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FBI's First Female Profiler Remakes Life In Retirement

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Rosanne Russo was one of the first female criminal profilers at the FBI, where she worked for more than 28 years.
Jacob Fenston
Rosanne Russo was one of the first female criminal profilers at the FBI, where she worked for more than 28 years.

In the late 1970s, Rosanne Russo was working as a school psychologist. But she was itching to do something different. Russo's career makeover landed her at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., at a time when few women were FBI agents. Now, after more than 28 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Russo is on a second makeover, this time to retired life.

Television shows and movies have made famous the FBI's behavioral science unit — so-called "criminal profilers" who use psychology to help track down bad guys. Many of these fictional crime-solvers are women, as in NBC's drama "Profiler," or, the movie "Silence of the Lambs."

In real life, Rosanne Russo was one of the FBI's first two female profilers. Growing up, she says, she watched TV shows about the FBI, but never thought she would work there.

"I never dreamed as a female, that I would be an FBI special agent, or that it was even a possibility for me," she says. "That was not an idea that was even in my head."

When she was growing up, there were no female FBI agents. Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover refused to admit women agents during his almost-50-year reign, arguing the job would be too dangerous.

But just one week after Hoover was buried in 1972, the FBI announced it would sign on women as special agents. (Also that week, the bureau let up on the dress code: shirt colors other than white would be allowed, men's sideburns could be grown out to the ear, and hair to the shirt collar.)

When Russo started at the FBI in 1979, she says there were still only 200 female agents, out of 10,000 total. These days, one in five FBI agents is female.

Russo says in those early years, it was an adjustment for some male colleagues, who had never before worked alongside female partners.

"For some of the men, it was a capability question — would a woman be able to do this job?"

But being a woman also allowed her some unique opportunities early in her career.

"I got to do a whole variety of things, because they found they felt they could blend in better with me at their side. We could look like we were a couple eating at a restaurant, and not look suspicious like we were the FBI."

In 2008, Russo retired from the FBI. But you know how in the movies, they always have to call up the retired agent to help out? She got asked to come back, and finally retired for good in 2011.

"As you get near to retirement, your life is just so busy, and you don't have a lot of time to think about yourself and any transition," she says. "It wasn't really until after I retired that I started going through that transition thought process: 'Okay, now, I've got this time, but I don't want to waste that time, so what can I do that would still be valuable, and still be contributing to society?'"

She's contributing by volunteering every week: helping feed the homeless, giving tours at the Kennedy Center, and helping out here at WAMU 88.5.

But, does she miss the FBI?

"I think what I'd have to say is I miss that camaraderie, and just that commitment and that work atmosphere," she says. "But do I miss the long hours? I do not."


[Music: "(Just Like) Starting Over" by Vitamin String Quartet from String Quartet Tribute to The Beatles]

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