Ground-breaking women have been in the news lately. Sally Ride — the first American woman to enter low earth orbit — died recently. Olympic announcers mention that this year is the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that opened the way to mass participation in sports by girls.
2012 is also the 40th anniversary of the year women became FBI agents. Susan Wynkoop — a long-time Westporter, and president of the Westport Historical Society — was one of the 1st 200 hires. She left the agency in 1991, after a 12-year career, but remains involved as director of the FBI Foundation’s oral history project.
Next month, Susan travels to San Diego. Sandra Day O’Connor — the 1st woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court — will lead ceremonies lauding the pioneering female FBI agents.
Three women killed in the line of duty will be specially honored. Susan knew one of them well.
Susan did not grow up dreaming of being a G-man (or woman). She was raised in Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. After college she joined Wachovia — at the time, a small Southern bank.
As a manager, she hired young graduates. At a recruiting fair in 1979, an FBI agent at an adjacent booth convinced her to switch careers. Seven years earlier — soon after J. Edgar Hoover died — the agency allowed women to apply. (In those years, “allowed” was a better verb than “invited” or “welcomed.”)
It took 9 months for her appointment to go through. Then came 18 months of training at Quantico. Susan’s class of 36 included 8 women. Two women — and 5 men — did not make it through.
Assigned to the Charlotte office, she worked on a variety of cases. Most were white collar crimes. There were also bank robberies, prostitution rings, and a Hell’s Angels investigation.
After going undercover for a Miami pornography case, Susan was transferred to the New York office. Though many agents called it a hardship — the pay was the same as in, say, Mississippi — she was thrilled.
“I was 27 years old. We worked in every borough, on every kind of criminal case,” Susan recalls.
She became the 1st woman ever assigned to the Joint Bank Robbery Task Force. 15 FBI agents handled armed hold-ups; 12 New York City detectives took care of robbers who used only a note. One of her 1st cases, in October 1981, was the $1.6 million Brink’s robbery in Nanuet, N.Y., in which 2 police officers were killed.
“As the only woman, and with my Southern accent, I had to work probably harder than the men,” she says. “People watched every move I made.”
With 5 to 8 bank robberies a day, the squad was quite active. Each agent handled 25 to 30 cases at a time. Susan learned a lot, very quickly.
The task force solved 97% of the crimes. “The word got out on the street: ‘Don’t rob banks!'” Susan says proudly.
Decades later, women are finally seen as “full members of the FBI team,” Susan says. “They have skills and experiences to contribute. Women have helped the agency become better, and more productive.”
Today, approximately 2,800 of the FBI’s 14,000 agents are female.
“It’s not a job for everyone,” she warns. “For me, it was challenging and exciting — though not every day. And the opportunity to serve the public, and my country, was very rewarding.”
In 1991, after her daughter was born, Susan retired. “Working day and night, I felt I couldn’t be good at both roles,” she says.
Even today, “many of the women at the top of the FBI are either unmarried or don’t have kids.” Though agents are transferred less frequently than in the past, the hours are still long. The job remains difficult.
It also remains dear to her heart. In Susan’s role with the Society of Former Special Agents, she interviews with ex-FBI men — and women. The histories are housed in Washington, DC.
“Those pioneering women had a lot of gumption,” she says admiringly. “They were not always fully accepted.”
Today, she notes, the agency recruits men and women of every background, from every facet of life. “There’s no major they don’t like,” she says.
Besides her very full life in Westport — in addition to her Historical Society presidency, she’s a deacon at Southport Congregational Church and lives in (and lovingly cares for) the oldest home in Westport — Susan helps keep our country safe.
She still does top-secret background investigations for the federal government.
What a woman!