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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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Minnie McNeal Kenny

2009 Hall of Honor Inductee
Women in American Cryptology Honoree

Minnie McNeal, a native of Philadelphia, worked at the Commerce Department in Philadelphia, then the Census Bureau in Washington, after graduating from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. She was fortunate to have never worked in the all-black traffic division or in machine processing in the basement of the building. When she was interviewed in 1951 for a position at Arlington Hall, her interviewer (a white woman) was also from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It was this lucky break that caused Miss McNeal to be part of the first group of blacks assigned "upstairs."

Miss McNeal, and those with her, represented a new breed of African-American employee in the Operations Directorate. She was hired as a communications clerk at the GS-4 level, higher than the starting grades offered to African-Americans in machine processing or Russian plaintext traffic processing. It was also equivalent to that given most whites with comparable qualifications. She entered an intensive training program to prepare her for a professional career as a linguist. Upon completion of the training, Miss McNeal was assigned to ALLO (All Other or non-Soviet) target exploitation problems in a totally integrated environment. It wasn't until later that she learned of the existence of the all-black divisions in the basement that she'd managed to avoid.

During the course of her 43-year career, Mrs. Kenny received NSA's two highest awards: the Meritorious Civilian Service Award (1980) and the Exceptional Civilian Service Award (1984). Her recognitions went beyond NSA. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. singled her out for the Meritorious Executive Award. DCI also gave her the Intelligence Community's Distinguished Service Award.

Mrs. Kenny filled several high level positions in her career including the Deputy Chief of an analytic support division, a Division Chief in the Office of Techniques and Standards, the Deputy Assistant Director for Training with direct responsibility for day-to-day operations of the NCS, and the Assistant Director for Administration. She also represented the DoD on the Congressional Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. She finished her career in 1993 as NSA's Director for EEO and was a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES-5).