A previously untold history of the American women who served as codebreakers during World War II.
When Hidden Figures—both the book and the movie it inspired—reached popular audiences, many Americans were surprised to learn that women played an instrumental role at NASA in the 1960s. That women have long been excluded from professional and intellectual life is well-known. That women have, during times of national crisis or fervor, bypassed that exclusion has not been so well-known. During the war, writes former Washington Post reporter Mundy (The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, 2012, etc.), some 11,000 women served the war effort by working as codebreakers. Almost 70 percent of the Army’s codebreaking force was female, and at least 80 percent of the Navy’s. In addition to breaking enemy codes, they also tested American codes, ran complicated office machines, built libraries of intelligence, and worked as translators. At first, the military recruited only college-educated women strong in science, math, or languages; later, as the field rapidly expanded, many thousands more women were welcomed. Their jobs were intensely difficult, stimulating, and vital to the war effort. Because of the sensitive nature of their work, they told anyone who asked (including their own families) that they were doing low-level office tasks. Mundy is a fine storyteller, effectively shaping a massive amount of raw research into a sleek, compelling narrative. She had access to boxes of Army and Navy memos, reports, and internal histories, and she also interviewed some of the women who served as codebreakers. Unfortunately, she only briefly touches on the African-American women who worked on codes and never mentions the Navajo Code Talkers who served the same effort. Despite those omissions and the occasional cliché, the book is a winner. Her descriptions of codes and ciphers, how they worked and how they were broken, are remarkably clear and accessible.
A well-researched, compellingly written, crucial addition to the literature of American involvement in World War II.