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Working as a Woman in Intelligence: Alice Shurcliff

Unlike many women’s stories that highlight the immense challenges women face, Alice Shurcliff highlights in her oral history advantages she enjoyed as a female working in intelligence. Shurcliff began working for military intelligence while still in college in the 1930s. She learned that due to the approaching war, military intelligence favored hiring women over men (because men were preparing for the war and would be leaving).

It’s A Woman’s War Too! Poster, 1942 | Library of Congress
It’s A Woman’s War Too! Poster, 1942 | Library of Congress

These jobs were more than the typical clerical, traditionally female supportive roles. Instead, Shurcliff exercised a large amount of responsibility. She was initially put in charge of covering the entire British Empire. Women were in charge of many divisions, and Shurcliff suggests in her oral history that the only requirement seemed to be having a masters degree and being ladylike. The war provided women like Shurcliff with an avenue to a career in military intelligence.

Sometimes, having family acquaintances and connections helps. For example, Shurcliff grew up in an “upper-middle-class family” in a home where labor organizing—and indeed the origins of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—was the norm. She recounts that a personal friend of hers who worked in Turkey helped her when she initially sought a position with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She applied and was accepted. However, because the hiring had not been cleared with the chief of mission, who was hesitant to hire a woman in a predominately Muslim country, she was not permitted to stay in that position. Again, Shurcliff’s friend advocated for her, and she subsequently landed a position with the State Planning Organization in Çukurova.

In addition, Shurcliff also felt that her gender could be an advantage. For example, she did not feel there were enough attractive men in Washington, which was a motivating factor for her to go abroad. In her oral history, she shares that when she was working in Cairo, there were many men from the American, British, and South African armies; however there were not many women in Cairo. Shurcliff used this to her advantage, and she would have two dates per day while living in Egypt.

While women have faced many challenges in their careers, this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic history” highlights the opportunities Alice Shurcliff was able to take advantage of throughout her career.

Shurcliff’s interview was conducted by Morris Weisz on May 18, 1993.

Read Shurcliff’s full oral history HERE.
Read about one of Shurcliff’s hires, Juliet F. Kidney HERE.

Drafted by Molly Flick-Kaiser

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Excerpts:

“It was very carefully explained the day you arrived that no one ever made two mistakes on security because they got fired with the first.”

           
War correspondents and personnel of the Office of Strategic Services, leaving from Camp Patrick Henry, in Virginia, to go overseas, 1944 | National Archives
War correspondents and personnel of the Office of Strategic Services, leaving from Camp Patrick Henry, in Virginia, to go overseas, 1944 | National Archives

Women Working in United States Intelligence:
They didn’t want men. As they said, men have got to get into uniform with a war coming, so we want women. Each part had a woman in charge, and the qualifications seemed to be that you had to have a master’s degree. It didn’t matter in what, and you had to be ladylike. I mean I don’t remember any rough diamonds. There that is what I am trying to say.

I fit in, and we all worked very hard. We weren’t allowed to work all the time; you had to lock up everything when you left, and it was very carefully explained the day you arrived that no one ever made two mistakes on security because they got fired with the first.

So then when UNRRA was established, half the staff came from the office of foreign relief. We all transferred en masse. The British had a contingent from their relief department of their Board of Trade. It was originally just Americans and English. Then other people were hired as time went on. Anyhow, I wanted to go abroad. I felt there were not many attractive men in Washington. I think that was my main reason. There were 4-F’s around, and I thought I would like to see some hale and hearty men for a change.

“What would you think of having a woman?” The man said, “I don’t know why we shouldn’t; my wife is the town planner.”

Women Working in Turkey:
I found there was a vacancy, so I wrote my friend Ed McRoy who was working in Turkey. I asked if they would they take a woman, because I didn’t want to bother to apply if they wouldn’t. He wrote back and said yes, so I applied and was accepted.

I guess it hadn’t been cleared with the chief of the mission because when he heard they had hired a woman, he said,
“We don’t want new Frances Perkins’s around here. This is a Moslem country.” So their cable came over ‘’Discontinue with Shurcliff.” So, I wrote Ed McRoy and said what happened?

He told me, and then he went to the head of the State Planning Organization and said, “What would you think of having a woman?” The man said, “I don’t know why we shouldn’t; my wife is the town planner.” Then he went to the head of the Çukurova Region and said, “What would you think of having a woman?” He said, “I don’t know why not; my wife runs the power plant here.” Ed told that to the chief of mission. I guess they hadn’t found anybody else, and then I was hired.

“So, for us females, life was great because you could have two dates a day.”

Dating in Cairo:
I looked around and thought what dismal prospects there are. One of my good friends was in Cairo, Egypt, and she seemed to be having a very good time. I felt I would like to go abroad, and I wrangled a job in Cairo as a statistician. I didn’t know much about statistics, but you don’t need to, do you?

So, when I got there they asked why are you a statistician, and I said I don’t know, but I can do a lot of other things. They had an intelligence branch and I went right to work in that. I liked it very much.

At that time there was a glorious shortage of women in Cairo, but the American army was there. So was the British army and the South African Army, and there weren’t any women with them. So, for us females, life was great because you could have two dates a day. I used to work from 8:00 to 12:00 and from 4:00 to 8:00. Those were the office hours. You had one chance in the middle of the day and one chance in the evening. I lived in an apartment with two other girls, and we had two servants, so it wasn’t typical. We’d give parties and all of that. I had a fine time, but you had to allow yourself certain evenings off from the social life, and that’s what I did.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Psychology, Bryn Mawr College, cum laude
MA in Economics, Columbia University
Joined the Foreign Service
Washington, DC—Intelligence Research Analyst 1941–19XX
Athens, Greece—United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration 195X–195X
Çukurova, Turkey — Agency for International Development 196X–196X
Taiwan — International Labor Organization Human Resources Advisor 196X–196X