Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

I recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II history and the role women played in it.  I had no idea of the sheer numbers of women in the U.S. who were recruited by the Army and Navy, nor did I understand the importance of what they did, until I visited Normandy and Bletchley Park in recent years. This book added quite a bit to my understanding of the war.

I was particularly fascinated by the recruitment efforts themselves, and the thought of thousands of women around the country being asked to use their brains, rather than just their looks or parenting or cooking skills. I wondered what I would have been like as a young woman around 1941. Would I have fought to go to college? Would I have loved math but pretended I didn’t?

Would I have been one of these women? And would I have been good at it?

Code breaking required literacy, numeracy, care, creativity, painstaking attention to detail, a good memory, and a willingness to hazard guesses.  It required a tolerance for drudgery and a boundless reserve of energy and optimism. A reliable aptitude test had yet to be developed.

I expected a book that was more about the lives of the “Code Girls” – what they did, how they felt about the work, how they lived.  For example, I was quite interested in the differences between how the Army and Navy treated the women. I wasn’t expecting nearly as much detail about the codes themselves.  The level of detail overwhelmed me at times, and I wanted to hear more about their friendships, their living conditions, and what it was like to be a woman working for the U.S. military, in a time when no one even thought women should have jobs.

But author Liza Mundy convinced me that unless I understood the code breaking itself, I couldn’t really understand what these women did.  And while at times this book felt a little bogged down in code-related detail, I really learned a lot about the war.  Bletchley Park and movies about Enigma definitely help, but they don’t give you enough of a sense of the scope of the work and how it fit in with the military strategy of the war.

In this book we get a sense of the brutality of the work, but also the day-to-day tension and fear that spanned years.  I’m still amazed that thousands of women did this work for years and yet told no one.  Most of them died before the government ever allowed them to reveal anything. And though I’m glad we’re better understanding the great work of people like Alan Turing, Mundy points out that this work is anything but individual.  It required a team effort, and that team involved a lot of people, men and women, in multiple countries.

I’m glad so many people have read this book and can now appreciate the amazing work that these women did.  I also appreciated getting a sense of how the things these women did led to the government agencies (for better or worse) that we have today.

3 Responses to “Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy”

  1. JaneGS

    Excellent review–this is on my list. Interesting that you need to understand the work in order to have the context to understand the lives. Makes sense but I hadn’t thought of it that way. I also like the idea that the work of code breaking is not individual.

  2. DoingDewey

    I had no idea so many women were involved in WWII either, but I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised. The more I read about women in history, the more I’m shocked by the large roles they played and by how much they’ve been written out of the mainstream history we learn in school.

    How cool that you got to visit Bletchley Park! It hadn’t occurred to me to have that on my list of places I’d like to visit, but I’m adding it now 🙂


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