In 1922, a middle-aged woman became the first special agent at the Bureau of Investigation, now known as the FBI. Her term was historically important but short-lived—and after J. Edgar Hoover got his way, the Bureau wouldn’t see any more female special agents until the 1970s.
Alaska Packard Davidson was born in Ohio in 1868 to Warren and Mary Elizabeth Packard. Details of her early life are scarce, but we know that she completed only three years of public school education. Two of her brothers, James Ward Packard and William Doud Packard, co-founded the Packard Motor Car Company, which General Motors acquired in 1932.
Davidson became the Bureau’s first female special agent on October 11, 1922, after being appointed by then-director William Burns with the title of Special Investigator. She was hired primarily to work on the Mann Act, officially known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, a law Congress had passed in 1910 that made it illegal to transport women over state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Davidson, however, is recorded as being “very refined,” which some in the FBI said made her of little use in seamier prostitution-related investigations. Following training in New York, she went to work in the Washington, D.C. office. Sadly, no record of her specific work duties survives, although records show that her salary was $7 per day (with an extra $4 when she was traveling).
Davidson’s term was brief thanks to J. Edgar Hoover, who became acting director of the Bureau on May 10, 1924. Due in part to the bad press created by the Teapot Dome scandal, Hoover went to work to streamline the Bureau and root out corruption. He instructed each field office to fire unqualified agents—and in his mind, that likely included any women. Hoover felt that only men were up to the task of being special agents, a view he maintained until the end of his life.
Lenore Houston's FBI credentials. Image credit: FBI.gov // Public domain
Soon after Hoover took over, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office said that he had “no particular work for a woman agent.” Hoover requested Davidson’s resignation, and she left the bureau on June 10, 1924. However, she wasn’t the only special agent at the Bureau by that time. In November 1923, the FBI had hired its second female special agent, Jessie Duckstein, who also worked in the Washington, D.C. office. A third woman, Lenore Houston, was hired in 1924. Duckstein resigned, at Hoover’s demand, in 1924, and Houston in 1928. (For reasons that are somewhat unclear, by 1930 Houston was in a mental institution, threatening to shoot Hoover if ever released.) No other women worked in the FBI until 1972, after passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
Although she only worked less than two years at the FBI, Davidson made history. She died on July 16, 1934 at 66 years old, but the FBI’s Washington Field Office, where she briefly worked, is still active today. Agents based in that office managed the Pentagon crash site on September 11, 2001 and today, more than 830 special agents—both male and female—work there to prevent terrorist attacks, investigate gangs, and uncover internet crimes.