Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
On October 11, 1922, the first woman FBI investigator was appointed. Her name was Alaska Davidson. At age fifty-four, she joined the Bureau of Investigation as a special agent, with a salary of seven dollars a day working in the Washington D.C. offices.
The Bureau of Investigation—soon to be the FBI—first hired her for undercover infiltrating and taking down sex trafficking through the Mann Act of 1910—but after considering Alaska “too refined,” they put on her file “of limited use.” Those words would haunt her the rest of her career. Maybe her life.
Her case? An agent selling classified information to criminals.
They had a dangerous hunch who it was. All they needed was evidence.
Davidson would leave her cramped workspace behind in exchange for an automobile and multiple undercover alibis. After all, no one would suspect a woman in such an important role. That was the whole point.
I have an older sister who has been doing things first since the moment she was born—except when it came to flu shots.
By the time my mom was dragging us to the pediatric doctor’s office together, it was my older sister’s job to be polite and small talk with the doctor. But it was my job to put my arm out, roll my sleeve up, and take the first shot.
Then once she’d deemed me still alive and well, she’d let the nurse give her one to match me.
And I’d rub my arm and think being first hurts.
From March 6 to March 18, Alaska Davidson would become a shadow, doing everything from wiretapping to tailing within the Senate offices under R. H. Burrus and four other agents on the shadow force. Two of the men on her crew secured a near-damning diaries early in the case where Alaska functioned as the getaway driver. She may have been part of a temporary abducting of someone’s wife. She followed Senate members, witnesses, hairdressers—
Then Burrus said the Bureau received orders to stop the watch.
They’d been publicly accused of attempting to “frame Senator Wheeler” and using “women detectives placed in the Senate office buildings.” They were going to court. They’d all testify that they were part of the shadow crew and add their witness accounts to the hearing. If all their work didn’t pay off here to identify and prosecute their mole, it never would.
Yesterday, my sister stopped and said “Do you know what I’ve been thinking about?”
“What?” I said.
“That in the story about Jesus’ turning water into wine, about how just how much responsibility Jesus had—I mean, that he was the oldest child. And Mary counted on him for a lot of things. She probably wasn’t even asking for him at first to do a miracle, she probably just wanted him to share her worry and maybe take a grocery run.”
And then she goes: “I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking about it.”
So I don’t know, now I’ve just been thinking about it. That she’s looking out into the world for role models she can relate to—visionaries and door openers and first-woman-in-space-or-the-FBI-or-to-fly-across-the-ocean—in a way I never will.
And then I selfishly wonder if I’m on that list because of the flu shots.
After the trial, the headlines said “WOMAN USED TO TRAIL SENATORS.”
On May 10, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed director of the FBI. After a few consecutive scandals, he had promised to remove all unqualified agents. Hoover officially disallowed women from becoming special agents, and forced Davidson to resign—after all, her file said right in prominent letters “of limited use.”
I wonder if the women in Alaska’s life prayed that she’d come home in one piece. Prayed that maybe this whole thing wouldn’t work out for her so that they could have their Alaska back and that she wouldn’t be such a first-woman-in-fill-in-the-blank. I wonder if the women in Alaska’s life prayed for her to just stop being first for just a second, just a second, you know?
I wonder if they wanted to take every one of those prayers back when she was sent home after two years.
Cause they’d’ve prayed it out of fear.
But still. You know? You wonder.
Within weeks of the death of FBI Director Hoover on May 2, 1972, Acting Director Patrick Gray announced the FBI would be accepting applications from female agent candidates once again.
Two months later, Joanne Pierce and Susan Roley were sworn in as FBI special agents. By the end of 1972, eleven more women would be sworn in.
I’m a younger sister.
I can watch my sister do everything first—I never had to wonder how to pay off a credit card, or what to say to someone you don’t want to go on a date with. I could ask her because she already knew.
It’s why I have a hard time believing verses like Matthew 20:16, because the way I’ve seen it it’s the first that shall be first. First to stop playing Legos, first to have a crush, first to go off to college, first to get engaged even though you still see her as the girl who’d march you in to get your flu shot and shove you at the doctor first.
First to get hired and fired as a special agent.
On October 11, 1922, the first woman FBI investigator was appointed. Her name was Alaska Davidson. For seven dollars a day, she endured being the first.
I can’t relate to her, despite all the flu shots, but I know someone who can.
Gabrielle Eisma graduated Calvin with a BFA in studio art and writing in 2022. She’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she now works as a writer and illustrator for books for (mostly) children and middle grade readers.