Celebrating Female Cryptologic Pioneers During National Women's History Month & All Year Long!
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 website.
You can also read the THREE PART SERIES: The Legacy of Women in American Cryptology via the NSA website. See the links to each part noted below.
A Selection of Female Pioneers in the Spotlight
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. In January 2021, PBS aired a special documentary about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, based upon the book "The Woman Who Smashed Codes" by Jason Fagone. Click on the film ad below to learn more.
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." Please see below for links to articles and documentaries about Grace in the list of resources. You can also find a link to learn more about the creative illustrations of Grace by Rachel Ignotofsky located below. To see an entertaining clip of her with Dave Letterman, click here. 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.
Barbara McNamara demonstrated extraordinary leadership qualities in advancing NSA’s mission, enhancing cooperation with other US agencies, and developing foreign partner relations. She began her career as a Chinese Linguist and served in several analytic, operational, and managerial positions at the National Security Agency (NSA). In 1994, she became the first woman to be Deputy Director of Operations, and in 1997 she reached the highest civilian position at NSA when she was named the Agency's Deputy Director. In 2000, she became the first woman to hold the position of Senior United States Liaison Officer to London. Ms. McNamara received several prestigious awards, and in June 2000, she received the Intelligence Community's highest award, the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal. Her achievements in senior positions have had a lasting impact in improving NSA’s operations and facilitating support with and by the Intelligence Community, making the nation significantly more secure. Ms. McNamara retired in 2003. She is now a Director on several company boards and is a consultant to the Institute of Defense Analyses. She was inducted into the NSA/CSS Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2020. Read her Hall of Honor entry.
Ms. Debora Plunkett is a trailblazer with over 30 years of experience as a cybersecurity leader. Formerly, a Director of Information Assurance at the National Security Agency (NSA), she also served as a Director on the National Security Council at the White House for two administrations. Ms. Plunkett is currently Principal of Plunkett Associates LLC, a consulting business, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and Technology, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland University College Graduate School in the Cybersecurity program.
Lee Ellen Hanna - An alumna of the National War College, Lee became the first woman senior operations officer in the National SIGINT Operations Center before being promoted to the NSA’s senior executive level, including serving as deputy director of human resources and leading some of the agency’s most mission-critical organizations.
As part of her responsibilities, Lee briefed Presidents and addressed Congress, led several intelligence production organizations, chaired an NSA oversight panel on processes and management of the agency’s personnel office, and worked closely with U.S. intelligence partners. As one of few women in leadership roles in the agency, she was a supportive mentor to women at varying points in their careers. Her service was recognized with many honors, to include the Distinguished Civilian Service Award and the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.
Sadly, we lost Lee in January 2021. Learn more about her life and career via her page in our In Memoriam Registry.
Dr. Loyce Pailen, a doctor of management and senior director of the Center for Security Studies at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), has more than 35 years of experience in information technology, including work in cybersecurity, software development, project management, telecommunications, risk management, and network and systems security and administration. She has held director-level information technology positions at the Washington Post, Graham Holdings, UMGC, and as a contractor at Computer Sciences Corporation for the Defense Cyber Investigations Training Academy (DCITA) of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Dr. Pailen has provided project leadership for instructional design and subject-matter expertise for major graduate, undergraduate, and community college information systems security curriculum development projects. In addition to her work in the field, Dr. Pailen is the author of “Super Cybersecurity Grandma,” a fabulous book series that introduces children to cybersecurity and online safety. Her series has helped to educate children around the world about topics related to cybersecurity.
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).
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.
US Navy WAVES
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.
The Hello Girls
We salute the “Hello Girls.”
Communication, in this case telephone lines, are crucial to planning and coordinating military campaigns. In World War I, men of Army’s Signal Corps constructed telephone lines along the front, but proved lacking as operators. Professional telephone operators were needed to connect the calls between major entities of the Allied effort, working even on the “fighting lines.” The Army turned to the professional women operators in the United States. Not only were these women expected to be experienced telephone operators, they also needed to speak both English and French since many of the American phone lines connected with the French lines. These professional female operators became the first American women to serve in an official capacity in any sort of combat role in the U.S. military. The women’s bravery and excellence in the American Expeditionary Forces advanced the boundaries of women in the military and paved the way for increased participation in future conflicts. Click here to read the NPR book review of "The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers," by Elizabeth Cobbs.
Books about Female Code Breakers
Over 11,000 women comprised more than 70% of all domestic code breakers during WWII - but it was extremely challenging for author Liza Mundy to find evidence of their efforts. Her book does the important work of bringing to light the key roles these women played. Click on the title or cover to learn more. Watch a recording of Ms. Mundy's presentation at the NCMF Spring 2018 Cryptologic Program via the link on our Quarterly Programs page.
Love reading about the Enigma machine and how it was broken? In her work of historical fiction called "The Cypher Bureau," author Eilidh McGinness puts the spotlight on the code-breaking successes made by the Polish Cypher Bureau in the 1930s.
"The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America's Enemies" by Jason Fagone
Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman, who played an integral role in our nation’s history for forty years. He unveils America’s code-breaking history through the prism of Smith’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that would help shape modern intelligence. Click on the cover to learn more.
Related Articles & Videos about Female Pioneers
This article (published in 2020) in "Her Mind Magazine" features several of the NSA "Queens of Code."
This article by Dena Lombardo for the National Archives News (published March 2020) reviews an event hosted as part of the Know Your Records Program during which archives specialist Cara Moore Lebonick took the audience through the process of tracking down “Code Girl” personnel records at the National Archives at St. Louis. If you happen to be searching for records related to a "Code Girl" - Lebonick said having the name, maiden name, date of birth, employing agency, and location of employment can facilitate the search for Code Girl archives. Requests can be emailed to STL.firstname.lastname@example.org. Click the article title to view the article online.
Smithsonian Magazine article by Liza Mundy, September 2018: At the height of the Cold War, America’s most secretive counterespionage effort set out to crack unbreakable ciphers. For nearly 40 years, women code breakers helped identify those who passed American and Allied secrets to the Soviet Union during and after World War II. Their work unmasked such infamous spies as the British intelligence officer Kim Philby, the British diplomat Donald Maclean, the German-born scientist Klaus Fuchs and many others. They provided vital intelligence about Soviet tradecraft. Their work was so highly classified that President Harry Truman likely did not know about it.
Oct 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article primarily featuring how Liza Mundy's book documents the triumphs and challenges of more than 10,000 women who worked behind the scenes of wartime intelligence
Article by Katherine Hafner for The Virginian-Pilot, 14 June 2020: Edith was 20 and in her senior year when she received a summons from the Navy, which had been seeking women with good math and language skills for its new WAVES unit — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Soon she was staying in a brownstone in Georgetown and training in cryptography.
At 94 years of age, Helen Andrews tells her story of being a very young codebreaker at Bletchley Park during WWII. She recalls what inspired her to want to serve her country in this way and recalls the work as amazing, important, and fun.
23-year-old British secret agent Phyllis Latour Doyle parachuted into occupied Normandy to gather intelligence on Nazi positions in preparation for D-Day. She secretly relayed 135 coded messages to the British military before France's liberation in August, and used the knitting she carried as a way to hide her codes. For seventy years, Doyle's contributions to the war effort were largely unheralded, but she was finally given her due in 2014 when she was awarded France's highest honor, the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Click on the article title to learn more.
Learn about a small group of women, members of the Goucher College class of 1942, who were known as WAVES—Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. Many of these Goucher students, along with selected students from the class of 1943, went on to work on the top secret mission of decoding the complex German Enigma code machine. Their work directly contributed to the Allied victory in Europe in World War II.
In this March 2019 article for "Geospatial World" - Aditya Chaturvedi states that "Women hold up half the sky." The article takes a look at the women whose brilliance, rigorous research, meticulous approach, and unparalleled leadership has played a seminal role in the development of geospatial intelligence and evolution of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
Article by Lou Leto and Jen Wilcox of the National Cryptologic Museum as a guest post for the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum website.
WOMEN IN CRYPTOLOGY - MUSEUM TREKSOLVER APP
**** TRY THE "WOMEN IN CRYPTOLOGY" TOUR on the FREE TREKSOLVER APP. *****
The tour highlights 18 of the tens of thousands of women who have made contributions to American cryptologic history from the Revolutionary War through the current conflict in Iraq. Women have been involved in all aspects of cryptology, including collection, cryptography, cryptanalysis, computers, languages, and various forms of intelligence.
This free app is free to download. Go to the App Store or Google Play and search on TrekSolver (all one word). Download the free app. When it opens, enter zip code 20755 and the National Cryptologic Museum will be the first option.