The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Month: October 2019 Page 4 of 7

Women and Codes

With American men deployed overseas for WWII, women were expected to uphold the battle on the home front. This task involved recruiting women for jobs that traditionally would have gone to men, such as code-breaking and cryptanalysis. The women involved in the operations at Arlington Hall were sworn to secrecy. Thus, many of their tremendous and important contributions to the war went unnoticed until decades after peace had been made. Even when the Code Girls were allowed to speak of their roles in the war, many people did not believe them, or simply did not care.

After the war, most of the Arlington Hall girls moved on to other professions. During the Cold War era, women were expected to take on a more domestic character, returning to traditional roles in the home and taking care of a household and children. Having a professional occupation was seen as stealing jobs from men, and large, government run childcare was considered Communist. Despite the women’s intelligence, education promised by the GI Bill was given priority to men who fought on the field.

Despite these circumstances, Arlington Hall provided an opportunity for women to showcase their skills to the world. The Code Girls represented the large intellectual potential females possessed, which had frequently been ignored previously in history.

Importance of Code Breakers in WW2

Sentences in the chapter directly shows how important the codebreaking is. It is said that “it was a grim time, Midway or no Midway.” What’s more, John Redman said that “the work the women are now doing is too important to the war effort to risk a period of absence and disorganization.” (Liza Mundy, Code Girls) These two sentences show that without knowing the plain text there is no way to know the enemies’ strategies and women as code breakers are important forces in the war. If there are not many code breakers work days by days, the battle will be harder for the allies because of no advantages. At that time, Germany’s Lightning War and Japanese’s navy are strong. With the information of knowing where the enemies are going to attack or the position of the warships, the allies can attack with surprise to gain advantages. However, this needed the plaintext as a prerequisite. For America, the Naval Communications Annex works as an important part of the breaking code. In 1943, on February, there are about 4000 women breaking the code, which is a large amount of numbers. What’s more, they are able to keep secrets in their daily life. When others test them in daily life, the women do not easily tell about the secrets about their organizations. The ability of keeping secrets from enemies work as the basis of winning the war.

Mean Girls (WWII Edition)

Arlington Hall, the epicenter of the American code breaking effort, was s densely populated pseudo-tenement housing for some of the brightest and most flexible minds the country had to offer. Of course, with such a high population of men and women living together in close quarters, gender played a significant role in both the code breaking efforts and daily lives of the residents of Arlington Hall.

The most prominent aspect of the gender dynamic in Arlington Hall was complaining. Most notably was the case of William Seaman, who consistently complained of being the target of a clique-y group of female coders who bullied and harassed him. Many other men in the facility voiced a similar complaint, especially of the college-educated women, a group of people who seemed to point their nose up and look down on a good portion of the civilians and other employees that populated the hall.

Further, gender also played a significant role in the jobs that men and women carried out on campus. Women were placed into every level of codebreaking on account of their skill in reading and interpreting languages and having a general understanding of mathematics. However, in addition to this, women also filled in many of the mundane and rudimentary jobs, such as sanitation or security. On the other hand, the men staffed at Arlington Hall all were involved in many of the higher level positions, as any who were of the physical capacity to go to war were sent away as such. This left behind many men who, despite lacking in the masculinity department, could contribute more than their fair share to the code breaking efforts. However, despite these differences, it would take the harmonious cooperation of men and women to thwart the Axis’ cryptographic efforts and ultimately win the Second World War.

WWII Codebreaking Badass Women

Although women born in the twenties could enjoy the results of women’s suffrage, they were not treated as equals in society. During the time of WWII, many families were extremely broken down. The adults in the family had to live with PTSD from growing up in the Great Depression. The kids in the family had to deal with the threat of their fathers death. Women were left to deal with many of the tasks that men normally handled (at the time) because of the lack of men in society. 

The war, in full affect, demanded the attendance of nearly every eligible US man. Because of this, women were needed to handle some of the duties outside of the battle field pertaining to the war. Hence, the usage of women in cryptography. Although these intelligent individuals were finally given the opportunity to be involved in work that demonstrated their intellectual capabilities, they were still not regarded as highly as men. Yes, they worked in math and science along side the opposite sex, however they were forced to complete the busy work while the men got to be involved in the larger discoveries. These women were also sworn to secrecy and kept these secretes very well, as their involvement in the war was not known until after many of their deaths. 


The Secret Struggles of WWII’s Female Codebreakers

Although female codebreakers were completing some of the most important work on the intelligence front during World War II, the necessary secrecy of their work as well as their gender led these women to not always receive the treatment that they deserved. In the 1940s women in general were seen as subordinate to men, and deemed more suited to tedious tasks—for example, in Chapter 11, upon their arrival at a training camp in Dayton, Ohio the women were set with the laborious and monotonous, yet exacting task of using a soldering iron to connect intricate wire systems, all before they even knew why they had been send to the camp. And even once female code breakers proved their worth and gained respect from their male counterparts (men that often served as their superiors even when the women were clearly more experienced and knowledgeable about the codes being worked on), they still consistently dealt with the innate sexism of other army and navy personnel. Louise Pearsall, already considered one of the “top girls” by all of her male superiors, was held up with her female coworkers for hours when they were supposed to be on official and pressing business in Washington because the sailors in charge of processing them were under the sexist impression that the women working in Dayton were shameful. This impression was due to yet another obstacle placed in the way of women with hopes of helping their country through Naval service—that of the forced choice between work and motherhood, an obstacle still prevalent for women in the work force to this day. Despite all of these obstacles, the female codebreakers of World War II persevered and excelled at their tiring and often thankless work.

Women in Cryptanalysis – a Unique Circumstance

For many years, cryptanalysis was an occupation with neither fame nor prestige. It was largely unrecognized in the United States, despite being crucial in many parts of history. However, this lack of renown – the field had barely been established at all, much less established as a “mens field” – created a unique situation that allowed women to enter the field of cryptography easier than other professions.

As the war progressed, it became much less shocking and uncommon that a woman was doing what typically would’ve been seen as mens work. For example, one woman, on secret 8-day trip to Washington to obtain government material, wrote “at times I have to laugh. It is all so foreign to my training, to my family’s old fashioned notions about what and where a woman’s place is, etc… yet none of those things seem to shock the family now. I suppose it is the War.” Whether it was from changing ideas about gender in the mid 1900’s, or simply out of necessity (men couldn’t possibly fill all the wartime jobs), attitudes about women definitely did shift during the War.

Despite progress, notions about gender still had a large effect on a women’s life. For example, early in the war, Elizabeth Friedman wanted to work with the Navy (rather than a cryptanalysis firm) to have a greater impact on her country and the war. However, her male boss censored her mail and communications, keeping her from getting in touch with the Navy. And, later on, when Elizabeth and her husband (also a cryptanalyst) were both working for the Army, Elizabeth was paid exactly half the salary of her husband, even though they worked the same job. We still see this inequality persist today.

Additionally, Friedman was faced with sexist condescension as her reputation grew. Many suspected that her husband was secretly doing her work, or accredited her successes to her husband’s status. Though, there were others on the opposite side – many newspapers liked to create the story that Elizabeth had trained her husband. This time period consisted of many conflicting ideas about gender and identity.

Podcast Assignment

Here are the details on your podcast assignment, along with a draft rubric I’ll use for assessing your podcast episodes.

At some point soon, I’ll show how to use Audacity to edit audio and to walk you through some of the podcasting resources my Center for Teaching colleague, Rhett McDaniel, has collected.

Blog Assignment #8

For your next blog assignment, write a post between 200 and 400 words that responds to one of the following questions about your assigned reading in Code Girls by Liza Mundy:

  1. What roles did gender play in the life and work of American codebreakers during World War Two? (This is a broad question, so feel free to use one of the reading questions on pages 379-380 in the book to guide your response.)
  2. How important was codebreaking to the success of the Allies in World War Two? What elements led to American success in this arena?

Please (1) give your post a descriptive title, (2) assign it to the “Student Posts” category, and (3) give it at least three useful tags. Your post is due by 9:00 a.m. on Friday, October 11th.

Problem Set #4

Here’s Problem Set #4. It’s due at the beginning of class on Friday, October 18th.

And you might find these Excel files useful for the first question.

Bookmark Assignment #4

For your next bookmarking assignment, find and bookmark a resource on military cryptography. You’re welcome to look for something on the military of the past, or something more current. Be careful to select a resource that’s credible. Save your bookmark to our Diigo group, and tag it with “military” and at least two other useful tags.

Your bookmark is due by 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 9th. We’ll take a little time in class to share your finds. If you have any questions about using Diigo, don’t hesitate to ask.

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