The Navy was a service that cared about status. It wanted women who were well connected socially, and there also seems to have been interest in knowing what the women looked like. The application asked that the women submit passport photos, some of which excited a bit of commentary. “I might point out that the passport photos will scarcely do justice to a number of the members of the course,” enthused Harvard’s Donald Menzel, saying that the women’s “appearance is such that large-scale photographs would be a grace to any naval office.”
Around the same time, another meeting was taking place. Twenty women’s colleges sent representatives to the elegant Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Army was working to forge its own ties with institutions that schooled women. Already it was clear that educated women would be needed for the broader war effort. As the country coped with an acute labor shortage, the inspector general of the Department of Labor noted that adult civilians would not be sufficient to stock an economy bereft of its male workers. Students would be needed, and it made sense to start with the female ones. So the Army worked to tap its own network of women’s colleges before the Navy could reach them; indeed, the Navy suspended its own efforts to set up training at Connecticut College when it learned that the Army had gotten there first.
Disparate as their backgrounds were, the women who answered these summonses—that of the Navy and that of the Army—had a handful of qualities in common. They were smart and resourceful, and they had strived to acquire as much schooling as circumstances would permit, at a time when women received little encouragement or reward for doing so. They were adept at math or science or foreign languages, often all three. They were dutiful and patriotic. They were adventurous and willing. And they did not expect any public credit for the clandestine work they were entering into.
One of the best code-breaking assets is a good memory, and the only thing better than one person with a good memory is a lot of people with good memories. Every step of the process—the division of enemy traffic into separate systems; the noting of scattered coincidences; the building up of indexes and files; the managing of vast quantities of information; the ability to pick out the signal from the noise—enabled the great intuitive leaps. The precursor work during the war was almost always done by women, and many of those intuitive leaps were made by women as well.
Precisely because they did not expect to be celebrated or even promoted, the women tended to be collegial. This was in marked contrast to the Navy men—especially—who were fighting for recognition in a hotly careerist service. “The women who gathered together in our world worked very hard. None of us had an attitude of having to succeed or outdo one another, except in trivial ways,” recalled Ann Caracristi years later. “I mean, you wanted to be the first to solve a particular problem, or you wanted to be the first to get this recovery. But there was very little competition for, you know, for money, or anything of that nature, because everybody really assumed that when the war was over we would be leaving… The majority of the people considered it a temporary way of life.”
What is interesting about this generation of women is that they did understand that at some point they might have to work for pay. Forged by the Depression, they knew they might have to support themselves, even on a teacher’s salary, no matter how “good” a marriage they did or did not make. Some were sent to college with the idea that it would be ideal to meet a man, but their degree would permit them to “fall back” on teaching school. And some women went to college because they were, in fact, ambitious and planned to compete for the few spots in law or medical schools that were available to them.
Suddenly these women were wanted—for their minds. “Come at once; we could use you in Washington,” was the message conveyed to Jeuel Bannister, a high school band director who had taken an Army course on cryptanalysis at Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
In the 1940s, the American labor force was strictly segregated by gender. There were newspaper want ads that read “Male Help Wanted” and others that read “Female Help Wanted.” For educated women, there was a tiny universe of jobs to be had, and these always paid less than men’s jobs did. But it turned out that the very jobs women had been relegated to were often the ones best suited to code-breaking work. Schoolteaching—with the learning it required—was chief among these. Knowledge of Latin and Greek; a close study of literature and ancient texts; facility with foreign languages; the ability to read closely, to think, to make sense of a large amount of data: These skills were perfect.
But there were other women’s jobs that turned out to be useful. Librarians were recruited to make sense of discarded tangles of coded messages. “Nothing had been filed. It was just a mess,” said Jaenn Coz, one of a number of code-breaking librarians who came to work for the Navy. “They sucked us out from all over the country.” Secretaries were good at filing and record keeping and at shorthand, which is itself a very real kind of code. Running office machines—tabulator, keypunch—was a woman’s occupation, and thousands were now needed to run the IBM machines that compared and overlapped multidigit code groups. Music majors were wanted; musical talent, which involves the ability to follow patterns, is an indicator of code-breaking prowess, so all that piano practicing that girls did paid off. Telephone switchboard operators were unintimidated by the most complex machines. In fact, the communications industry from its origins was one that had been considered suitable for women. Boys delivered telegrams, but women connected calls, in large part because women were considered more polite to callers.
Character also mattered. Here again, women’s colleges were ideal. All the schools had codes of comportment—curfews, housemothers, chaperones, rules about not smoking in your room and not having men visit you in private and not having sex and not wearing trousers or shorts in public. All of this enabled the women to sail through the military’s background checks. Bible colleges were even better; many of those graduates didn’t drink.