Vassar Quarterly - Spring 2018 - 52
Deciphering Enemy Communications during WWII
ith war raging in Europe and Asia, and the United
States on the brink of entering World War II, the
government knew what it needed-educated women
who could take over the duties of men who were
on the battlefield. The U.S. Army and Navy, however, had a vital,
top-secret task that needed the country's very best female minds-
and so they set out to women's colleges to recruit them.
In 1941, the presidents of the Seven Sisters met at Mount Holyoke
to discuss the need for these women to work in Washington, DC. The
army and navy had approached the schools seeking students who
excelled in math, science, and foreign languages-and who had the
ability to keep a secret.
Candidates at the Seven Sisters were quietly sent invitations to
take private courses, with the aim of determining whether they had
what it took to be involved in one of the most important and secretive
jobs in the war-deciphering coded enemy messages.
The endeavor is chronicled in Liza Mundy's new book, Code Girls:
The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.
The details unearthed in her research describe the journey in the lives
of the women who heeded the call. Women like Elizabeth Sherman
"Bibba" Arnold '37, a Vassar-educated mathematician, Edith Reynolds
(later White) '44, and Elizabeth Bigelow '44, all of whom worked in
the cryptanalysis-code breaking-unit for the U.S. Navy.
In total, 197 Seven Sisters alumnae answered the initial invitation
to come to Washington, DC, in the spring of 1942. There they were
joined by women recruited from other women's colleges and a variety
of professions, most notably teachers. But it wasn't until their first day
at work that the women were made aware of the true nature of their
mission and the burden that would be placed on their shoulders.
"For a code breaker, no situation is more stressful than knowing
lives depend on your own success or failure. If you crack the code,
people will live. If you don't, they may die," Mundy wrote.