Two movies and a forthcoming book—the work of Sarah Megan Thomas ’01, Hilary Klotz Steinman ’90 and Amy Butler Greenfield ’91, respectively—reveal the untold stories of female spies and codebreakers during World War II. This past winter, the alumnae sat down together over Zoom for a conversation with Williams Spanish and comparative literature professor Soledad Fox Maura to discuss the pioneering women’s complicated stories and how, as spies and as women, their professional accomplishments were enveloped in a “vast dome of silence.”
Soledad Fox Maura: Could you each tell us about your work and discuss your recent projects, perhaps when you first thought about them and what they mean to you?
Amy Butler Greenfield ’91: I’m a historian and a novelist, and I’m writing a biography of the codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who I first learned about when I was 10 years old. We moved into an old house with a ton of stuff in the attic, including magazines from the 1930s and 1940s. I was the kind of kid who read everything I could get my hands on, and I read about this key woman of the T-Men in a Reader’s Digest article from 1937, and I thought she was amazing. She stayed with me. Then, about five or six years ago, my daughter became very interested in codebreaking. We took her to Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, Britain’s main decryption establishment during World War II, not far from where we live in Oxfordshire. We later took her to see an exhibit about Jewish codebreakers. She looked up at me and said, “Mommy, were there any girl codebreakers?” And I thought, “Yes, there were.” In fact, a huge amount of the codebreaking in World War II was done by women. That isn’t well known, and it should be.
Hilary Klotz Steinman ’90: I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I recently produced a film about Friedman for PBS’s American Experience series called The Codebreaker, in which Amy gives an extended interview. Friedman was the mother of modern cryptology in America, and her story—as Amy just said—was largely buried and forgotten. But her codebreaking skills helped fight organized crime in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s and defeat Nazi spy rings in South America during World War II.
Sarah Megan Thomas ’01: I’m a filmmaker for feature films—a writer, producer and actress working to tell stories about women in the workplace. I first learned about Winston Churchill’s secret army—and female spies—in a Winter Study class at Williams about World War II. When I began working on my film A Call to Spy, I started doing archival research and came across 39 women spies. I chose to tell the stories of three pioneers: Virginia Hall, who was the first female field agent; Noor Inayat Khan, who was the first female wireless operator; and Vera Atkins, the first and only female spy recruiter. I put them together in time and space in a movie to allow for a global conversation about how women from different religions and nationalities can and did unite to resist evil.
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Fox Maura: Why is it important to tell these women’s stories today?
Steinman: Amy’s story of her daughter is heartbreaking. How many other little girls around the world don’t see themselves reflected in the roles people have in public life today or in our history? Friedman was phenomenally influential in two world wars and in fighting organized crime during Prohibition. Her contributions to codebreaking and strategic intelligence are substantial. And she was written out of the history books because of sexism and secrecy. Her story reminds people that women are capable of anything; just because they’ve been left out of the history books doesn’t mean they weren’t there all along. Women weren’t supposed to do intelligence. They weren’t supposed to be in law enforcement. And there Elizebeth was, leading the pack. She was also a risk-taker. At every step, someone told her no. At every turn, she said, “I have something to contribute. I’m not going to be deterred.”
Thomas: Virginia Hall, who I play in the film, was also a risk-taker who was told no countless times. She wanted to be a diplomat and was overqualified for the job—she knew several languages, she had traveled the world—but she was a woman, and she was disabled. She shot her leg off in a hunting accident at age 27, almost lost her life and had a wooden leg. Prostheses were made for men in the 1930s and 1940s, so hers didn’t fit. She lived in constant pain, but she didn’t let her disability define her. The Nazis dubbed her the most dangerous spy of all, period. Not male, not female: the most dangerous of all Allied spies. She was an incredibly powerful woman.
Fox Maura: When you watch A Call to Spy or The Codebreaker, these little-known histories of women in World War II feel like a revelation, and at the same time it feels like it’s long overdue. There’s a common theme of secrecy. Virginia Hall ends up coming back from France and working for the CIA after the war, which means she can’t be open about her life. Friedman is forced to keep her career secret after the war. Their lives are automatically covered up by the nature of their profession, which makes uncovering them now all the more exciting. How does secrecy relate to these women’s lives and to your role in telling their stories?
Thomas: Virginia Hall never gave any interviews. In fact, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and she said she didn’t want President Harry S. Truman to give her the award because it would blow her cover. So she had a private ceremony with only her mother in attendance. Hall didn’t want to be known. She wanted to do the work and make a difference. When she did get back, she was again rejected from being a diplomat. She was the most dangerous spy, and she changed the course of World War II, yet the U.S. Department of State said they couldn’t bring her on as a diplomat. But in terms of portraying her, the secrecy was the big challenge. I had letters she’d written, but how do you know the soul of the human being you’re playing when they don’t give interviews, when you don’t have their voice to listen to? I interviewed her living relatives and learned details, like how she wore a snake bracelet to school, or she was the pirate chief in the school play, or she was always in pain because of her leg. Those details gave me a sense of her determination and grit, like: “I have a mission and I’m going to do it.”
Greenfield: Afterward, the people in charge of those secret histories, who are going to be running international agencies, are not women. Women are allowed in during the war, but after that, they’re supposed to get off the stage. It’s this double bind, and women’s records get lost. Even Elizebeth’s family knew very little. I was talking with one of her grandnephews, and he said she would always say she was a secretary in the Navy during the war. Not unusual. That was, in fact, what many female codebreakers were told to say: “I’m a secretary in the Navy.” “I do clerical work for the Navy.” And everyone would believe it, because that’s what women were supposed to do. Initially Elizebeth and her husband worked closely together on codebreaking, but later she was not allowed to know about his work because she was lower ranking. He knew something about her work, however, because he was so high up as a codebreaker. This secrecy between them was one of the terrible prices they paid. Elizebeth and her husband lived with it all their lives.
Steinman: At the end of World War II, Elizebeth is laid off and told to go about her business. She doesn’t get a full pension. She goes off into obscurity. And who takes credit for all of her work? J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI did not have codebreaking capability during World War II. That all came from Elizebeth’s unit. They took every single secret message that Elizebeth’s team decrypted and put an FBI label on it, so it went into the archives as FBI work. They physically obscured her history, and when she was asked later about her life after World War II, one of the most poignant things she’s quoted as saying is: “I entered a vast dome of silence.” If she had been a man, she would have been getting medals and promotions, she would have been pulled up like all those other World War II heroes who rose through the ranks and catapulted to the upper echelons of government agencies and business because of their World War II accomplishments. She was shown the door. That’s how people are brought along in society. That combination of sexism and secrecy never ceases to appall me.
Greenfield: We tell these stories to demonstrate that there are so many women we have not heard about and to illuminate a history of bias. We have to understand how that system of bias works and how it has worked in the past. To get anywhere now, we have to understand both that women are capable and that there are a great many systemic obstacles to getting the kind of equal treatment that we would like to see.
Thomas: Which is relevant right now, in the pandemic. I have a newborn baby and a first grader who’s homeschooling. I work. My husband works. And while I have an amazing, supportive husband who more than contributes his 50%, in general women are being required in the pandemic landscape to step back because our children are home, and who’s going to monitor them on a computer all day long? Look how far we’ve come, but still we’re being asked to take over the childcare responsibilities when we’re also working full-time.
Greenfield: That was one of the questions I had: How did Elizebeth do it? What exactly were her arrangements? Because it’s not magic. It’s not, “Wow, watch her triumph, and here she goes.” I want to know how she pulls it off, because I’m busy trying to pull off my own act. There are times when she has housekeeping help, childcare. There are sections of her life where she doesn’t, and she’s saying, “I can barely cope. I’m sorry, I won’t be able to take that project on.” There’s one point when, because both she and her husband are working very long hours during the war, she arranges for a local restaurant to deliver meals to her son because she can’t get any housekeeping help. That part of the story needs to be told so that when women run into these roadblocks, they understand they’re not the first ones to face this. Many very capable women have also thrown up their hands and said, “What do I do now?” It’s not your fault that you are finding this hard. I think if a story can help you to understand that, then it’s doing some good work in this world.
Fox Maura: Writing in the stories of women means rewriting male history as well. How can we think about these things in a new way that avoids that clash? Or maybe we just have to clash with history as it’s been taught.
Steinman: American history has a very short memory. When Elizebeth is fighting organized crime, working for the U.S. Coast Guard to stop bootleggers and violent criminals, she isn’t just decoding messages. She develops what we now call “strategic intelligence” in law enforcement. She figures out the names of the ships’ captains, their timetables, who’s going where. She understands the flow of goods and the players. She does this work at great risk to herself. She testifies against the gangsters—at one point there’s a hit out on her. She’s pioneering this new kind of intelligence. After 9/11 when the towers come down and the U.S. government starts to say, “We’ve got to fight terrorists by bringing together different agencies to share information,” this fusion policing seems brand new. But Elizebeth pioneered that back in the 1930s, and it was completely forgotten. We’re just now making these connections and putting these women in the history books, and it’s exciting.
Thomas: Another character in A Call to Spy is Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim pacifist and a princess who volunteers and is trained as the first female wireless operator. When she was in training, her male supervisors wrote reports saying things like, “If this girl’s a spy, I’m Winston Churchill.” But she goes on to serve in the most dangerous job in Paris and is eventually captured and tortured. And she never gives up any information. So one of my jobs in writing the screenplay was to dig deeper than the male-written archival record. It was the same with Virginia, who knew she was putting her life on the line. They told her, “You have a 50/50 chance of survival,” and she said, “When can I go?”
Steinman: In the early founding days of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which is the precursor to the CIA, Elizebeth is asked to provide the OSS with encryption capabilities. She creates their first set of codes that enable them to send messages among each other and gives them the capability to decrypt their first messages as well. It’s fair to say that the OSS wouldn’t have gotten off to the start it got off to without Elizebeth’s team. This intersects with Virginia’s life and makes me wonder, wouldn’t Virginia have liked to have known Elizebeth? Wouldn’t they have liked to have mentor-y lunches, bringing each other through the ranks? In a different universe, they could have been colleagues and a support system for each other.
Greenfield: High-ranking women often didn’t even know that the others existed, and that is another reason these stories disappeared. It’s hard enough to tell the stories of women whose lives were not hidden. By their very nature, women’s lives tend not to be archived, and when the official role they’re given doesn’t reflect what they’re actually doing, their stories are even further obscured.
Fox Maura: So how did we get here? Why are the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s so relevant to us today from women’s points of view, or from an American point of view, in terms of education and learning and reflecting on these paths now?
Greenfield: I hope the world is starting to understand that women really do hold up half the sky, that half our stories are with women and that we have to dig for them. I think of my work as being like that of a codebreaker. I take fragmentary messages and try to piece them together. Often, they’re written to deliberately obscure the truth, and I have to find ways of penetrating them. I do that because women have not gotten all the attention they deserve from historians. And we are so lucky that Elizebeth left an archive, but it’s not the archive of somebody who wants a hagiography. She left records of her doubts and disappointments and challenges and failures. She wanted us to write complicated stories about her. We are in an age where we can really tell complicated stories about women’s lives, stories that echo our own complicated lives. And we can learn from those, we can be inspired by them, and we can use them to create new stories for ourselves.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.