Barbara Riggs was a college junior, captain of the Cornell University basketball team and set to follow her father's plan for her future -- law school, then join the family firm in Upstate New York -- when a classmate suggested another option: Why not come on board with his employer, the U.S. Secret Service?

Riggs, adventurous at heart, was intrigued. But she had a question.

"I asked him, 'They hire women?' " Riggs, 52, recalled recently at her Middleburg farmhouse.

They did, but not many.

When Riggs was sworn in in 1975, four years after women in federal law enforcement were given the right to carry firearms, she was the 10th female special agent in the Secret Service.

Last month, Riggs, having postponed retirement twice, became its first female deputy director and one of the highest-ranking female federal agents.

Women with badges and guns still are rare, which experts blame on the field's macho culture, grueling schedules and failure to reach out to women. In 2002, fewer than 15 percent of federal law enforcement agents were women; in 2000, 11.2 percent of local and state officers were female. In that setting, Riggs -- like her Drug Enforcement Agency counterpart, Michele Leonhart, who also scaled her agency's hierarchy over decades -- is a symbol of change.

"They're the foundation of the good old girl club," said Margie Moore, executive director of the nonprofit Women in Federal Law Enforcement. Riggs, she said, "serves as a role model."

Riggs has nearly done it all in the Secret Service, a small agency with the two-pronged mission of protecting the nation's leaders and economic infrastructure. She has investigated financial crimes and threats to elected officials, staked out drug-dealing counterfeiters, escorted presidents around the world and overseen the agency's transfer from the Treasury Department to the Department of Homeland Security.

But as befits a Secret Service agent, Riggs deflects attention and exudes calm. At headquarters, she glides through the halls quietly and greets her staff politely. In the main rooms of her house, a Secret Service notepad and a few framed photos of Riggs with first families are the only evidence of decades protecting presidents. Her neighbors in the hub of Virginia horse country know her as an expert equestrian and fox hunter.

"That's why, I think, Barbara is such a strong representative of the Secret Service," longtime friend and neighbor Laurie Fenton said. "She excels, but it's done almost invisibly."

Riggs diplomatically concedes that being a pioneer in a male-dominated field has been "challenging." Her strategy was simple: Believe in yourself, rely on mentors and ignore naysayers "who flat out don't think women can do the job," Riggs said.

"She's not intimidated whatsoever by the fact that she's in a man's world," said W. Ralph Basham, director of the Secret Service.

Riggs credits her confidence to her parents -- progressive thinkers who hosted an endless stream of foreign exchange students and sent their three children to discover the world on their own. On a visit to Chile in high school, Riggs, with her parents' blessing, chose to ditch her senior year for a solo journey across Latin America.

Riggs joined the Secret Service seeking similar thrills, and she has not been disappointed. She began as an investigator, then moved to the intelligence department. Later, as a member of the teams that protected Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, she watched in 1987 when Reagan implored Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin, and in 1991 when Bush and Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) at the Kremlin.

"It's like sitting in the front row of history," she said.

Along the way, she became the first female supervisor of a Secret Service field office and the first woman to supervise a presidential protective division. In 1998, as assistant director of the agency's Office of Protective Research, she created the National Threat Assessment Center, a division that, among other things, trains schools to prevent Columbine-style shootings.

These days, Riggs does not often wear a firearm or travel the globe. Instead, her task is making sure the 6,400-person agency has everything it needs to do its job -- which Riggs sees as akin to "protecting the whole democratic process."

Even that responsibility does not seem to unsettle her.

"You don't really think about it," she said.

In fact, she said, her most harrowing experience as an agent had more to do with protecting herself than the president. In 1978, while planning President Jimmy Carter's visit to Panama, she was stalked by then-Col. Manuel Noriega after spurning his romantic advances.

Riggs thrived on the 20-hour days and weeks of travel common for Secret Service agents, but her social life suffered, she said. She didn't marry or have children.

She has dedicated every spare moment to riding horses, her passion since childhood. Riggs endures a four-hour daily commute so she can live with 14 horses, four foxhounds, three cats and a black Lab on 52 acres in western Loudoun County and spend weekends fox hunting, which she loves for the same reason she loves her work: It's fast-paced and never the same.

Riggs, approaching her 30th anniversary with the agency, was contemplating retirement last month when Basham talked her out of it -- just as he did two years before, when he asked her to be his chief of staff -- and persuaded her to be deputy director. He said he never considered anyone for the job but Riggs, whose analytical mind, quickness and experience have impressed him for the 25 years they have worked together.

There was no more money in it -- her $145,000 salary would stay the same -- but Riggs said yes. She knew it would be a milestone for herself and the agency.

"That did weigh into my decision, in terms of breaking the glass barrier," she said. "I have been in a lot of positions where there were a lot of firsts. I do feel some pride in that."

Barbara Riggs, the new deputy director of the Secret Service, talks with the director, W. Ralph Basham, in his office. He talked her into postponing her retirement -- again -- and said he never considered anyone else for the job.Riggs takes one of her horses for a wash after fox hunting. Her neighbors in Virginia's horse country say she is an expert equestrian and fox hunter.