CODE GIRLS: Author Liza Mundy Talks to Rogue Women
By Francine Mathews
We’re fortunate today to have New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy (whose books include Michelle, a biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama, and The Richer Sex, a study of the transformative power of female breadwinners) stop by Rogue Women to discuss CODE GIRLS, an utterly engrossing history of the American women who signed on to break Japanese and German codes at Arlington Hall and the Naval Annex during World War II. It’s a new chapter in the great narrative of that global conflict, one Liza has been researching for years in public and secret archives, and through lengthy interviews with some of the women themselves. Liza discovered that almost 70 percent of Army codebreakers were women, as were nearly 80 percent of the Navy’s, and their story is a microcosm of the anguish and hope that characterized the excitement and sacrifice of the war years. Her starred Kirkus review echoes our thoughts: “Mundy is a fine storyteller, effectively shaping a massive amount of raw research into a sleek, compelling narrative.”
We’re giving away two signed copies of CODE GIRLS in a random drawing of those who comment here, or on our Facebook page at Rogue Women Writers!
I asked Liza–who has spent decades writing long narrative fiction for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Politico and other national publications–what it meant to her to tell this story.
So I have spent a lot of time in assisted living facilities over the past three years; I have eaten a lot of tuna fish, cottage cheese, saltine crackers, and in one case, old cheese that had been saved from a swing dance at the assisted living facility the night before. My subjects were women who grew up in the Depression and even today, nothing must go to waste. But it was worth it, not so much because of the fare on offer but because in the process I’ve met a series of extraordinary women—women who were sharp, spirited and adventurous when, back in the 1940s, in the heat of a global war, at a time when it was not at all apparent that the Allies would prevail, they picked up and came to Washington, D.C. to do secret intelligence work and help win the war. They were in their early twenties at the time and are equally sharp today, and equally adventurous; one of my subjects liked to meet for our interviews at the Cosmos Club in D.C., over Bloody Marys, and when the Metro broke down on a day she was supposed to travel from her suburban facility to meet me in the city, she stood in line for the bus. She was in her mid-90s. All of them are.
Three years ago, I was at the first of these interviews. I was at a facility in Midlothian, Virginia, trying to convince 94 year old Dot Braden that it was finally okay to talk about the secret work she did during World War II. Seated with me was her son Jim, who all his adult life had been trying to convince his mother to talk. Jim knew, growing up, that his father had been a meteorologist during the war; he knew that his dad had spent the war in Africa and the Middle East, predicting weather patterns in order to keep Allied pilots safe. He’d grown up reading the correspondence between his mother and father, who were not married at the time but who corresponded, as many couples did, during the entire war; he did not know that in fact his mother was writing five or six other men. That was also common at the time; women during World War II were encouraged to write soldiers and sailors and keep up morale. They sent tons of little snapshots, which were the selfies of the time.
Anyway, Jim had always been avid to know the wartime work his mother did; at some point, in her 80s, she had hinted at something about breaking Japanese codes, but would never divulge more than that. We sat there for about an hour trying to convince her that the federal government has finally permitted her to talk. I think she was enjoying our misery, up to a point. But she also wanted to tell the tale of what she did, and to get some credit, and rightly so. If nothing else, she hoped to get her picture on the Wall of Honor at her living facility, along with male veterans who served. That was really all she hoped for. So finally she said, “Well, what are they doing to do to me at my age—put me in prison?” I told her that at her age it would probably be a nice prison, and she laughed and began to unspool the most extraordinary tale.
|Women working at Arlington Hall, site of the Army’s codebreaking effort
I was motivated to do this research in large part because I could not believe this tale had not already been told. Ten thousand women, packing their suitcases and boarding trains and coming to Washington to do top-secret intelligence and code-breaking work: what is not to like about this story? I also was attracted to it because of the research I’d done during my prior book, The Richer Sex. The two books may not appear to have much in common, but in fact, the research I did for The Richer Sex—about women breadwinners today—showed me just how limited the labor market opportunities were for women in the 1940s. Only four percent of women went to a four-year college back then, and the ones who did were usually confined to teaching school afterward. There were very few other jobs available. Huge sectors of the labor market were completely denied to women.
My central character in Code Girls, Dot, was making $900 a year teaching school in rural Virginia, when she signed up for a secret job in Washington, D.C. Another important future codebreaker was stuck teaching home economics to teenaged girls, and hating it. The women fell all over themselves to take a secret government job, even though they did not know what it would be. I was also struck by how many of these women really did want and need the money, and government work paid slightly better than teaching school. Patriotism was a motivation but so was subsistence and a steady salary. For all the talk today about “making America great again” and going back to some glory time in American history when men could earn the money and women could stay home—I presume that’s one subtext behind that slogan—the fact is, so many of these women really needed to work, even in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Interviewing them and reading oral histories, I was struck by how many of them were working, even before the war, in any job they could get—schoolteacher, beautician, helping their mothers run boarding houses—because they, their parents and siblings needed to live. Many had single mothers; there was a fair amount of separation, divorce, ill fathers. So there really never has been a halcyon time where women could sit at home and eat bon-bons. These women never did. They do, however, certainly represent a shining example of American greatness.
Thanks so much, Liza.
Rogue Readers: watch the trailer for CODE GIRLS.
For more wonderful information on the book and Liza’s work, or to order your own copy, please go to www.lizamundy.com.