Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy
Hachette Books, 2017. Hardcover, 500 pages.
In the same vein as Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Code Girls is a story of women who played a vital role, yet were often overlooked. At the start of World War II, both the U.S. Navy and Army set about recruiting women to serve as codebreakers. While the Navy typically recruited from the Ivy League colleges, the Army focused on recruiting women who served as teachers in smaller towns. Both had the hope to utilize intelligent women to do this work to help free men for combat duty. This book is the story of those women, from their recruitment until the war’s end with summaries of the key figures before and after. Thus, the book covers the women’s daily work, living conditions, and romances, and the technicalities of the code breaking work.
Mundy reconstructed her story through meticulous research, seeking data on government archives and by conducting interviews with the surviving women. As part of this, some of the women interviewed come to life. For example, Dot Braden and Ruth “Crow” Weston were both small town girls who went on to become Army codebreakers. The two quickly became lifelong friends and the readers will learn more about the lives of these women than just their war work, ranging from family situations to the relationship with the men they would marry. Other research highlighted the roles of the women who pioneered the codebreaking field before the war began, such as Elizebeth Smith Friedman who started in the field before World War I and helped pioneer methods used during World War II.
Code Girls was an informative read that displayed a major, yet long-hidden role of women in World War II (mainly due it the work being classified until long after the war ended). Mundy did a wonderful job showing both the roles of these women in regards to the war effort while also being able to show them as distinct individuals. The latter helped to drive the story home as relatable women help to give the narrative a personal touch. It amazed me that the scope of the code breaking efforts in America were so vast as I had previously only ready about the British and Bletchley Park. I also found the dichotomy between the Navy and Army codebreakers to be an odd one since the Army was much more lax about its women personal lives than the Navy was. Overall, this book did not skimp on information and readers will gain an understanding of the American codebreaking operations that are often only hinted at in other books or that only highlight the efforts of men (such as Commander Joseph Rochefort and the codebreaking that helped win the Battle of Midway). Like with Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Code Girls did an amazing job of highlighting both the roles women played in a national endeavor and in STEM fields that were previously overlooked.
Code Girls has been out a couple of weeks now. Have you had a chance to read it yet? If not, do you plan to? Also, if you have read Hidden Figures, what were your thoughts on that book?
This review is based on a digital advanced readers copy provided by the publisher and NetGalley.
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