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Women in American Cryptology

Creating the Legacy

View the Women in American Cryptology Honorees

Although the number of women involved in cryptology has always been lower than the number of men, they have not been completely absent from the field either. Women have always been involved in America's cryptologic history. Some have reached the higher ranks of management and a few have been considered the expert in their field.

Cryptologic pioneers, such as Elizebeth Friedman and Agnes Driscoll, are well known to those who study cryptology. Were it not for their early involvement, the women of today may not have been able to reach their current numbers or status. But not every woman, or their organizations, has made it into the history books. Thousands of lesser-known women cryptologists have also played a role in creating the legacy women enjoy today. Their achievements, and in some cases their escapades, furthered the progress of women in cryptology. Women's involvement was sometimes sporadic, but significant.

The Women in Cryptologic History exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum highlights the contributions of twenty-four women who have helped create cryptologic history. The display begins with a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution who used her laundry as a secret code. Women spies from the Civil War also used codes and ciphers to aid those fighting for the causes they believed in. But it wasn't until the twentieth century that women began to work full-time in cryptology. During WWI several women considered to be cryptologic pioneers began their careers, as did some women few people today would know. During WWII thousands of women joined the military or worked as civilians for the military as cryptanalysts, intercept operators, technicians, machinists and every other position available in cryptology. Many of those women chose to stay in the field after the war, providing breakthroughs and contributions throughout the Cold War. Eventually, women rose to the highest ranks of management and today continue to support, develop, and build the cryptologic legacy of tomorrow.


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Mary H. "Polly" Budenbach

2017 Hall of Honor Inductee

Women in American Cryptology Honoree

Mary Budenbach, a graduate of Smith College and known to all as "Polly," joined the Navy's cryptologic organization, OP-20-G, in 1943. Trained as a cryptanalyst, she worked against Japanese naval ciphers during World War II. Ms. Budenbach's team was successful in exploiting the machine-generated cipher, known as JADE, used by Japanese naval attachés worldwide. After the war, she worked for the Armed Forces Security Agency and then NSA.

Throughout her career, Ms. Budenbach was recognized as an innovative technical expert in cryptanalysis. She worked with Arthur Levenson and Frank Raven in an early and successful effort to computerize analytic techniques. Widely recognized for her expertise and leadership, Ms. Budenbach was appointed to a number of senior positions within the Production Organization (predecessor of the Signals Intelligence Directorate). In 1975, she became chief of an internal NSA "think tank" that undertook specialized research and developed groundbreaking analytic techniques in several disciplines.

As NSA restructured its promotion and assignment processes to ensure fairness for minorities and women, Ms. Budenbach chaired a select committee that recommended actions to correct problems in these processes for female employees. Her leadership on this issue played a key role in breaking the "glass ceiling" for women at NSA.

For her outstanding service to the nation, Mary H. Budenbach was named Federal Woman of the Year in 1969. She retired from NSA in 1975, and passed away in June 2005.