March 15, 2017

Elizabeth Sudmeier '33: The spy who shattered the glass ceiling

Elizabeth Sudmeier ’33 receiving her second medal of honor from the CIA.

A CIA officer who had known Elizabeth in the 1950s recalled her impact first-hand: “She was a real pistol….The fact that she accomplished so much is incredible given the general antagonism [toward] women functioning as ops officers. This was a general view among [Directorate of Operations] male ops officers….Liz certainly paved the way for female ops officers.”

— "Challenging the Status Quo:
Elizabeth Sudmeier’s Historic Legacy,"
CIA featured story archive

Elizabeth Sudmeier army recruiting Sudmeier, Women’s Army Corps recruiting ad

When a female secret agent breaks the glass ceiling, does anyone hear it shattering? Long before female agents became commonplace in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Elizabeth Sudmeier ’33 quietly forged the path. Only no one knew of her, because the clandestine agent's work was classified.

In September 2013, Sudmeier posthumously received the Trailblazer Award from the CIA. Her nieces, nephew and two grand-nieces accepted the medallion — reserved for “CIA officers whose leadership, achievements, and dedication to mission had a significant impact on the agency’s history and legacy.” At the time, her files were still classified. Their declassifying began in February 2014, nearly 25 years after her death.

After graduating from St. Kate’s with an English degree in 1933, Sudmeier taught for five years before pursuing a military career. Her impressive resume includes work as a Women’s Army Corps stenographer during World War II, a stenographer for the Central Intelligence Group (CIG, the predecessor to the CIA), and eventually as a clandestine CIA agent in the Middle East for nine years, starting in 1956. As part of covert duty, not even her family knew her actual employment.

In addition to being one of few women in the agency during that era, Sudmeier was the first female CIA agent to handle assets in a foreign field, conduct a full-cycle recruitment, and win recognition for key operational success — earning her the Intelligence Medal of Merit in 1962.

Sudmeier retired from the CIA in 1972, at age 60, and rekindled ties to her alma mater. She hosted staff members, including then-president Catherine McNamee, CSJ, in her home, and helped launch an alumnae chapter in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Sudmeier 1944 Sudmeier, Women’s Army Corps recruiting, 1944

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