Female Pioneers in Cryptology & Related Fields

Recognizing the accomplishments of female pioneers and leaders in cryptology and related fields is a powerful tool for inspiring young women to consider science and technology careers. On this page you will find a selection of celebrated women in the field of cryptology and related fields. You will also find links for learning more.

The Women in Cryptologic History exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum highlights the contributions of twenty-four women who have helped create cryptologic history. Don't miss this inspirational exhibit when visiting the Museum or learn about the honorees via the NSA/NCM Web site.

Related Articles about Female Pioneers

A Selection of Female Pioneers in the Spotlight

Elizebeth Friedman

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (26 Aug 1892 - 31 Oct 1980) is often referred to as the wife of cryptologist William Friedman. However, this female pioneer in code breaking was actually the one to introduce him to the field.

Elizebeth Friedman was a wife, mother, writer, Shakespeare enthusiast, cryptanalyst, and pioneer in U.S. cryptology. She enjoyed many successes in cryptology in her own right and has been dubbed "America's first female cryptanalyst." Although Elizebeth Friedman worked closely with her husband William as part of a team, many of her contributions to cryptology were unique. She was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 1999. LEARN MORE.......

Agnes Meyer Driscoll (24 July 1889 - 16 Sept 1971) - Agnes Meyer Driscoll held degrees in mathematics and physics, as well as proficiencies in English, French, German, Latin, and Japanese. She was a pioneer cryptologist and a Navy code breaker. One Navy admiral described her as "without peer as a cryptanalyst." From solving codes and breaking Japanese naval systems, to developing new cipher machines and encouraging the use of tabulating machines for cryptanaysis, her accomplishments are inspirational. She was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2000. LEARN MORE......

Genevieve Young Hitt (1885-1963) - As a young Texas debutante, Ms. Hitt probably never suspected she would one day be described as "the U.S. Government's first female cryptologist."

She likely developed an interest in cryptology alongside her husband, Colonel Parker Hitt. Ms. Hitt demonstrated a clear knack for cipher work and aside from a brief visit to Riverbank Laboratories, was self-taught. She initially deciphered messages without salary and in 1918 became a salaried Army employee, performing code work for $1,000 per year. She has also been credited with assisting in the preparation and compilation of her husband's seminal work, Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers, published by the Army in 1916. LEARN MORE.....

Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992) - At the age of seven, she was already taking apart alarm clocks, determined to figure out how they worked. Often deemed "The Queen of Code," Grace Hopper was an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. A pioneer in the field, she was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer in 1944, and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. She popularized the idea of machine-independent programming languages, which led to the development of COBOL, one of the first high-level programming languages. She is credited with popularizing the term "debugging" for fixing computer glitches (inspired by an actual moth removed from the computer). Owing to the breadth of her accomplishments and her naval rank, she is sometimes referred to as "Amazing Grace." You can also learn more about her contributions via this Cryptologic Bytes article. LEARN MORE.....

Ann Caracristi - (1921-2016) Ann Caracristi came to work as a cryptanalyst with the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942. She helped pioneer the application of early computers in cryptanalysis and established a laboratory for studying new communications phenomena. Her expertise and professionalism responding to tough intelligence problems brought her rapid advancement at NSA. In 1959, she was promoted to supergrade and in 1975, she became the first woman at NSA to be promoted to GS-18. She was the first woman to be named NSA Deputy Director in 1980. Also in 1980, she received the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the DoD's highest civilian honor. She was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2012. LEARN MORE.....

Sarah "Sally" Botsai started work at NSA in 1957 shortly after her college graduation. She continued her education eventually earning her Ph.D. in International Relations in 1972.

Dr. Botsai spent twelve years in Operations before she was selected as the first woman to serve as the NSA representative in the White House Situation Room. After her two-year tour in this position, she was asked to return as the Deputy Director of the White House Situation Room. She held this position until 1976. She was also the first NSA woman to attend the National War College from which she graduated in 1977.

Dr. Botsai received the Meritorious Civilian Service Award in 1976 and the Director's Distinguished Service Medal in 1998.

From "Women in American Cryptology" on the NSA website.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace (Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace) - (1815-1852) The daughter of famed poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was a gifted mathematician and is credited with having written instructions for the first computer program. While translating an article for Charles Babbage about Babbage's engine, she added her own notes and ideas which ended up being much longer than the original article. In her article, she described how codes could be developed to handle letters and symbols, as well as numbers. She also theorized a method for the device to repeat a series of instructions, a process now known as looping. She contributed many forward-thinking concepts in her article and for her work is considered the first computer programmer.

Though her work was published, she only signed it with her initials and the article received little attention at the time. Her contributions to the field of computer science were not discovered until the 1950s. Since then, Ms. Lovelace has received many posthumous honors for her work. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense named a newly developed computer language "Ada," after Ms. Lovelace. Each year Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated internationally in October to recognize the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). This year the celebration will take place on 13 October.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) - Well known for her role as a movie star and a beauty icon, Hedy Lamarr is less well known for her invention of spread spectrum technology. By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel. Needless to say, this achieved great things for U.S. military ships, but it also served as a basis for modern spread-spectrum communication technology, such as Bluetooth, COFDM (used in Wi-Fi network connections), and CDMA (used in some cordless and wireless telephones). Learn more in this article about Ms. Lamarr.

Also - in case you missed the Google Doodle celebrating Hedy Lamarr - check it out here. There is even an animated version of the inventor!

Wilma Davis (1912-2001) - With a degree in mathematics and a Navy correspondence course on cryptology, Wilma Davis was hired to work in the Army's Signal Intelligence Service in the late 1930s. Her first assignment was with the Italian diplomatic codes, which she exploited until 1942 when she transferred to the Japanese problem. Within two years, she was the head of the department that solved and processed intercepted Japanese Army code messages. At the end of the war, she moved on to the Chinese team and then to the Venona Project trying to break Soviet messages.

VISIT Wilma's page in our In Memoriam Registry for more info about her.


WAVE with US Navy Cryptanalytic Bombe

Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) worked day and night helping to solve German Enigma messages during World War II.

About 600 of these patriotic women joined the Navy starting in 1943 to help build and work on 121 U.S. Navy Cryptanalytic Bombes that would solve the four-rotor problem persisting in the Atlantic. The project and their job was so secret, it was said they did not even know the exact function of these 2 1/2 ton machines. Because of the secrecy of the work going on, WAVES at the National Cash Register Company (where the machines were built) had to show their identification to the Marines standing guard to enter the room to which they were assigned.

WAVES were never told implications of their work, nor the activities going on in other rooms or work spaces. They were not allowed to discuss their work with anyone outside their specific assignment. The WAVES kept the secret. Serving their country as nobly and proudly as anyone, they helped solve Enigma and win the Battle of the Atlantic.