We’ve come a long way

January 26, 2011 • 7:20 am

While staying with old friends in Cambridge, I noticed again a framed letter on their wall—a letter to my friend Betsy from none other than J. Edgar Hoover, evil FBI director for nearly half a century, from 1924 to 1972.  When she was a girl, Betsy had dreams of becoming an FBI agent, and wrote to Hoover in 1963 asking how to do it.  He sent back this personal reply (click to enlarge):

Guess what the “other positions of responsibility and trust which are held by women” were?

Well, times have changed, and now more than 2,000 women are special FBI agents. The absorption of women into what were traditionally “men’s jobs,” and the recognition that women had a right to go for them, is one of the great moral victories of our time, and I watched it happen.  Sadly, in much of the world that victory has yet to be achieved.

30 thoughts on “We’ve come a long way

  1. So America can have 2,000 female FBI agents without any problems, but Britain can’t have a female line judge without being judged by her appearance and her competency questioned?

    1. All referees & assistants get abused, but for their actions not who they are. But it is a beginning that at least she is there.

    2. There was an up-side, and that is how many people, including many within football which is not known as a bastion of enlightenment on such issues, condemned the remarks.

    3. Line judge? I think you have the wrong game. The correct terminology for the official you refer to in Association Football is “The Wanker In The Black”. Slightly out of date now as they don’t have to dress in black as long as they don’t clash with the player’s strips (that’s “strips” not “uniforms”)

    1. I lived in England a few years ago and was astonished to find myself repeatedly addressed as ‘Miss’! Here in NZ, it is generally ‘Ms’ if you don’t know a woman’s preference.

      1. I’m British and a Miss, and I get referred to as Mrs all the time because of my age (31).

        I find it odd that feminine forms of address are distinguished by whether some man has deigned to put a ring on it, but masculine ones are not.

  2. “Guess what the “other positions of responsibility and trust which are held by women” were?”
    I would take the wild guess and say they had something to do with typing and making coffee…

  3. There was a post-doc from Pakistan for a year in the same lab when I was in Stockholm. When it came time for Sabira to leave we had a farewell party and the traditional question was asked, “What have you liked most about Sweden.” She thought a moment, and said, “Well, in Sweden, the women can drive buses.”

  4. “appointments … are limited to men … because of the strenuous physical demands frequently made upon them”

    Clyde Tolson?

    You mentioned Columbus’s discovery of America. Every good Harvardian knows that the Vikings discovered America and put their settlement in no less place than Cambridge MA on the bank of the Charles. At least according to 19th c. Harvard chemist and baking powder inventor professor Horsford. Next time you’re in town and it’s not buried in snow, walk past “Horsford’s Plaque”, a huge granite thing located next to Mt Auburn hospital commemorating this “history”. It’s good for a laugh. I believe this is why Boston put a big statue of Leif Erickson on Comm & Mass Ave.


  5. Great – now we can forge Hoover’s signature on various incriminating documents, to the great joy of the paranoid conspiracy theorists everywhere!

  6. In Hoover’s defense, whereas it is true that he did not allow women to be FBI agents, he was ahead of the times in other areas. If a male agent wished to dress as a women, there were no doors closed to him…he could even be the Director.

  7. One of my wife’s best friends from high school wanted to be an FBI field agent — that was her abition going into adulthood.

    One hitch, the FBI will not hire you as a field agent if you weight less than 110 pounds. (This is not required for agents working in the offices.)

    She got the job offer; but she refused to gain 5 pounds to meet the requirement. Being very, very skinny is very important to her. More important than her life’s ambition.

    Bizarre. But then I don’t understand why people want to be cops (but I’m glad some do!)

  8. My mother played high school basketball back in the late 40’s. In those days, “girls’ rules” required six to a team, three in the frontcourt and three in the back. No one crossed the center line. They didn’t want girls running, as it might hurt their ovaries or something.
    Strange days, then.

    1. When I was in highschool (1970s), girls were not allowed to do the triple jump event in track and field, because it was said to “shake up the ovaries”. My first year of highschool, girls had to wear dresses/skirts – pants were forbidden. By the time I graduated, girls could wear pants, but the vice principal still would not let me take electronics in grade 13, as he considered that was not an appropriate subject for girls. (I had the last laugh on that one – I became an electrical engineer.)

    2. I grew up in a family where reading, academics, and music were prized far above athletics. Not surprisingly, I grew up without much athletic skill or interest. What I didn’t know was that mother had played Girl’s Half-Court basketball throughout the early 1950s.

      About 10 years ago, at the instigation of my nieces, my Mom picked up a basketball as an overweight, diabetic sexagenarian. And proceeded to go 8 for 10 from the free-throw line. Underhanded.

      It was the first and last time she’s touched a basketball since 1956. I’m still dumbfounded.

  9. I think jobs should be open to anyone who can do them, but I don’t think it’s a good thing to lower standards for the sake of allowing women (or members of any other group) to enter, especially when that can increase risk to others.

    There really are occupations that most women cannot do. For example, firefighters have to carry very heavy equipment (e.g. 180 pound ladders), break down doors, etc. If departments lower standards of physical ability to avoid the appearance of sexism or allow women to join even if they fail the physical tests, which happens, it can put peoples’ lives at risk.

    That said, I rather doubt that being an FBI agent has “physical demands” that women can’t handle. The main concern, I’ve read, at least in the police force, is that women don’t have much chance against a male assailant, but they solve the issue by pairing women with male partners, and it’s rarely a problem in practice since most people respect the badge (or at least fear the gun).

      1. I didn’t say there weren’t, and certainly not all firefighting tasks require prodigious strength. I’m sure they can do those tasks plenty well.

        I said that I don’t think it’s a good idea to lower standards to avoid the appearance of sexism when those standards serve an important purpose.

    1. But if that’s your concern, you don’t say what Hoover was saying and put a blanket ban on women. If you have the same strenuous physical test for all applicants, which most women (and many men) will fail, and say ‘sorry, tough luck’ to the ones who fail, then if some of the women pass…well, clearly they can do the job and administrators will just have to live with it if they like it or not.
      Assuming women can’t meet the demands of the job is the principal problem, because then they aren’t given a chance to prove they can.

  10. When applying to grad school (’71), I asked an advisor if I should put down that I wanted a Masters or a Doctoral program. He told me, “Doctoral. If you put Masters, they’ll assume you just couldn’t find a husband as an undergrad.”

  11. I’m not completely clear, but I think in Texas up to 1967, a married woman had limitations on owning property. I know my parent’s bank account was in only my father’s name, although my mother wrote all the checks, signing his name. The first cars we bought in Texas had only my name on the title. I recently found our Poll Tax receipts from the 1960’s. Mine is made out to “Jim Ed”, as I am known at home, the other is made out to “Jim Ed’s wife.”

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