My Review - 4 Stars
"Almost everybody thought we were nothing but secretaries," one of the women would say years later. (p. 31)
While I was loosely familiar with Bletchley Park codebreakers in England, I didn't know anything about the US efforts, much less the important role women played. Due to the level of secrecy their job required, many people haven't heard of these amazing cryptanalysts and what they did to help end the second World War. Many of the women maintained confidentiality for decades after the war, even after the ban on talking was lifted, to the extent they were doubtful about whether they should talk to the author. I'm so grateful they did decide to share their stories, however. Mundy gives us a fascinating and valuable history with this work.
The effort to recruit women to serve as codebreakers began shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Women also helped with cryptanalysis during the first World War and the chapter that centers on that period of time was mind-blowing, particularly how the women were basically dropped once the war ended.) The Navy targeted women's colleges of the Northeastern Seaboard, while the Army sent recruiters to teaching colleges throughout the South and Midwest.
Mundy gives her readers a good understanding of what cryptanalysis is, as well as what it takes to be a good code breaker. This understanding made me even more in awe of what these women accomplished, especially given how much sexism and misogyny they experienced.
Women were not welcomed with open arms when it came to the war effort, even though hundreds of thousands ultimately served. While the war was largely viewed as men's domain, women were given positions deemed less interesting, like code breaking. Mundy does not shy away from showing how prevailing sexist attitudes negatively affected the women's careers, especially post-war.
Racism was also a factor. Although Eleanor Roosevelt wanted a certain percentage of the Arlington Hall workforce should be black, segregation and Jim Crow were at work. Black workers were given primarily menial jobs but the Army did have an African American code-breaking unit whose existence was so secretive, most white workers didn't know anything about it. Racism also affected Asian Americans who served as translators and in other capacities and who were largely distrusted due to the campaigns against the Japanese.
Mundy showcases stories from both the WAVES at the Navy and the Arlington Hall workers at the Army. At times, I became confused about who was who and whether we were talking about the Army or the Navy. Picking a few women to focus on and letting their stories play out throughout the war years would have made for a stronger narrative. However, I learned a lot and I can't imagine how hard it would be to leave certain women's stories out so I can appreciate the choices Mundy made.
I was caught up in the code breaker's successes and frustrations and by the time Germany and then Japan surrendered, I wanted to shout their names from the rooftops. These women sacrificed so much for their country and received little recognition in return. Mundy has changed that by shining a light on their contributions and we are better for it.
Oh, and the last paragraph of this book? Perfection.
In the tradition of Hidden Figures and The Girls of Atomic City, Code Girls is the astonishing, untold story of the young American women who cracked key Axis codes, helping to secure Allied victory and revolutionizing the field of cryptanalysis.
Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.
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Disclosure: I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links included in this post.