a list of recommendations to change the culture.

The official response on 28 January 1954 to the panel’s report was something of a letdown: “the status of women in the Agency does not call for urgent corrective action, but rather for considered and deliberate improvement primarily through the education of supervisors.” Further, the Career Services Board, found that “women should be considered on the same basis as men for any and all vacancies.” But the Board did little to implement the panel’s suggestions.

The Legacy

Although the Petticoat Panel did little to bring about immediate results for women at CIA, it was an important catalyst for change that would have a domino effect years later. In 1972, using the 1953 panel’s recommendations as a launching point, women on CIA’s newly-created Women’s Advisory Panel were able to advocate for the appointment of women to positions in CIA’s Clandestine Service cadre and make recommendations for training and reassignment. The Chairwoman of this panel was Margaret McKenney, who also served on the 1953 Petticoat Panel. It was a position she held until her retirement in 1976, as a GS-15.

Interested in learning more about the Petticoat Panel, its process, and its “wise gal” members? Check out this declassified monograph on the topic, researched and written by historians from CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence.