The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: women

More Than Capable of Completing Men’s Work

My copy of the book did not have any reading questions so I will do my best to interpret the first blog post question and answer it to the fullest extent. The roles that gender played in the codebreakers life and work World War II were significant. Women were subject to doubt, cut wages, and a lack of job security. After all, the main reason why women were searched for and employed by the government was because so many men from the top colleges had already enlisted in the Army. Among the population of women in the United States, very few were even qualified for the codebreaking positions. 

Many girls were often told not to attend college because of the small job market for educated women and there was a stigma that higher education did not guarantee a more fulfilling life. The girls who were recruited primarily studied science and mathematics, two subjects that women were often coerced to avoid because they were considered men’s work. Women cryptographers were also paid half the wages of their male counterparts to complete the same tasks. Despite the lower wages, these women still decided to serve their country the best way they knew how. Also, this job for the government was in no way a permanent position upon the conclusion of World War II. Once the men came back from Europe, there would be less demand for women these positions. However in other industries there was a demand for women workers which led the economy to boom.

Gender in the War

The history of World War Two is incomplete if one does not analyze two elements: cryptography and gender. While these items have been recounted and studied heavily on their own, rarely have they been discussed together. The women who played a huge role in cryptography in the second world war have rarely been credited, that is until the book Code Girls, a book by Liza Mundy about their history, came out. This book, specifically chapter three, discusses in depth the role gender played in the cryptography of world war two. In the general. cryptography opened up new opportunities for women in world war two, but gender dynamics were still very imbalanced in the working world.

In general, World War Two presented opportunities for women to enter the workplace, as vacant positions left by men in war needed to be filled. However, the willingness of bosses to hire women varied greatly. One pivotal element of the story of cryptography is that William Friedman, head of the U.S office of code breaking, was exceptionally willing to hire women. This gave many women who never were ever permitted to get graduate degrees or teach mathmatics to now be propelled to the forefront of some of the most important mathmatics in the world. These women, like Genieveve Grotjan, would make some of the most important accomplishments in World War Two cryptography, including the initial breaks into the Purple cipher. In this way, cryptography gave women new opportunities, and women seized this opportunities fully and propelled cryptography to new heights.

However, it must be acknowledged that not all was equal in the world of cryptography. The was the author visualizes Grotjan’s cracking of the purple machine explains this. She describes Grotjan standing in the corner of the room, hesitant to share. This helps the reader understand that it was still not easy for women in the workplace. They weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been, and we still had, and have, a long way to go.

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. 


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