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Code Girls

Liza Mundy
Hachette Books
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Katherine Safford-Ramus
, on

Several years ago, while attending the Joint Mathematics Meetings, I stopped at the National Security Agency booth and picked up a few brochures about the cryptologic work done during World War II. Among the brochures was one titled Sharing the Burden: Women in Cryptology during WWII. Only fifteen pages long, it described the contributions of women mathematicians working for the Army and Navy, primarily in the Washington D.C. area, to break codes coming from the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. Why, I asked myself, do so few people know about this important contribution to the war effort by women?

Liza Mundy must have asked herself the same question, because she has written a rich and interesting volume that documents the recruitment, training, and workload of the women cryptographers. In her author’s notes, Mundy describes the difficult tasks she faced when accessing documents and records that were classified for decades and locating surviving women who had played a part in the operation and were willing to speak about their experiences. Warned all those years ago that talking about their work was treasonous, some were still reluctant to open up. The resulting volume was well worth the effort.

The author weaves together facts from government documents with transcribed stories of the women, giving flesh to the dry details. Code Girls is divided into three parts. The first concerns the realization that many bodies would be needed for the cryptologic effort, and those bodies would be female, because the overwhelming majority of able-bodied males were in uniform and going overseas. From the outset, women mathematicians were the target recruit population. Seminal recruiting efforts focused on elite women’s colleges but quickly spread to teacher training institutions and then to in-service mathematics teachers.

Part 2 concerns the work of the units during the early, desperate years of the war, when the ranks of the cryptologic units continued to swell and ships carrying troops and supplies were lost at an alarming rate. Breakthroughs in decoding both the Purple code and the Enigma machine are public knowledge today, but it was tedious detailed pattern-seeking work combined with sudden insight by these women that accomplished the task. Part 3 addresses the constant effort to keep ahead of the changes in encryption as the war moved toward its conclusion.

Like so many books and movies about the war years, even though you know the ending, the tension is still there. Liza Mundy has done a wonderful job of telling the story of the cryptologic units through the voices of the women who lived the experience. The urgency of the job comes through clearly. For the mathematician reading Code Girls, the dual training in logic and pattern identification jumps out. The computer scientist will recognize the impact of that discipline, then in its infancy, on the decoding efforts. Women readers will experience pride in the critical work done by these units and, perhaps, disappointment that after the war things went back to “business as usual” for the most part.

This book would certainly be of interest to those of us who teach the history of mathematics. I retired from teaching before reading it but had for several years incorporated the information from the brochure mentioned in the first paragraph in courses for liberal arts majors and the capstone course for mathematics majors. Women mathematicians should relish learning about the important contributions of their mathematical “ancestors.” I shared my personal copy with colleagues in the department, and they were grateful that I had done so.

The National Security Agency, child of the wartime military units, is one of the largest employers of mathematicians in the country. While Code Girls emphasizes gender, the cryptologic units were coed, and any of our undergraduates could benefit from reading about this major application of our discipline. Finally, anyone interested in the history of the war years could enjoy the book. Liza Mundy tells an important story and does it well.

Katherine Safford-Ramus is Professor Emerita of Mathematics at Saint Peter’s University, Jersey City, New Jersey. Her research focuses on adults learning mathematics. She is the author of Unlatching the Gate: Helping Adult Students Learn Mathematics and most recently edited Contemporary Research in Adult and Lifelong Learning of Mathematics: International Perspectives. Safford currently serves as a subject matter expert on the project Power in Numbers: Advancing Math for Adult Learners, a project of the United States Department of Education Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education.

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