When Lynne A. Hunt joined the FBI in 1978, fewer than 200 of the bureau's 10,000 special agents were women. Rather than feeling like an outsider, though, Hunt said she quickly found herself in demand for undercover roles where a man just wouldn't do.
The wife. The girlfriend. The female shopper. Hunt played them all as she started her career. In one case, she haggled endlessly with a store clerk over a set of dishes to distract him as another undercover agent installed a wiretap in the small shop on Chicago's north side.
That wasn't as simple as it might sound. Said Hunt, "There was absolutely nothing in this store that anybody would really be interested in buying, but we had to keep the clerk busy."
Now, Hunt is taking on a new, more demanding role. Next month, she comes to Baltimore to be the first woman to serve as special agent in charge of the bureau's Maryland-Delaware office, and as one of six women serving in the top spot in the FBI's 57 field offices.
Her appointment comes as the FBI, long glamorized as one of the country's most macho law enforcement agencies, has steadily increased the number of women serving as special agents and worked under U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to change its image as an alpha- male agency.
It isn't a perception easily changed. In 1995, the FBI paid nearly $300,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a female agent who worked in Arizona. In 1994, the bureau agreed to pay more than $300,000 to two female agents from California to settle a lawsuit in which the women said they were fondled and taunted by a supervisor.
Women still make up a small fraction of the agent work force. Of the bureau's 11,566 agents, 1,961 are women, nearly 17 percent. Across the federal government, women fill about 14 percent of law enforcement jobs, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Those numbers have steadily climbed since the FBI started hiring women agents in 1972. In 1981, women made up less than 5 percent of FBI agents. By 1991, that number had reached 12 percent.
"Obviously, there is some progress, but there's a lot more to go," said Margaret Moore, who became the first woman to head a field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms when the ATF opened a Baltimore office in 1993. She pointed to Hunt's new job as a sign of progress.
"I'm really glad another woman's there," said Moore, now assistant director of the National Center for Women & Policing, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. "Women are good, because we do look at things from a number of different perspectives."
Hunt, 46, plays down the significance of her gender in her new job as the FBI's head agent in a two-state field office overseeing 390 employees, 209 of them special agents. It is the same approach she has taken since she joined the agency after finishing law school at the University of San Diego.
"You can go in there and say, 'I'm one of very few women, or very few whatever, and so I should be treated differently.' I didn't want to be," Hunt said in an interview at FBI headquarters in Washington, where she has served as section chief of the agency's financial crimes division since March 1998.
"I wanted to be an agent. I didn't want to be a female agent," Hunt said. "Not that I wanted to be, quote, one of the boys, or be treated like a man. I just wanted to be an agent. So I volunteered for things just like other new agents did."
In her first assignment, in the bureau's Chicago field office, that meant working long hours on investigations ranging from illegal drug rings to organized-crime networks.
When she was one of just two single agents working a major wiretapping case, Hunt found herself stuck with late-night and weekend shifts. The other unmarried agent also assigned to the shifts was Richard Hunt, who would later become her husband.
The two left Chicago for Washington in 1984. Lynne Hunt worked in the bureau's legal counsel division, then supervised white-collar criminal investigations. In 1991, the couple transferred to Arizona, and Hunt spent a year back on the streets as a case agent, working primarily health care fraud cases.
With their two daughters, now 13 and 16, they returned to Washington in 1995. Hunt had a short tour in Baltimore from 1996 to 1998, when she was an assistant special agent in charge of the Maryland field office -- also the first time a woman held that post here.
She said returning to a field office is a natural goal for agents.
"I think every agent comes in because they want to be involved in cases and go out, and that's what working in a field office is about, being a true agent," Hunt said. She said it is too early to say what her priorities will be for the Maryland-Delaware office.
In Baltimore, Hunt will be the sixth special agent in charge in the last 10 years. The high turnover rate is caused partly by the field office's proximity to Washington -- good top agents here get noticed and often are tapped to work at headquarters or in larger field offices. Hunt is replacing Special Agent Richard M. Mosquera, who is leaving to head the FBI field office in Houston, which is closer to family.
Hunt acknowledged that the frequent changes in the top slot can cause difficulties. But the agency adjusts quickly, say those inside the bureau and those who have worked closely with it.
Clayton Undercofler, a former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, said he saw firsthand how quickly top managers were brought up to speed.
"They get briefed in a big hurry," said Undercofler, now a private attorney in Philadelphia. "Just one day, and then they were talking to you about serious stuff."
"The bureau is an extremely adaptable organization," said Peter A. Gulotta, Jr., a spokesman for the Maryland office. "We can deal with turnover without any difficulty."
Gulotta has known Hunt for years and said she will be a strong top agent. He said the bureau needs to recruit more women to follow her lead. Women agents are often more effective than men in conducting certain types of interviews, searching female suspects or playing undercover roles, he said.
"We could not function without female agents," Gulotta said. "I don't know how we got along years ago."
One challenge in recruiting women to the bureau is convincing them that the vast majority of the work doesn't involve shootouts or chases -- the stuff of the movies, Gulotta said. Hunt said she had to convince her parents of just that when she joined the bureau at age 25.
"My mother at first was like, 'You're going to carry a what? A gun?' " Hunt said. But her family also understood her enthusiasm about the adventure that has kept her in the bureau for two decades. "My dad just thought it was the best thing in the world. He'd call me up, 'What's going on? I know you can't tell me anything, but can you tell me anything?' "