Category Archives: labor

Upwardly Mobile Maids in Prewar Japan

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~1980:

Of the total number of Japanese domestics in Taiwan, 27 percent came from Okinawa Prefecture. The October 1924 edition of Yaeyama News also reported that the Yaeyama Islands were known as a “supplier of maids” to Japanese settler communities in Taiwan: “It seems that the number of Yaeyama girls migrating to Taiwan has increased rapidly of late. Each ship carries more than ten migrants to Taiwan; many of them live as apprentice maids (jochū bōkō [女中奉公]). As people associate maids (gejo [下女]) with Yaeyama girls, Yaeyama is now known as a supplier of maids.”

Domestic service has a long history in Japan. It remained one of the most popular occupations for Japanese women until the 1940s. Before the word jochū became common in the early twentieth century, a domestic was usually called gejo in Japanese, which literally means “under woman.” Until the nineteenth century, a young Japanese woman did not necessarily become a domestic in order to make money. Rather, she worked for an upper-class family as an apprentice servant so that she could learn proper manners and etiquette. By practicing good manners and having a solid grounding in traditional Japanese etiquette, a young Japanese woman from a less prosperous background could prepare herself for marriage. This folk educational custom continued to be practiced even after the state introduced universal education.

The nature of the female apprenticeship was transformed during the interwar period. Instead of becoming an apprentice servant, a young woman could go to technical school or advanced girls’ school (kōtō jogakkō [高等女学校]) and learn cooking and sewing before marriage. Domestic service was no longer the only way for a woman to earn a respectable living. She could take better-paying jobs in an office or factory. As women came to have more educational and professional options in the interwar period, domestic service lost its appeal both as an apprenticeship and as an occupation.

However, the demand for domestics increased in the early twentieth century. Until the nineteenth century, domestics were employed mostly by upper-class households. With the rapid economic development and growth of the interwar period, a new middle class emerged, and its members became the employers of domestics. Of the 10,589,403 working women in Japan in 1930, 697,116 were domestics. A majority of these domestic workers are supposed to have been maids (jochū). Domestics were also in great demand in colonial Taiwan, where government officials, freelance workers, and merchants composed a large majority of the Japanese migrant population. The Taiwan Daily News reported in 1923 that domestics were in high demand and that the Taihoku [Taipei] Employment Agency was listing their average wages at fifteen to twenty-five yen.

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How Okinawans Emigrated to Taiwan

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~1800:

Okinawans usually did not go to colonial Taiwan through an intermediary. Instead, they relied on their network of family or friends. It was not unusual for Okinawan youths without work experience to arrive in Taiwan not knowing what they were going to do. Moreover, the immigrants frequently changed workplaces. It would indeed be difficult to track each immigrant’s career in Taiwan because it was common to see an unskilled immigrant start out as a shop boy or factory laborer and eventually secure work as a government employee or a policeman after living in Taiwan for several years. Employers might deplore the tendency to change jobs frequently, but this shows the Okinawan immigrants’ agency and willingness to advance socially in the colony.

Enrolling in evening school was a common means of achieving social mobility for young Okinawan male migrants who could not afford a secondary education at home.

Nevertheless, for Okinawan migrants in Taiwan, becoming an apprentice was the most common method of acquiring a professional skill and advancing their careers. Japan’s decchi [丁稚] system, which developed in the shogunal period, was similar to the Western apprenticeship and played an important role in the Japanese commercial world until the nineteenth century. It originally assumed a feudalistic relationship between a master and an apprentice, rather than a contractual relationship. The apprentice owed his master long-term loyalty because his master treated him like a family member. This custom persisted well into the early twentieth century. Although it became less feudalistic in the twentieth century, and an apprentice was less likely to serve a master for a long time, the practice still maintained an element of folkloric education.

Through apprenticeships, Okinawan youth migrants who could not afford higher education at home acquired the knowledge and skills they needed to raise their social positions.

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Okinawan Emigration Destinations

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~840:

Before migration to the US mainland became popular in Okinawa, anti-Japanese sentiment spread across the West Coast, where the Japanese population had increased rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century. After the enactment of the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1908, Okinawans were unable to enter the United States as migrant laborers. Thus, very few Okinawans followed the thousands of Japanese who had migrated to the US mainland. The few who did so during this period were youths pursuing higher education. Some went to the US mainland via Hawai‘i, Canada, and Mexico; a few traveled directly from Okinawa. As the Gentlemen’s Agreement allowed only families of migrants to enter for the purpose of reuniting with husbands and fathers, some female Okinawans arranged to immigrate and join their grooms in the United States as picture brides.

Elderly Okinawans have a saying that best sums up these migration trends: “The richest people were able to immigrate to South America; people with some money migrated to the Philippines; and the poorest worked on mainland Japan.” Indeed, when it proved too difficult to enter the United States as migrant workers, the Japanese turned to South America—especially Brazil—and the Philippines as alternative destinations. Later, the South Sea Islands [Micronesia] became popular as the South Seas Development Company (Nan’yō Kōhatsu) targeted and recruited Okinawan laborers for its sugar industry. While Brazil, the Philippines, and the South Sea Islands were under different governments and Okinawan immigrants there worked in different industries, there are some commonalities among them. First, the initial immigrants in these countries worked in manufacturing and commercial crop industries such as coffee (Brazil), abaca [aka “manila hemp”]  (the Philippines), and sugarcane (the South Sea Islands). Second, Okinawan immigrants accounted for the majority of Japanese immigrant communities in these countries despite their treatment as “second-class Japanese” and “the other Japanese.”

Japan sent the first indentured migrant farmworkers to Brazil in 1908. Okinawans accounted for more than 40 percent, 325 of the 781 immigrants, of that inaugural group of economic immigrants to Brazil. In fact, many of the first Okinawan immigrants left the plantations to which they were allocated shortly after their arrival. This gave a negative impression to both the Japanese and Brazilian governments. In 1913, the Japanese government refused to accept Okinawans wishing to travel to Brazil as indentured laborers, citing their propensity to leave the plantations and their cultural difference from Japanese workers from the other prefectures, but when migration agencies were unable to recruit enough laborers from the other prefectures, Okinawans were once again permitted to go to Brazil as indentured migrant workers. However, as was the case in the United States, Okinawan migration to Brazil was prohibited in 1919, and only immigrants who were currently in Brazil were allowed to send for their families.

In addition to Brazil, Okinawa sent a significant number of immigrants to other Latin American countries. For instance, Peru quickly became one of the most popular destinations for Okinawan migrant workers after the first group of Okinawan immigrants arrived there in 1899. Between 1899 and 1941, Okinawa sent 11,461 immigrants to Peru, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total number of Japanese immigrants. Although the immigrants were initially employed on plantation farms, many later moved to urban areas, where they became grocery store or restaurant owners.

Similarly, most Japanese immigrants to Argentina were Okinawans. This is despite the fact that Japanese immigrants had been arriving in Argentina since 1910. There were 1,831 Okinawans in Argentina in 1940, accounting for approximately 45 percent of the Japanese population in the country. Not all Okinawans in Argentina had migrated directly from Okinawa; in actuality, many ended up in Argentina after traveling to Brazil and Peru. In Argentina, many Okinawans initially found work as factory laborers or porters. A sizeable number eventually set up small businesses such as coffee shops and laundries.

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Turning German “Resettlers” into “New Farmers”

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 322-324:

The Soviets had no intention of allowing the “resettler” question (the term “expellee” was deemed politically incorrect in the East, as implying undue harshness on the part of the removing governments) to hang over their occupation zone indefinitely. The focus instead was on completing the task of resettlement and assimilation—or at any rate declaring it completed—within a measurable period.

Accordingly, the Soviet military authorities decided to kill two birds with one stone by tying expellee resettlement to land redistribution. Because most expellees in East Germany, like their counterparts in the West, had already been placed in the countryside—in Brandenburg, nearly 55 percent of the new arrivals were living in settlements of less than two thousand inhabitants in December 1947—this solution had the further advantage that no substantial internal redistribution of the four-million-strong expellee population would be required. Agricultural estates of more than a hundred hectares and those belonging to “war criminals” were broken up and expellees settled on the new smallholdings in numbers out of proportion to their share of the population. By the conclusion of the program, some 567,000 hectares of land were in expellee hands.

The results, though, generally bore out the prognostications of those British officials who had successfully diverted Ernest Bevin from pursuing a similar will-o’-the-wisp in 1944. The land reform program was an expensive failure. “Even at the end of 1946, three-quarters of the Neubauern (new farmers) had to work without horses … and only one third of the land reform farmers owned a cow. Only one farmstead in four was equipped with a plough, one in five with iron harrows and only one in fourteen with reapers and threshing machines.” Those who received livestock and equipment, moreover, tended to be members of the indigenous population, who profited from their superior connections in the rural communities to those overseeing the redistribution, while “resettlers” were largely overlooked. Lastly, exorbitant and unrealistic state requisitions and quotas, which forced the new farmers to turn over even their seed grain and sowing potatoes to the government, made it impossible for many to generate the minimum required for bare survival. As a result, living standards for the Neubauern were, as state inspectors reported in 1950, “almost unimaginably low,” while the cost of the program, which by 1953 had reached the alarming figure of 900 million marks, was described by Heinrich Rau, the Minister of Planning, as “a bottomless pit.” Rather than acknowledge the failure of the experiment and, as West Germany progressively did, recall the expellees from their initial billets in the countryside to the cities and towns as jobs and houses became available for them, the Soviet military authorities doubled down on their losing investment and announced a large-scale rural housing program in 1947. With practically the entire housing budget of the east going into building farmsteads that the resettlers were rapidly abandoning, reconstruction of war-damaged cities was virtually halted. As one Neubauer recorded, “The despair and anger among the settlers know no bounds…. Whole groups of settlers leave the settlements at night and have fled to the West …” Not until 1950 was this costly scheme discontinued, with very little to show for it.

By then, however, the authorities were ready to declare victory and move on. The Central Agency for Resettlers was dissolved in July 1948 and responsibility for its functions transferred to a small and low-profile section of the Ministry of the Interior. From that point on, even the term “resettler” (Umsiedler) became almost as taboo as “expellee” had become: all were to be equal citizens of the new German Democratic Republic, without distinction.

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Czech and Polish “Wild West” in 1947

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas, one whose impact remains to the present day. In much the same way that the wartime cooperation of ordinary Germans (and, indeed, Poles, Ukrainians, and other nationalities) in the persecution and removal of Jews had been obtained by the opportunity it provided to appropriate Holocaust victims’ property, Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian citizens’ enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth. The new borderlands, however, proved to be no Eldorado, and the new economic and social realities that were produced under abnormal circumstances brought a fresh set of unforeseen complications in their train.

To a substantial degree, the scramble for booty dictated the breakneck pace of the expulsions, as local authorities, militia bands, or politically connected individuals rushed to grab the most desirable German properties for themselves before others, or the central government, got in ahead of them. The lion’s share of the loot, nonetheless, wound up in the state’s hands, where it became an important instrument of communization. Before the Second World War, Communist parties had been negligible influences throughout central and eastern Europe. The Nazi-Soviet Pact; Stalin’s treacherous attack on Poland’s eastern frontier when the country was fighting desperately for its life; the expulsions and massacres that had followed, at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere; and the Red Army’s cynical abandonment of the Polish Home Army to the Nazis in the Warsaw Rising of August 1944 did nothing to persuade ordinary Poles that the Russian leopard had changed its spots. Though the USSR’s standing in Czechoslovakia was higher—thanks in large measure to the perception that Moscow, in contrast to the appeasement-minded Western powers, had been ready to assist Prague militarily before the Munich Conference—there was little enthusiasm for state socialism on the Soviet pattern. Because Communists controlled the Ministries of the Interior and of Agriculture in both countries after the war, however, they were also in a position to decide the redistribution of confiscated German property. They took full advantage of the rich sources of patronage this provided to buy, if not the support, then at least the acquiescence of citizens in their continued rule. The expulsions, then, provided the material basis that enabled the governments of the Soviet satellites to solidify their domestic standing at the moment of their greatest vulnerability.

As the dispute over the Jelonka Hotel demonstrated, though, property redistribution could be an instrument of social disruption as well as social cohesion. Disputes over the true ownership of a confiscated house or farm, in a situation in which the premises might have changed hands several times over the card table in a single weekend, would clog up the court systems of the expelling countries for years into the future. Overnight, the borderland areas were stripped not just of population but of agencies of government: when a German town was cleared of its residents, its local council, police force, municipal administrators, and providers of essential services like waste removal or water supplies usually went with them. Even in those relatively rare cases when replacement officials from the majority population could be found to take their place, Soviet military commanders, preferring to concentrate the skeins of power in their own hands, often prevented them from taking up their positions. In a literal and not merely a metaphorical sense, then, many of these districts became lawless areas—as the hapless Kazimierz Trzciński had discovered when he tried to take possession of his hotel. For several years after the change in jurisdiction, a vacuum of state authority existed and the rule of the gun prevailed. It was hardly surprising, then, that fewer people than resettlement authorities hoped were willing to put down permanent roots in such areas; or that a disproportionate number of those who did, like Trzciński himself, turned out to conform poorly to the image of the sturdy, self-reliant pioneer depicted in Communist propaganda. The name that both Poles and Czechoslovaks gave to their frontier regions after the war—the “Wild West”—reflected their awareness that even after the Germans’ departure, these were places that remained alien in many respects from the countries of which they were nominally a part.

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Occupied Germany as Ethnic Wastebasket

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 192-193:

As 1946, the year of “organized expulsions,” began drawing to a close, each of the Big Three was feeling the strain. “At present,” Colonel Thicknesse warned, “we tend to regard occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world. We are not convinced that this attitude is correct, either economically or politically.” According to figures reported to CRX [= Combined Repatriation Executive], by November the Soviet zone had admitted more than 1.8 million expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia; the U.S. zone approximately 1.7 million from Czechoslovakia and Hungary (including 160,000 who had arrived via Austria); and the British zone more than 1.3 million from the Recovered Territories: a cumulative total of almost five million people. To this figure could be added a number which could not be precisely calculated—but certainly one in the hundreds of thousands for each occupation zone—of Volksdeutsche who had made their way under duress out of their countries of origin, but entered Germany as unregistered “infiltrees.” All were arriving in a country whose urban centers the Western Allies had gone to immense trouble and expense during the previous five years to level to the ground, an endeavor in which they had enjoyed considerable success and which had left Germany with “a worse housing problem than has ever before existed in any area of comparable size and population.” Even after every available camp, military base, school, church, barn, air raid shelter, and, in some cases, cave had been filled with expellees, the onrushing human tide continued to overwhelm the best efforts of the rudimentary German administration upon whose shoulders the occupying forces thrust the responsibility. As a rule, according to reception officers in all three occupation zones, the expellees were arriving in possession of little more than the—usually insufficient—clothing in which they stood. The overwhelming majority were women and children. Few could make any meaningful contribution in the short term to their own support. Hundreds of thousands needed immediate care, in hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, or residential centers for the disabled, though the shortage of resources meant that a great many would not receive it.

This was not at all how the Allies had envisaged the population transfers when they had been sold on the idea during the war. Then the stated rationale had been to remove a cohort of “dangerous” Germans—above all, fit men of military age—who might threaten the security of the countries in which they lived. Instead, it had been the least dangerous Germans who had been deported, while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will. The occupying powers thus found themselves presented with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economies of the expelling states for years to come. Predictably, each of the Big Three with the benefit of experience discovered its enthusiasm for this novel method of “stabilizing” the European continent shrinking to the vanishing point. After coping—or failing to cope—with the “wild expulsions” of 1945, and finding the “organized expulsions” of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible.

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Culture of U.S. Army Codebreakers, 1943

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 207-209:

Unlike the Navy operation, the Army’s code-breaking operation at Arlington Hall was polyglot, open-minded, and nonhierarchical. Anybody could be in charge of anything. There was a wide assortment of ages and backgrounds working at its wooden tables. Bespectacled middle-aged men labored alongside pin-curled young women with names like Emerald and Velvet. Which is not to say that there wasn’t sexist condescension: One of the bookish men, a New York editor named William Smith, referred to Arlington Hall’s contingent of female southern workers as the “Jewels.” It was a lofty and rather snide reference to the number of women working there whose parents had seen fit to name them after precious stones. He wasn’t wrong: In addition to a profusion of Opals and Pearls, the workforce included a real Jewel—Jewel Hogan—who worked in the machine section. And there was Jeuel Bannister, the band director recruited out of South Carolina.

At Arlington Hall there also were “BIJs,” or born-in-Japans, the term for people who grew up in missionary families and worked in the translating section. There was the actor Tony Randall—later famous as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple—clowning around (at one point he danced on a table) as he waited for the intelligence summary to be taken to the Pentagon. There was an extended group of siblings and cousins—the Erskines—who had relocated as a family unit from Ohio. There was Sumner Redstone, the future billionaire media magnate, now a young officer in the translating unit. There was Julia Ward, former dean of students at Bryn Mawr, czar of a well-run library unit. There were nannies, beauticians, secretaries, restaurant hostesses. Josephine Palumbo at eighteen was virtually running the personnel unit, plucked out of McKinley High School in Washington. Tiny Jo Palumbo, daughter of an Italian immigrant laborer, was the person who swore in newcomers, and the sight of her administering the grave secrecy oath had inspired one code breaker to write a lyrical poem in her honor.

Unlike the Navy, Arlington Hall also had an African American code-breaking unit. This was not so much because the place was unusually liberal-minded, but rather because Eleanor Roosevelt—or somebody at the top—had declared that 12 to 15 percent of the Arlington Hall workforce should be black. It was poor recompense for the fact that many of Arlington’s black residents had been pushed out of their homes by the construction of the Pentagon and other military edifices, but work was welcome and this was better than nothing. Arlington Hall’s African American workers had to take segregated transport to get there, and many, even those who were college graduates, were given menial jobs as janitors and messengers. But there also was a special code-breaking unit whose existence was unknown to many of the white workers. The African American unit monitored the enciphered communications of companies and banks to see what was being transmitted in the global private sector and who was doing business with Hitler or Mitsubishi. They kept a library of 150 systems, with careful files of addresses and characteristics of all the world’s main commercial codes. There was no shortage of qualified people to staff it: Despite its segregated school system and the inequality of resources that accompanied segregation, the city of Washington had a number of highly regarded black public schools, as well as Howard, one of the country’s premier historically black universities. One of the team members, Annie Briggs, started out as a secretary and rose to head the production unit. Another, Ethel Just, led the expert translators. The team was led by a black man, William Coffee, who studied English at Knoxville College in Tennessee, started out as a janitor and waiter at Arlington Hall, and rose to this position.

In short, in its eclecticism and, often, its eccentricity, the atmosphere at Arlington Hall was unlike anything the U.S. military had ever produced.

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Hello Girls and Yeomanettes in World War I

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 76, 81:

Parker Hitt was a champion of women and a believer in women’s intellectual abilities as well as their bedrock stamina. In Europe, Parker Hitt was charged with overseeing battlefield communications for the Army’s Signal Corps. The Americans, British, and French strung phone lines around Europe and needed telephone operators to connect the calls. Switchboard operation was women’s work, and male soldiers refused to do it. French operators were not as adept as American ones, so the Signal Corps recruited U.S. switchboard operators who were bilingual in English and French and loaded them into ships bound for Europe. Known as the “Hello Girls,” these were the first American women other than nurses to be sent by the U.S. military into harm’s way. The officers whose calls they connected often prefaced their conversations by saying, “Thank Heaven you’re here!” Parker Hitt pushed for the Hello Girls to be allowed to prove their competence and courage. They did so, remaining at their posts even when ordered to evacuate during bombing in Paris, and moving to the front lines, where they worked the switchboards during explosions and fires.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, was developing its own female secret weapon, as part of a code-breaking operation that, true to the prevailing climate, was kept jealously separate from the Army or any other rival entity. Upon America’s entry into World War I, the country had struggled to quickly enlarge its modest career Navy, and created a men’s naval reserve that permitted civilian men to serve during wartime, often as specialists with expertise in areas such as math or science. Even this influx wasn’t enough, however, and it occurred to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to wonder aloud whether there was any law “that says a yeoman must be a man.” Remarkably, there was not. Nowhere in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 did it say that a naval yeoman had to be male. Thanks to that loophole, American women were permitted to enlist in the naval reserves during World War I, and the designation “Yeoman (F)” was created. The move was controversial, even shocking, to the public, but many more women hastened to enlist than the Navy had expected. To the women’s disappointment, they were not allowed to serve on ships (nurses, who were in a different category, could do so) but mostly worked as clerks and stenographers, facilitating the towering stacks of paperwork that the naval bureaucracy generates—the original yeoman’s work. During the first global conflict of the twentieth century, eleven thousand American women served as Yeoman (F)—also called yeomanettes.

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U.S. Army vs. Navy Codebreaker Recruitment

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 26-27, 32-38:

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.

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The 1941 Boom in U.S. Codebreaking Jobs

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 22-25:

During World War II, code breaking would come into its own as one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists. Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs. The code breakers of World War II advanced what is known as signals intelligence—reading the coded transmissions of enemies, as well as (sometimes) of allies. They laid the groundwork for the now burgeoning field of cybersecurity, which entails protecting one’s data, networks, and communications against enemy attack. They pioneered work that would lead to the modern computing industry. After the war, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency. It was women who helped found the field of clandestine eavesdropping—much bigger and more controversial now than it was then—and it was women in many cases who shaped the early culture of the NSA.

The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally—the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions—and willing to fight to the death. And in the all-important Atlantic theater, U.S. and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German admiral Karl Dönitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

“Evidence of a flair for languages or for mathematics could be advantageous,” Noyes said, adding that “any intense sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Without stating what such “quirks” might be, the admiral suggested that a handful of promising seniors could enroll in a training course the Navy had developed.

“In the event of total war,” Noyes told her, “women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”

Ada Comstock was happy to comply. “It interests me very much and I should like to take whatever steps would be thought serviceable,” she promptly wrote to her friend Donald Menzel, an astronomy professor at Harvard who was serving as a point person for the broader naval recruiting effort. Astronomy is a mathematical science and a naval one—for centuries, navigation was done using the position of the sun and the stars—and many of the instructors who taught the secret course would come from the field.

At the Navy’s request, Comstock also approached leaders of other women’s schools. These deans and presidents were devoted to the cause of educating women and eager to defend liberty and freedom of thought against fascism and totalitarian belief systems. They also were keen to develop career opportunities for their students. The leaders savvily perceived that war might open up fields—and spots in graduate schools—that up to now had been closed to women. Even before Comstock received the Navy’s letter, many of the leaders had been strategizing over how they could provide what Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, called “trained brains” to a war effort that would depend on advances in science and math.

The women’s college leaders met at Mount Holyoke on October 31 and November 1, 1941, with representatives from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and Mount Holyoke attending. Comstock told them about the Navy’s request and said Radcliffe would participate. She distributed some materials the Navy had developed: a “Guide for Instructors” and an “Introduction to Students.” The idea was that selected students would take the course during the remainder of their senior year, then go to work for the Navy, in Washington, as civilians. The “Guide for Instructors” assured them that no prior experience was necessary and that they would receive a “gouge,” or answers to the problems. The instructors would be given a few texts to jump-start their own education, including a work called Treatise on Cryptography, another titled Notes on Communications Security, and a pamphlet called The Contributions of the Cryptographic Bureaus in the World War—meaning World War I, the so-called war to end all wars.

The result was the wave of secret letters that appeared in college mailboxes in the fall of 1941, summoning surprised young women to secret meetings. Most were in the top 10 percent of their class, selected based on academic performance as well as character and loyalty and grit.

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