The Women Who Kept Secrets: A Q&A with Liza Mundy, Author of ‘Code Girls’

“My husband once decried that I had done nothing in [World War II],” Gwynneth Gminder wrote. Gminder, and thousands of other women across the country, kept quiet when they heard these kinds of statements. But their husbands were very wrong. More than 10,000 smart young American women, including these two, were recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II, in an effort to break the military codes by Germany and Japan. They pledged a vow of secrecy, and for nearly 70 years, their stories have been largely absent from history books.

On Tuesday, journalist Liza Mundy broke this silence with her new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. It documents the lives of women who were instrumental in saving the lives of American soldiers during the war, and helping end the conflict.

I spoke with Mundy, a former staff writer for the Washington Post and author of the bestseller The Richer Sex: How Women Became the New Breadwinners, about the experiences of these women, how they kept these secrets for so long, and where she sees women in tech today facing the same obstacles.

Here is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

How and why did it take almost 70 years to uncover this secret program of women code breakers?

It was hidden for so long for two reasons. One is that the women themselves took vows of secrecy, which they took incredibly seriously. These women were handpicked because they were straight arrows. Their backgrounds were checked, their academic records were checked, and they were very conscientious, functional, high-performing women. When they were doing the work, they were told that not only could they not tell anybody what they were doing, and they had to say that they were secretaries or that they emptied wastebaskets, but they were told never to say certain words outside their code-breaking compounds, words like “security” or “intelligence,” because the thought was “loose lips sink ships” and there might be a spy on the street who would hear them use the word “security” and know that there was code-breaking going on at the compound.

For decades afterwards, they didn’t talk about it. They didn’t really expect to get credit—partly because they were women. They had been brought up to not expect credit in the public realm.

Starting in the ’80s and ’90s, books started being written about code-breaking. The vow of secrecy was lifted. Memoirs were written. Historians wrote great, thick books about Atlantic code breaking and the Enigma Code and Pacific code-breaking, and Midway—at that point, many of the records were there. I think the historians also assumed that whatever the women did was not that important, which is just not true.

When I was reading some of the big code-breaking books, it would be mentioned sometimes in a paragraph, sometimes literally in a parenthetical, “Oh, by the way, much or most of this work was done by women.” Yet the code-breaking would focus on the men, some of whom were naval officers and they were out on the Pacific and they had careers afterwards, so there was more of a full trajectory of a life to write about; whereas, the women only got to do this for a couple of years and then they were pressured and advised to be mothers and have babies. They didn’t have the public career trajectory that would make them attractive subjects for whole books at the time.

How did you discover this and realize what a big deal it was?

I read a declassified history of our code-breaking project against the Soviet messages, which was very small during the war but then became a very big Cold War project. This was a declassified internal N.S.A. history, and that historian happened to notice that there a lot of women working on the Venona Project, as it was called––that a lot of them were schoolteachers, and he thought that was really interesting. He actually sought them out—some of them were still working at N.S.A.—and interviewed them about how they were recruited.

These were young schoolteachers in the South who were recruited onto this project, not knowing what they were going to do. Then, I went out to the Cryptology Museum, attached to the N.S.A., and met some historians and curators there who laid out this much larger story of the World War II code-breaking project, the really massive recruitment of thousands of women.

It must have been hard for these women to keep such a big secret. Why do you think that they didn’t want to speak about it later?

When the vow of secrecy was lifted by the government in the ’80s, nobody contacted them to say, “It’s okay to talk now”—it just sort of happened. When these books started coming out, Seizing the Enigma, or books about the Battle of Midway, they would realize that people were talking, and they would start to intimate to family members that they had done this work. I’ve gotten 20 or 30 emails through my website from family members who said, “My mother did this work. She hinted at it, but she would never tell us exactly what she did. I want to know more.”

I had a very funny moment, where I was trying to talk my central character, Dot Braden Bruce, into talking to me. I was with her son, who had always wanted to hear these stories. At the time, she was 94, and he was trying to persuade her, and he said, “Let it rip, Mom.” She was still hesitant, but you could tell she really wanted to, and she laughed and said, “Well, you know, at my age, what are they going to do, put me in prison?”

She finally started telling me about the work, and used this word, “overlapper,” to describe the woman on the next stage of the assembly line. She clapped her hand to her mouth, like she could not believe she had said this word outside the compound.

We talk a lot about how difficult it is for women to come forward with difficult stories, but it seems also that there’s also a flip side: that it’s hard for women to come forward or take credit they deserve.

Isn’t that the message of Lean In? That women don’t raise their hand and sit at the table? It’s almost a cliché, but there’s definitely truth to that. For this generation, it was far truer. I think they took some satisfaction in that they were being good and following the rules, and not saying anything. Then, lo and behold, some of the male code breakers start writing memoirs. It’s just like a woman in the workplace. You’re like, “What? I thought I was just doing my job, and that that would be enough.” Then you suddenly realize that other people are playing by different rules.

How did being women shape their experience as code breakers, for both good and bad? What kind of sexism did they face during this time?

One of the reasons that women were selected for these roles finally and admitted into the military was because it was believed that women were good at boring, tedious tasks, that women have better powers of concentration. A lot of code-breaking did involve having the patience to sort through messages. A lot of things that would be done by computers today were being done by groups of women, sitting there, sorting messages—but that was really important. Some of the same women, who were assigned sorting jobs at age 22, were the ones who broke the systems, because they started seeing the patterns and remembering where they had seen a code group before. There was this belief that men were the brilliant geniuses and that women were the worker bees, but, in fact, that was a necessary part, really, of having those flashes of [recognition].

Some of them were subjected to sexism. Particularly the Navy women who joined the military. More than one told me that they were made to sew on a button for a male officer’s uniform––and one of them was rebuked when she sewed it on wrong.

They did get hit on by men in the workplace. They also were met with resentment, because their presence, coming into these domestic facilities in D.C., enabled men to be shipped out to sea. Sometimes the parents of those young, and sometimes the men themselves, who had been doing desk jobs up until then, weren’t happy to be shipped out. It was also very stressful on the women. They all had brothers, fiancés, boyfriends, who were out in the theater of war, and more than one of them broke messages specifically about their brothers’ ships, and they knew. There was one woman, who was able to really track her brother’s ship out in the Pacific and know that he was safe, and she would tell her family, “I can’t tell you how I know this, but I know that his ship is still safe.”

Some of them specifically enlisted in order to keep the men alive who they knew. They wanted to do their part to keep them alive. The women were really profoundly affected––not only during, but after the war, haunted by the thought of the men they didn’t save.

We think a lot about PTSD as happening to people who are fighting physically on a battlefield or engaged in combat, but it seems like these women also experienced some form of being at war, even though they weren’t physically threatened.

Absolutely. I talked to some adult children who used that term. They really thought that their mothers did have PTSD––particularly the ones who worked on the Enigma, sinking the German submarines in the Atlantic. It was very stressful work, and they had to do it fast. If they did it wrong, one of our ships would get sunk.

You write that part of what helped these women feel comfortable in those roles was that the field of cryptology was new and relatively low profile. It wasn’t like law or medicine. Today, something like cybersecurity or other super high tech fields have extremely low representation of women. What does that make you think about the time we’re living in––the barriers that women are facing entering high profile tech jobs today?

When a field is just getting started, and there aren’t regulations yet or graduate schools or accreditation that you have to have, it’s really striking how women were able to really pioneer these fields. Then they start getting pushed out when the fields become prestigious, and barriers start being put into place.

These women were doing cybersecurity. They were hacking into enemy communications systems, and they were also engaged in cybersecurity to keep our communications safe. They did some quite sophisticated deception programs to fool the Germans into thinking that we had troops where we didn’t actually even have troops. They created fake radio signals. They did all kinds of amazing cybersecurity innovations.

Then, after the war, they just got pushed out, in part because women were pressured to go home and start families and have babies, because the country was very unsettled by the fact that women had left their homes to do this work. The men came in as the field was getting established and becoming more prestigious and more lucrative and more known

Women are 11% of our cybersecurity workforce today. It’s so ironic that a field that women created, they got pushed out of—and are now having to fight their way back into.

For the women at the time, the work was deeply satisfying. What did your research tell you about the real desires women have?

Well, one thing that it tells me is that, when our government and our country really feel that we need women, we’re willing to do the things to make it feasible for women to work and contribute. For example, during World War II, we had government-provided child care. They had infant care, provided them boarding houses. They set up day care for younger children and aftercare for children who were in school. When everybody’s on board with the idea that, in order to win a war, we need women’s brain power and their talent, we’re willing to do what’s necessary to make it feasible for them to work. That’s something that we’re not willing to do now.

It is aggravating to see the way that women got pushed out of fields like computer science and cybersecurity, that they helped create. I can only hope that books like Hidden Figures and hopefully like this one that make the case, I think, convincingly, that women were there at the start. When I was doing this reporting, I was frustrated sometimes by the fact that many of the women had passed away, and I would think, if I’d been doing this 15 years ago, I could have found more living code breakers, but I think that, thanks to Hidden Figures and other books like that, Rise of the Rocket Girls, there’s maybe more of a receptiveness, a willingness for people to believe these stories than there might have been 15 or 20 years ago.

Your book, and Hidden Figures both rewrite history, in a way. In my view, this is relatively recent history—so it’s hard to imagine that we didn’t get it right the first time. What did this experience teach you about how we look at our history?

I just am really struck by the way in which voices and experiences have been left out of history. It was incredible to me that there was still an untold story about America in World War II. You would have thought that the stories would all have been told.

I can only hope that we’ll start putting up statues and chiseling names into buildings of people who have contributed to our country, and start broadening our ideas about whose names should be enshrined in American history.