Breaking the mould as the first female Director General of MI5

Dame Stella Rimington became the first female Director General of MI5 in 1992, a position she held until 1996, when she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath (DCB). Since leaving MI5, She has become a celebrated author: her autobiography, Open Secret, was published in 2001, and her first novel, At Risk, appeared in 2004. This inaugurated a series of spy fiction thrillers notable for their ‘insider’ knowledge, and for featuring a female protagonist, Liz Carlyle. The latest Liz Carlyle novel, Breaking Cover, will be published this summer.

Dame Stella is speaking at Edinburgh University’s Spy Week 2016.

A woman’s place is in the home. You don’t hear that much nowadays.

But when my appointment as Director General of MI5 was announced at the end of 1991, that still seemed to be the view of the popular press and probably a good many of their readers.

A woman?

To head one of our intelligence services?

This is not James Bond or George Smiley. So who is this dangerous woman daring to break the mould and threaten the established order?

A scramble followed to find out more and, having found out something, to stuff me back into my appointed place in society.

‘House wife Superspy’ opined The Sun. ‘Mum-of-Two Stella’s the head of MI5’ accompanied by a cartoon of a frumpy looking woman in sunglasses wheeling a supermarket trolley, surrounded by a posse of armed security guards with the caption ‘I’m looking for Bond…Brooke Bond’. The Express chose to comment that my name reminded them of a fictional character called Remington Steele and suggested (to them) a peroxide blonde with a scarlet gash of a mouth and a huge bosom who would certainly be able to kill a man with the edge of her hand.

They found that worrying.

When later on my photograph began to appear in the press, a reader wrote to The Spectator, ‘As a result of disclosures made recently in the name of openness, I find myself fancying the Head of MI5.’

No danger there then. She’s a woman after all.

These initial attempts to push the dangerous woman who had broken out of her appointed role back into the kitchen seemed to have no effect. I did not protest or cry on TV.

Next, I was turned into a media myth when M in the James Bond films became a woman – Judi Dench who looked remarkably like me. An early appearance found her pathetically allowing herself to be kidnapped and having to be rescued by her male colleagues. Poor dears, even in the top jobs they need the men to help them out. But as time went by, and the female M did not retreat back to the safety of her kitchen and the female Director General did not fail disastrously and have to be rescued by a man, both became harder, more dangerous characters.

M began to throw her weight about . ‘Take the shot’, she screamed at the junior officer, thus almost assassinating James Bond and I became a hard faced Whitehall warrior, ‘the Queen of all our Secrets’, grasping responsibilities from the police and secretly expanding intelligence operations.

Have things changed? I think so.

There’s been another female Director General since me. The novelty has worn off.

But I suspect there’s still a deep-seated fear lurking in the dark corners of society that when women break out – there’s danger!