The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life
Amy Butler Greenfield
Random House Studio
Published October 19, 2021
About The Woman All Spies Fear
Elizebeth Smith Friedman always had a penchant for solving riddles. It was this skill, and a desire to do something with her life that led her to become one of the top cryptanalysts in America during both World War I and II. She originally came to codebreaking through her love for Shakespeare when she was hired by an eccentric billionaire to prove that Shakespeare’s plays had secret messages in them and were written by Frances Bacon.
Though she came to the conclusion that there were not any secret messages in the plays, she learned so much about coding that she went on to play a major role in decoding messages during WWI and WWII and also for the US Coast Guard’s own war against smugglers. Elizebeth and her husband, William, became the top codebreaking team in the US, and she did it all at a time when women weren’t a welcome presence in the workforce.
Amy Butler Greenfield is an award-winning historian and novelist who aims to shed light on this unsung female pioneer of the STEM community.
Elizebeth Smith Friedman overcame a LOT in her lifetime. She faced opposition to her education from her own father, opposition to women in the workplace, significant wage gaps, and people assuming she relied on her husband’s abilities to break codes. Yet it really seems like she stayed focused on her work and consistently put aside her feelings because she believed in the job she was doing.
I think my favorite story about her from the book is about one of the trials she testified in against someone accused of smuggling. The defense lawyers called her translation of the coded messages into question so relentlessly that she finally asked the judge if there was a blackboard she could use. There was, so she proceeded to use it to teach a lesson on code breaking right there in the courtroom. She was so obviously knowledgeable and communicated her methods so well that the prosecutors credited her with securing a conviction in the case.
Though the book is largely about her, there are several chapters devoted to her husband’s career and life. There’s a level at which that makes sense because sometimes his career intersected hers or created challenges for her personally or professionally. I just found it interesting that the book made the point of how she faced being overshadowed by men in her accomplishments often by men taking credit for her work or assuming her husband had done the work himself, and that then the book spent so much time talking about her husband.
On the whole, I feel like the book does a great job creating a full picture of Elizebeth Smith Friedman both in her career and personal life. I learned a lot about her life and about code breaking but also a bit about the way different government agencies operated between World War I and World War II.
I think readers looking for an in-depth biography about Friedman or interested in the history of code breaking will find this book really insightful and useful.
Recommended for Ages 14 up.
William Friedman was Jewish. The book discusses antisemitic attitudes in the government and military during his life.
Profanity/Crude Language Content
Some reference to threats against Elizebeth for her work helping to disrupt smuggling operations and testifying against smugglers.
Some reference to drinking alcohol.
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