The Study of Spies: Purnell's New History Elective Covert Ops
Zoe Hildenbrand

Covert Ops is a one-semester course examining women spies in the work of empire.

Students examined memoirs, first-hand accounts, primary source and secondary source documents pertaining to the life and work of CIA agents Valerie Plame Wilson, Lindsay Moran, Gina Haspel, Virginia Hall, and former OSS (Office of Strategic Services) Agents Elizebeth Friedman and Elizabeth McIntosh during the fall semester.


The idea for our Covert Ops class came to existence in the spring of 2018. I was in my final semester as an American Studies and Education Double Major at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and I had an epiphany in the form of a question: why do I know nothing about women spies? With the help of Professor of American Studies Christen Mucher, I pored over archival materials in Smith College's Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History, as well as online archive resources and books. I discovered that Smith and other Seven Sister Colleges have long-established relationships as feeder schools with various clandestine services, especially the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, and the wartime intelligence agency of the United States during World War II. After several months of study, I pieced together what would become my capstone for my undergraduate career.

When I graduated in June of 2018, I knew I wanted to apply what I had learned about women spies to my teaching and pedagogy. Upon arriving at Purnell School as a History faculty member, Ms. Anne Glass, our Head of School, supported me in this dream to engage our Purnell students in a class about women spies. The class Covert Ops was born and is the first of its kind in the country. No other high school in the United States has a class dedicated solely to the study and examination of women spies through the lens of women and gender studies, making this an exciting opportunity for Purnell students.

This fall, the students took a deep dive look at the Code Girls, the women who helped dissect some of America's most integral messages in World World II. Students then analyzed Elizebeth Friedman's biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone and created their own substitution ciphers, similar to the first ciphers Elizebeth Friedman completed in her initial training. We spent several weeks discussing Valerie Plame, her memoir Fair Game, and finding connections between past and present spies. We also embarked on original independent research culminating in a research paper and presentation. The students chose spies that interested them, including Mary Bowser, a spy from the Civil War who was an enslaved person, Nada Bakos whose memoir was recently redacted and publication date moved to February 2019, and Gina Haspel, current and first female CIA Director. I have been working with the National History Archives, women's history museums, and friends and colleagues to find students additional resources to augment their work. As a class, we also submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for materials from women spies in the 1940's, whose work is not as classified as some more current spies we have studied.

Our essential question was "why are women spies' stories forgotten?" The very government these CIA and OSS agents served is the same government that redacts their experiences. History classes fail to mention their names, much less their personal stories of service over the course of American history. As a class, we questioned why have we not heard of Virginia Hall and Betty McIntosh? Why were Valerie Plame and Lindsay Moran's memoirs so heavily redacted? How is the work of empire embedding itself in the untangling of these rich histories? In Covert Ops, we focused less on political and military history and more on questions of culture, especially in terms of gender, race, religion, class, and power.

This class was dedicated to the hard work of remembering. This was difficult but important work, and we did it together to ensure that female spies' legacies are acknowledged, critiqued, and validated.

Due to the success of the first semester, we are offering Covert Ops II: Technology, Surveillance, and Privacy this spring. We look forward to exploring more of these topics as a class!





Zoe Hildenbrand
History Teacher