Rimington, Dame Stella 1935-
RIMINGTON, Dame Stella 1935-
PERSONAL: Born May 13, 1935, in South London, England; daughter of an engineer and a home care nurse; married John David Rimington, 1963 (divorced, 1984); children: two daughters. Education: Edinburgh University, M.A.; Liverpool University, postgraduate degree in the study of records and the administration of archives.
ADDRESSES: Offıce—P.O. Box 1604, London SW1P 1XB, England. Agent—Celebrity Speakers Limited, 90 High Street, Burnham, Buckinghamshire SL1 7JT, England.
CAREER: Civil servant. Worcestershire county records office assistant archivist, 1959-62; India office library, London, England, assistant keeper, 1962-65; British Security Service (MI5), part-time worker in New Delhi, India, 1965-69, director-general, 1992-96; Marks and Spencer, director, 1997—; corporate positions in BC PLC, 1997-2000, GKR Group, 1997—, and BG International, 2000—. Institute of Cancer Research, chair, 1997—; trustee, Royal Air Force Museum.
AWARDS, HONORS: Dame Commander of the Bath, 1996; Honorary Air Commodore 7006 (VR) Intelligence Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 1997—; Honorary LL.B. at University of Nottingham, 1995, and University of Exeter, 1996.
Open Secret: The Autobiography of the FormerDirector-General of MI5, Hutchinson (London, England), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Dame Stella Rimington was the first woman ever to serve as director-general of the British Security Service, or MI5. She was also the first leader of the service whose name was made public. Under her leadership, the service pursued a policy of greater openness, and also began to devote more resources to counter-terrorism and fighting organized crime.
Rimington was born in South London, England, in 1935, the daughter of an engineer and a home care nurse. Her father worked in the steel industry, and during World War II his work often took him and his family to steel-producing areas of England that were targeted by German bombs. In a speech posted on the Financial Mail Women's Forum Web site Rimington said, "I spent quite a lot of my early childhood in an air raid shelter listening to the bombs dropping on our house and I think as a result I ended up as something of a nervous wreck with a craving for excitement." Although girls of her era were taught that they would simply be wives and mothers, Rimington secretly dreamed of being an airline pilot. This was not even an option for a woman at the time, but, she recalled, "it was the most exciting thing I could think of."
Rimington earned a master's degree in English at Edinburgh University, and then worked as an archivist. In 1963 she married John Rimington, whom she had known since childhood. He was a British civil servant, and was posted to the British High Commission in New Delhi, India, in 1965.
In New Delhi Rimington expected to be a typical diplomat's wife, with no more taxing chores than running social events and wearing fancy clothes. When she was asked whether she would like a part-time job assisting the local representative of MI5, she agreed. The job was as a clerk-typist, and she initially viewed it simply as something to do to pass the time.
At the time, MI5 was almost exclusively male, and most of those men came from the same schools, military organizations, and social groups. Rimington told Richard Norton in the Guardian, "In those days the organization was very closed. I think the arrival of women like me—and people like me—began to challenge that. I always felt slightly revolutionary, because I was clearly quite different." Although there were a few other women in the service, they were scattered and didn't have much influence. Rimington, impatient with working for people who she believed were not as competent as she was, pushed to move up to more senior and more responsible positions. Along the way, she noted that the organization had a double structure: the men were the officers and the women worked in secretarial or supportive roles. However, she pressed to be able to do the same sort of work that the men did.
She worked first as an operative, then as a section chief. Rimington told Norton that she found the business of spying immensely entertaining: "You know, going round listening to people's telephones and opening their mail and stuff. It beats being an archivist and it beats being a civil servant, I thought." When collecting information, she often had to fight informants' reluctance to discuss secret matters with a woman, but she also found that as a woman, she was good at persuading people to trust her.
Eventually she became director of counter-terrorism for the organization, and spent much of her time working against attacks by the Irish Republican Army, which at the time was targetting British soldiers stationed in Germany.
The organization was highly secretive. "Nobody believes more strongly than I that there are things we must continue to keep secret," she told Richard Norton in the Guardian. "But I thought they were being excessively and sometimes rather ridiculously careful." While she worked for MI5, she could not tell other people where she worked or what she did, which drove her to avoid socializing with neighbors or many friends. She told Norton, "I do think that in those days it made life more difficult and turned us all . . . in on ourselves so that . . . everybody dealt with it in their own way." Her children knew that she worked for the government, but nothing more.
All of this ended in 1981, when Rimington was named director-general of MI5. In addition, it was decided that for the first time, the name of the director general would be made public. The ensuing publicity was difficult for Rimington and for her children, then ages seventeen and twenty. From not knowing anything about their mother's work, they became near-celebrities as curious reporters sought to find out everything they could about Rimington and her family. In one incident, reporters came to her house to interview her without warning. Her daughter opened the door without asking who was outside, and when Rimington appeared, one of them took a photo of her. She thought the camera flash was from a gun firing and slammed the door. The reporters yelled through the door, and Rimington yelled back. She recalled in her speech: "I think that was the beginning of [my daughters'] realization that their mum did not do something entirely normal."
In the end, the family was forced to move because the publicity became too burdensome and dangerous; Rimington's younger daughter, who was still living at home, had to attend another school under a fictitious name, and could not invite anyone home to the house. Rimington noted in her speech that this daughter often forgot her alias and asked Rimington, "Just tell me again mum, who am I?"
By the end of her career with MI5, Rimington was no longer concerned with the entertaining details of spy work, but with the success and survival of the organization as a whole. "These [administrative and strategic details] were the things that, by the end, were occupying me, and everybody else was having fun doing the spy bit and the terrorist bit." She also found that being in charge of individual agents posed an ethical dilemma: she had to ask people to do things that might risk their lives, and she often dealt with them face to face, making the issue very personal.
Rimington left MI5 in 1996. In 2001 she published Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5. The book describes her life and work for the secret service. As a result of publishing the book, Rimington had to endure what David Rose in the London Observer called "a long period of being persona non grata." Although the book did not reveal any real scandals and presented a positive view of MI5, the simple fact that she wrote it was viewed as a betrayal by many of her old friends.
In her speech posted on the Financial Mail Women's Forum Web site Rimington said, "My whole life has been a surprise to me because I never expected a career at all and I certainly would not have expected to be director-general of MI5."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
British Journalism Review, Volume 12, number 4, 2002, David Shaylor, review of Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5.
London Review of Books, October 18, 2001, Bernard Porter, review of Open Secret, p. 8.
New Statesman, October 1, 2000, Phillip Knightley, review of Open Secret, p. 73.
Observer, September 16, 2001, David Rose, review of Open Secret, p. 15.
Spectator, September 22, 2001, Henry Porter, review of Open Secret, p. 48.
Times Literary Supplement, November 9, 2001, Nicholas Hiley, review of Open Secret, p. 9.
Financial Mail Women's Forum Web site,http://www.fmwf.com/ (September 19, 2001), speech by Rimington.
Guardian Online,http:www.guardian.co.uk/ (September 8, 2001), Richard Norton-Taylor and Alan Rusbridger, "I Spy."
Observer Online,http://www.observer.co.uk/ (September 9, 2001), David Rose, "Secrets of Success."*
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