Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy



The role of women in World War II has often been narrowed to three roles: factory workers, secretaries and nurses.  As time goes on and more and more papers have been declassified, we’ve learned that women’s roles varied quite a bit more than those three roles. Recently more and more attention has been paid to women in the background of various historical events with mathematical skills such as in the book and movie Hidden Figures which details the role of African American women as mathematicians on the space project and in the book Glass Universe about women at Harvard’s observatory. Given those two, it is no surprise that a new history book, Code Girls, deals with women hired to help break the codes used to encrypt messages sent by the Nazis, the Japanese and other Axis nations during World War II. Like the British at Bletchley Park, the United States had a code breaking apparatus. It provided work for a surprising group of well-educated women. This book is their story.

What I Liked

This is how layman-level history should be told! Plenty of research to back everything up, but it was told in a breezy, keep-you-interested style. I loved the way the stories of individual women were woven into the fabric of the book. We learned their backgrounds, their roles and their results–this really held my interest. Surprisingly, given I have nil, zip, nada, no interest in mathematics, I found even the slightly technical aspects of this equally fascinating. I suppose it helps that binary math was one type of math I “got,” and one discussion focused on a similar type system.

Today it seems amazing that such a talented pool of workers were marginalized just for being women.  The first women selected were, naturally, recruited from the Seven Sisters Colleges (women’s “Ivies” of the day) so they were very well educated, very literate, and generally better off financially. But others were brought in with different backgrounds–many from the ranks of public school teachers. It is hard to recall that 80 years ago high-achieving women often had no employment prospects beyond teaching school–even when they were degreed mathematicians! (I can also see how their freedom was part of the “doom” of the public schools. A captive catchment of very talented teachers was lost).

I thought about today’s culture of “tell-alls” and whistle-blowers and Wikileaks. I thought of the supposed selfishness of young adults today. I wondered if today’s young adults and today’s culture could handle the absolute secrecy needed for the job. On the whole, I think they could–after all today’s health care system requires intense privacy restrictions. Military and government service–the State Department, the National Security Agency and others still have a strict system of “need-to-know” and even seemingly innocuous jobs like a copy room clerk require confidentiality agreements. I think most young adults today would find exactly what these woman found: challenging, fulfilling and purposeful work–even when dull and repetitive. The secrecy would bring about the same group loyalty today too, I believe.  It would be as eye-opening to our young people today as it was to these women to learn just what the threats were to security.  Learning of one’s own naivete is part of growing up.

Just as amazing was the “hardship” of how the women lived during this time.  Sharing a bed–either at the same time as another women or using the same bed as a woman working a different shift, putting up with limited shopping hours, having to take care about dating relationships in a way unfathomable to most people today–wow! A ton of extra stress on top of a very stressful job. As the story tells, some couldn’t hold up under the stress, but most did.

What a shame that we then dispatched these talented women back to the home–which many found stifling. It is very easy to see how the women’s liberation movement was born after experiences like this brought out the best in women and then they were sent back to cooking, cleaning and child care. Even if they loved their families it had to be an intellectual let down. I found the stories of the women who did go home and who decided to thrive where they were as interesting as those who remained, against the odds, at work. This was a generation who really made mark for good on our country. It was as inspiring to see how they coped after the war as during it.

Additionally, it should be an outstanding movie!

My Rating

4 Stars

A Must Read for Book Clubs

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