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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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Elizabeth Van Lew

When the Civil War broke out Elizabeth Van Lew an abolitionist in Richmond felt obligated to do her part for the Union cause. She had already freed her slaves but then asked several of them to return and assist her in her espionage work. 

She gathered information from the Union soldiers held in the Richmond prison as well as detailed plans from one of her former slaves Mary Bowser who was employed as a servant by Jefferson Davis president of the Confederacy. Ms. Van Lew ciphered the information she had gathered and sent it across the river to General Sharpe's forces. In many cases she tore the paper up into strips and hid it inside hollowed out vegetables or eggs. General Sharpe reported that the greater portion of the information he received was due to the "intelligence and devotion of Ms. Van Lew."