Review: Code Girls

by Liza Mundy
Hachette Book Group, October 2017

Code Girls examines how young American women served on the frontlines of WW2 code breaking efforts. Mundy, a widely-published journalist and author of bestsellers The Richer Sex, Conceivable, and Michelle: A Biography, is to be applauded for excavating the hidden history of an essential chapter of women’s history. Her research relies on archives of previously classified material as well as extensive oral histories. Code Girls is a comprehensive (433 page) portrait of the era as well as quotes from characters who helped shape modern history.

In the 1940s, thousands of young women were secretly recruited to toil desperate, long hours as code breakers and translators in the Washington, D.C. area and in Dayton, Ohio. They received little to zero recognition due to the fact that their work remained classified "top secret" for decades after war's end. American cryptographers in both the Army and Navy focused mainly on Japanese ciphers, whereas British teams tackled Nazi codes. That said, there was much cooperation between the American code breakers and those at Bletchley Park, remarkable given limits to communication technologies of that era. Mundy’s book also excavates a rivalry between the Army and Navy cryptanalytic teams, likely to interest military historians. Vivid details bring readers into the secret world of women who cracked codes and pushed through formerly restrictive female roles.

This book chronicles specific Japanese code breakthroughs as they relate to allied defeats/victories in the Pacific. While reading Code Girls, I retrieved my father-in-law's logbook listing where he was stationed (as a USN photographer's mate) in the Pacific. This encouraged my deeper understanding of historical moments and also sacrifices that WW2 demanded, and that wars in general require.

Mundy offers intimate details and analysis of gender roles in the workplace. Women in the 1930s-1940s who left traditional home life and engaged with essential work opened doors for their sisters in future generations. Code Girls will appeal to fans of Hidden Figures, Lean In, or WW2 history. Readers who love code and encryption will discover fascinating facts that underpin foundations of today’s computer industry.

Karen Lewis