“New source - women’s college” reads a declassified naval document from the 1940s.
While men were being shipped off to fight overseas during World War II, the U.S. Navy and Army began recruiting young college educated women to become codebreakers.
Liza Mundy, author of “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” talked about her journey finding these women who were told to keep their stories secret for decades Thursday night. The event, hosted by One Book Northwestern, discussed the behind-the-scenes innovation that was crucial to the Allies’ victory.
History Professor Ken Adler moderated the talk, who opened the event by remarking that “science began as an enterprise,” which involved more women in the 1700s than today. Later, WWII created an opportunity for women to be re-inducted into the field, according to Mundy.
This is a story about “women in science and those women’s….invisibility,” Adler said.
In the mid 20th century, women often went to college in order to find a husband, Mundy said. By the time graduation came, she said, society expected women to be already engaged with their professional employment opportunities limited to teaching, which they were forced to quit once married.
Many people believed that “too much learning” made a woman “uppity and hard to live with,” Mundy said.
After entering WWII, the U.S. realized their intelligence and code-breaking capability was “virtually nothing,” according to Mundy. With many of the young men enlisted overseas, the U.S. instead looked to recruit women to become codebreakers.
On college campuses, Navy recruiters approached young women and asked, “Do you like crossword puzzles and are you engaged?” “If they answered yes to the first question and no to the second,” they were invited to join the program, Mundy said.
It “sounded a lot more interesting than waiting around to see if their brothers and boyfriends were okay,” Mundy said.
While the Navy recruited from colleges, the Army attempted to recruit single school teachers by sending their “handsomest” officers to recruitment centers, hoping that women would follow them to DC to get engaged, Mundy said. However, this was not always the case. One woman joined in order to escape an unexpected engagement from her boyfriend who was in training camp.
“She got on the train with a suitcase and umbrella,” Mundy said, and then headed to the capital.
The code breakers were responsible for deciphering the German enigma code, as well as codes used by the Japanese military. Packed into large rooms with stacks of paper, the women decoded messages, containing strategic military information as well as d details on Hitler’s fortification, directly giving the Allies the intelligence that Normandy would be the perfect location for an invasion.
This was “a tipping point for women to show their leadership abilities,” Mundy said.
The military also recruited Black women although they worked in an area segregated from the white women. Despite this, Mundy insisted that “one of the reasons we prevailed [in World War II]..... was our willingness to be inclusive.”
While their work was crucial to the war effort, the women were forbidden from telling their story. They were required to sign loyalty oaths and had “the fear of God” put into them, according to Mundy. Dorothy Braden, a central figure in the book, recalled officers threatening to shoot her if she revealed the truth of her job. Instead, the women told their families and friends that they were secretaries doing “trivial and unimportant” things Mundy said. It made them the “ideal intelligence officers.”
Seventy years later, after their work had been declassified by the National Security Agency, Braden had to be convinced by her son and Mundy that her story could finally be told.
“She wanted the credit,” Mundy said.
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