Force of Habit: The Nun Who Became an FBI Agent

Chloe Effron / iStock Collage
Chloe Effron / iStock Collage / Chloe Effron / iStock Collage

Just three years earlier, Joanne Pierce had been teaching history and economics to middle-school children at the Sisters of Mercy parochial school in Buffalo, New York. Now she was feeding ammunition into M16 rifles while under fire as part of an armored personnel carrier in South Dakota. She was no longer Sister Pierce. She was Special Agent Pierce of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bullets cut through the sky overhead as Pierce and her fellow agents struggled to restore order between warring Indian factions at Wounded Knee in 1973. Before it was over, tribal leader Russell Means would be charged with assaulting Pierce as he aimed his weapon toward the carrier and Pierce, who kept a cool head in the middle of the gunfight, would go on to be recognized as one of the female pioneers in the Bureau. For nearly a quarter-century, she would serve the agency, helping tear down the barricade that had kept women out of the line of duty for 44 years. The goal was the same as in her convent years: to save lives. But, now, this nun had a gun.

Pierce (in the red dress) arrives to be sworn in at FBI Headquarters in 1972. FBI

Pierce, who was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in 1941, stayed nearby for most of her schooling. She attended a Catholic high school and studied history at Medaille College in Buffalo, N.Y. Then, after earning a master's degree in history from St. Bonaventure University, Pierce joined the Sisters of Mercy convent in 1960 and began a 10-year tour as a history and economics teacher at various Catholic schools in the area. As she neared her 30th birthday, Pierce began to contrast the demands of the convent against her desire to start and raise a family. She realized the two were incompatible and began to consider leaving.

One day, an FBI agent showed up at school for career day. Pierce listened as he described his job in law enforcement. She liked the sound of it—a “new adventure,” she’d later say. She asked if any positions were open.

Mostly clerical, the agent told Pierce. It was 1970, and Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover restricted Special Agent status to male applicants only; no women had been seen on the force since 1928. Undeterred, Pierce left the convent and headed for Washington, where she was hired as a researcher.

Her timing was fortuitous. President Richard Nixon had signed an order of nondiscrimination in 1969, which was followed by the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972. While Hoover tried to exempt the FBI from the sweeping societal changes, his death in May 1972 opened the door. Just a week after his death, Acting Director L. Patrick Gray issued a press release that invited women to apply for Special Agent status. They would be given no special exemptions and would be asked to fulfill the same physical and academic requirements as their male counterparts: a college degree, and successful navigation of the brand-new FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

Pierce was informed of the change by a supervisor. She was told the qualification would be rigorous and the job—if she got it—would be demanding. She applied.

Of the 45 hopefuls to enroll at the Academy that summer, Pierce and former Marine Susan Roley were the only two females. They trained for a grueling two-mile run, pull-ups, and firearms shooting, where Pierce learned how to handle a .38 revolver, rifle, and shotgun. The two also bunked together during the 14-week training course.

“Sometimes I felt like I was an exhibit in a museum,” she told CBS This Morning in 2012, “because everybody wanted to say which one are you, the Marine or the nun?”

Both women passed. Roley was assigned to the Omaha, Neb. branch, and though Pierce was hoping for Miami, when she saw her assignment, she had drawn St. Louis, Mo. It wasn’t ideal, but Special Agent Pierce was officially ready for action.


Pierce barely had time to get her bearings in St. Louis when she was deployed to Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1973. The town had been taken over by the American Indian Movement, which demanded the removal of rival Oglala tribal leader Richard Wilson and acknowledgment of American wrongdoing on native land. The demonstration would eventually grow to 71 days of tense, sometimes violent occupation, with the FBI and U.S. Marshals among the government forces sent to defuse the situation.

Pierce’s squad was ordered to a roadblock to calm a disturbance that quickly turned deadly. A sniper was firing at the roadblock, and agents—including Pierce—were in the line of fire and sought protection inside a carrier. Gunshots rang out for nearly an hour before the sniper was apprehended; one agent sustained a minor injury. It was an uncensored introduction to the life of a Federal official.

From there, Pierce moved to Pittsburgh, Penn., where she spent the majority of her career. Agents in her squad were accepting of a female in the mix; civilians were another story.

“Initially, when you'd go out and say you were from the FBI, you'd get a look of disbelief, like you were kidding," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1996. Once, Pierce was tasked with wrangling fugitives and military deserters. One man on the run had seen Pierce before fleeing; he called the Bureau’s office and screamed that he couldn’t believe a woman was chasing him. He felt insulted that he didn’t warrant a male agent’s attention.

Another time, Pierce and a male agent entered a bank to question an employee—the secretary told the employee that “a couple” was there to see him. Pierce was also often mistaken for a traveling secretary. Some suspects took a sarcastic approach, telling Pierce she could “arrest them any time.”

As more and more women joined the force, Pierce became less of an oddity and more an example of a new normal. But something troubled her. In five attempts to be promoted to a supervisory role between 1981 and 1987, Pierce was passed over every time—including cases, she claimed, where the eventual hire was under-qualified. The only thing they had in common: all were male.

Pierce left the FBI in 1994 after 22 years of service. She had finished her tenure in Miami, seizing the boats and mansions of drug dealers, and then a bank in Boca Raton, Fla. offered her in a job in audit investigation, which she accepted. In her opinion, there wasn’t opportunity for further advancement in the Bureau.

Pierce went a step further, suing Attorney General Janet Reno in 1994 for discrimination. She asked for the difference in pay she would have earned had she been promoted and attorney’s fees; the case was settled in 1996 under undisclosed terms.

At the time of the suit, the FBI was unable to comment on her retirement or her contributions to the Bureau. But in 2012, for the 40th anniversary of her hiring, the agency profiled both her and Susan Roney. Having married a fellow agent, Michael Misko, in 1981, she now goes by Joanne Pierce Misko.

“I honestly didn’t see myself as a pioneer,” she said of her admittance into the Bureau, even though she was just one of two women sworn in that summer in 1972. Today, there are roughly 2700 female agents in the field. And, providing they have a college education and can endure 20 weeks of training, nuns are still free to apply.

Additional Sources:
“Nun Turned Agent Recalls Historic Career in FBI,” The Buffalo News, September 18, 1994; “Women Agents Erasing FBI’s Machismo,” The Chicago Sun-Times, November 9, 1986.