Book Reviews Culture Women in Tech

If I could be anything I’d be a Code Girl

I finished reading Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. It was well written and a fascinating read. I loved following the individuals Liza Mundy picked out while also reading about what was happening on a macro scale for American Women in the midst of WWII.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US Navy and US Army started recruiting women to build their code-breaking operations. This was before the National Security Administration existed which is why the Navy and Army had separate cybersecurity programs. The military recruited women for the positions because, like in manufacturing, the men were needed for the fight.

When we think about cybersecurity, computers, and information security we don’t think about the 1940s where women were called “computers”, who were “assigned to do lower-level calculations…so that men could take over when things got interesting and hard.” An example of this is the movie Hidden Figures (I have to add the book to my reading list). In the movie, African American women worked as computers to plan and launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit and bringing him back to Earth.

The women who answered the call to be code breakers had a handful of qualities in common. The qualities of the selected women were that they were “smart and resourceful”. They pushed themselves to get the most education possible at a time when it wasn’t expected of them to do so. They were, “adept at math or science or foreign languages, often all three.” They were, “dutiful and patriotic” and “adventurous and willing”. Last but most important, “they did not expect any public credit…” for their work. That would be hard in today’s world where we publish every little accomplishment to social media and our LinkedIn profiles.

I like to think I have these qualities. Maybe I would have received a secret letter in my college mailbox. How exciting would it be to be summoned to the astrology tower only to be asked if I liked cross-word puzzles? I can’t imagine the work itself though. How stressing it is to know every minute you spend could save or fail to save American and Allied lives. What it might be like to decipher a message that tells the fate of your brother, boyfriend, or friend’s lives.

I totally saw myself in Dot Braden and the other girls who left teaching school to take a risk on a job they knew nothing about. When I graduated college, I too was asked to interview for a job I knew nothing about – manufacturing execution systems. While thousands of young women flocked to Washington D.C. to start their cryptanalyst careers, I flew out to Washington state to be a business analyst.

Mundy described girls who became best friends, even though they couldn’t share what they worked on, they lived together and took long weekends together. I imagined myself and one of my best friends, Kaila, walking to Arlington Hall every morning to crack the latest messages from the front.

Via WWII Database

US Army Signals Intelligence Service cryptanalysts at Arlington Hall, Arlington, Virginia, United States, circa 1943 ww2dbase

I think it’s amazing that we were able to receive, break, translate and send the messages back out to the theater at the same time it took for German U-boats to receive the same message. All this was done without the internet!

Dot described the work, “using the stereotypes to get started, doing mental math, differencing up and down columns, going to the filing cabinets to retrieve cross-dupes, running over to Miriam…” like doing a puzzle. It was similar to the same way I analyzed, interviewed people in the plant, documented and transformed manual processes into systems for the computer. I kept thinking throughout the book, I would definitely be a code girl.

At the end of the war, many of the women got married and started their families. It was saddening to read that some women were not accepted into college with their GI bill because the college was saving spots for the men. Many companies, gave positions to the men who came back too, even though the women at this point were more than capable of doing the job.

I understand wanting to take a break from working as a cryptanalyst. It sounded exhausting and I can only imagine the relief from the pressure being taken off once the war was over. It’s like at the end of a big project where all the systems are in place, the operators and managers are trained how to use it, and you wait to hear the numbers for the day – recording breaking production! You can finally rest.

Mundy describes how the government’s message changed for women after the war. It went from Uncle Sam wants you and Rosie the Riveter to a “woman’s place is in the home”. That’s a hard part of history to read about but what got me most was Mundy’s depiction of the women who chose to start families instead of continuing to work at Arlington Hall.


“Motherhood was the dividing line between brilliant women who stayed in the work and those who did not.”

Liza Mundy, Code Girls

She says, “motherhood was the dividing line between brilliant women who stayed in the work and those who did not”. As if being brilliant and being a mother are mutually exclusive. She writes off the women who “slip into marriage” as if they no longer hold value. I get it for the story but I think it sends a poor message to the women today who struggle with how to manage their careers and motherhood. I think that’s why the end of the book hit me hard because I went through that struggle myself.

Women today are getting married later and having kids later in life. That means we have more time to build our careers before we even have to think about balancing them with children. I think children are described today as being a burden. Even taking a year off of work to spend with your newborn sets back your future earning potential substantially.

I think it’s unfair of Mundy to go out of her way to make women who chose to be stay at home moms, or moms who put their careers second to raising their kids, as stupid because they could be working. I can’t image what it would have been like to be a Navy WAVE officer or someone who oversaw a whole team of women to feel like she couldn’t work if she wanted to because of the messaging from the government and bias in companies.

But we don’t have that today. Even then, Mundy describes many women who continued to work at Arlington Hall. Their careers took them into the Cold War Era with the Soviet Union.

I have many conversations with my friends who worry about their careers and their children – some aren’t even married yet. That’s how hard it is. I certainly can’t say what is the right thing to do. It’s a personal choice for every woman.

I made the choice to put raising my son first. I still take on work, but only what I can do without detracting from my time with my son. Raising him takes everything I learned during my career and more. Time management, leadership, teamwork with my husband, thinking and working through problems…it goes on and on. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Being there for him is a blessing. It’s worth something and it has value.

Mundy quotes the son of Fran Steen who “sensed that his mother’s mind worked differently than many other people’s”. Doing the work of a Watch Officer or an analyst becomes a part of you. You don’t lose that part of yourself when you become a mom.


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2 comments

  1. Found your post via LinkedIn, and glad I did… this book sounds fascinating! I actually started motherhood relatively early in my career, and I also found that it forced me to become especially vigilant about time management, teamwork, delegation, etc. Not having read the book, I don’t have any reason to extend the benefit of the doubt to the author, but perhaps her intent on “drawing the line,” so to speak is an attempt to draw out the differences between how things were and how things are? (And maybe, as you allude, to how things should be?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mandy, thank you for your sharing your thoughts! I may have over-read into the author’s comments about the women who left the workforce vs. those who stayed in. It’s a sensitive topic I guess.
      Code Girls is a great great. I think you’ll like it!

      Like

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