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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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Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein

2010 Hall of Honor Inductee

Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein was a skilled cryptanalyst whose discovery in September 1940 changed the course of history. Her successful breakthrough enabled the Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) to build an analog machine that solved the Japanese diplomatic system known as "Purple." Exploitation of this system provided crucial intelligence in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II.

Ms. Grotjan Feinstein was hired by William Friedman for the SIS in 1939. By 1940 she made her discovery that led to breaking the "Purple" code, and by October 1943 she was assigned to the Soviet problem and worked on the project later known as "Venona." She devised a process for recognizing the re-use of key, which, in turn, permitted the decryption of Russian KGB messages. The discovery was labeled "… the most important single cryptanalytic break in the whole history of Venona."

Ms. Grotjan Feinstein's brilliant findings in two instances enabled exploitation of communications that provided invaluable intelligence information to policymakers. This information was used by the most senior government officials for decisions in World War II and the Cold War.

In 1943, Ms. Grotjan married Hyman Feinstein, a chemist at the National Bureau of Standards. After serving as a cryptanalyst and as a research analyst for over seven years, on May 4, 1947, Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein resigned from the government and later became a professor of mathematics at George Mason University.

Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein died in 2006 at the age of 93. Before his death in 1995, Hyman Feinstein established an award in cryptology within the Department of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason in honor of his wife.