Why the Song Isn't Called 'Secret Agent Woman'
BY KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Newhouse News Service
A father and son are in a car accident. They are rushed to the hospital. The
father dies on the way, while the son is taken to the operating room.
Later, the doctor comes in and says "I can't operate on him because he's my
How is that possible?
Do you remember the answer to this riddle that used to make the rounds?
Of course, it's this: The doctor is the boy's mother.
The riddle is designed to reveal one's assumptions about gender. And yes, I'm
embarrassed to say it tricked me too the first time I heard it.
Perhaps women have entered the field of medicine in such numbers that the riddle
no longer works.
Bet it would still work if the occupation were CIA operative.
Hear "CIA," and I don't know about you, but I picture men. Manly men,
perhaps not quite in the James Bond mode, but still lone wolves, smart, sneaky
and capable of the occasional violence when necessary.
I certainly do not picture a forty-something mother of twins.
This makes me wonder: Could one of the missteps in the dust-up about the leak of
a CIA agent's name be that both leaker and leakee assumed a woman couldn't be a
What if the agent were a man? Surely no man's name would have been leaked with
such casualness. (The columnist who reported it said he learned of Valerie
Plame's identity in "an offhand revelation.")
It would've been assumed that his work might well have some top-secret
cloak-and-dagger danger to it. In the case of poor Plame, She Who Must Not Be
Named, it was assumed that her work didn't.
Say what you want about the changing role of women: We've yet to see a "CIA
You can almost hear the assumptions at work: Yes, she worked for the CIA, yes,
her field was nuclear proliferation and other weapons of mass destruction, but
probably she was just some pencil-pushing desk-jockey.
In fact, she had been in the CIA since she was 22, and traveled abroad to both
assess information and gauge the suitability of new agency recruits. No actual
cloak, no actual dagger, but serious stuff nonetheless.
In short, she was no lightweight. And although the aspirations of She Who Must
Not Be Named are low on our totem pole of worries -- far below national security
-- we also know that no man would have been dealt a career-ending injury so
By all accounts, she had fooled everybody -- friends, neighbors, her own
brother-in-law, even some fellow employees of the CIA -- with her cover story of
being an energy consultant.
And she was able to fool them precisely because they couldn't imagine a covert
agent being the mother of preschool twins.
This was a terrific arrangement: It took the sexist assumptions most of us have
about "CIA agent" and used them to help her acquire information about
a very dangerous world out there.
It is nice to know the CIA is savvy enough to tap all the brainpower out there,
not just the male half. (In case you hadn't noticed lately, we need all the help
we can get.)
Unfortunately, when the long knives came out, those very assumptions may also
have been her -- and by extension, our -- undoing.
July 26, 2005
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