Top Shelf: ‘Code Girls’ by Liza Mundy

Every month, we choose a new book to really get behind and display on our metaphorical Top Shelf. Our hope is that you’ll read this title and encourage others to do the same, creating a sort of ripple effect. Join us on our mission to build a community bound by books!

code girls

Code Girls is a riveting, behind-the-scenes account of WWII and the women who helped win the war. It tells the story of hundreds of women who were denied the opportunity to attend universities like Harvard or Princeton by the patriarchy and discouraged to have what were thought to be more male-suited majors, like math. But, with WWII raging, in the United States the government decided that it needed women and their intelligence to help win the war. As early as 1941, secret letters started circulating around some elite girls’ colleges, like Smith, Brown and Wellesley.

The first in the group was Anne, a German major who received the first secret letter from an Astronomy professor, inviting her to a meeting behind closed doors. There, she was asked two questions: whether she liked crossword puzzles, and if she were engaged to be married.

One by one, different girls with different majors and abilities received strange secret letters: Nan Westcott (botany), Edith Uhe (psychology), Gloria Bosetti (Italian). In those secret meetings, the girls learned that the U.S. Navy was inviting them to work as cryptanalysts.

They had to obey a strict set of rules in order to stay in the group. They should not utter a word about the secret meeting to anyone, even the closest members of their family.

The chosen girls started their training sessions learning about code breaking. After passing the training course, they would proceed to Washington to work as civilians with the Navy.

With the first successful recruitment from colleges, the Army decided that it needed more code breakers, so it started looking beyond the colleges. They decided to look for schoolteachers who would be willing to take another step forward in their career. Posters went around in cities, seeking women who could move to Washington to serve the war, and particularly women who could “keep their lips zipped.” The number of code breaker women eventually reached 10,000.

After leaving their families and embarking on a new journey, these girls encountered a job that was both physically and mentally demanding. They had to work 24 hours a day.

Liza Mundy did a great job in her detailed research about the groups of girls who served as code breakers in WWII. She includes different interviews with the girls, shedding more light on their lives and the difficulties that they faced while working for the Army and Navy. She also provides readers with enough technological information to understand what these girls were doing as codebreakers. At some point, the book takes a biographical turn when Mundy incorporates some personal information about “code girls” who didn’t talk about their accomplishments even years after the war was over.

Mundy has written an inspiring and terrific read about a specific time in American history and the role of women in historical accomplishments. Code Girls is a great read for anyone, and in particular those interested in code breaking, WWII history and feminist history.

– Razieh Araghi

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