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Women Cryptologists Honored on New U.S. Stamp

UMGC’s Loyce Pailen and Others Recognize Women Cryptologists of World War II and Celebrate Women Technologists of Today

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten
  • News |
  • Cybersecurity

On a crisp October morning at the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, stamp collectors, cryptology professionals, members of the media and others gathered for the dedication of a new U.S. Postal Service Forever stamp honoring women cryptologists of World War II.

The Oct. 18 gathering to  launch the commemorative stamp spotlighted the women who broke codes during World War II and opened the way for women in cybersecurity and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-related fields today. The dais of notable speakers at the event included Dr. Loyce Best Pailen, senior director of the Center for Security Studies at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).

Pailen told the audience that the codebreaking women jumped hurdles to carry out their government work, even as they opened doors for the next generations of women.  

“Their stories are so like the struggles that women endure still today breaking into the cybersecurity field that is mostly male,” she said. “Every day at my job at UMGC and through volunteer work, I see projects, grants and opportunities that address the cybersecurity workforce skills gap, and that includes finding females and minorities.”

The commemoration included the presentation of colors by the Joint Service Color Guard for the National Security Agency (NSA) and an energetic rendering of the national anthem by Alison Fassett from postal service headquarters. Dr. Vince Houghton, and intelligence historian and the director of the National Cryptologic Museum, introduced the panel of speakers.

Joining Pailen on the stage were Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command, director of the NSA and chief of the Central Security Service; Amy Nagahashi, deputy chief of High Performance Computing Solutions at the National Cryptologic Museum; Jacqueline Krage Strako, chief commerce and business solutions officer and executive vice president of the postal service; Jennifer Wilcox, director of education at the National Cryptologic Museum; and Antonio Alcalá, art director and designer of the stamp.

The speakers discussed how the story of the women code breakers is the story of America.

“It is a story of young women coming to the national capital region at the request of their government,” said Nakasone. “To understand and decipher two codes, Enigma and Purple, that were so critical to our war effort is amazing.”

Jennifer Wilcox, director of education at the National Cryptologic Museum, said women have always been involved in cryptology in the United States since the American Revolution. However, they didn’t enter the field in vast numbers until World War II, when female volunteers’ aptitude for cryptology put them into a wide range of activities in the field.

“Eventually, these women made some amazing breaks, first into the Japanese Purple system and then into German Enigma machines,” said Wilcox. “These women created the path that thousands of women have followed into the STEM fields.”

Breaking the Purple and Enigma codes provided perhaps the most important source of strategically valuable, long-term intelligence during the war and prevented many attacks. Houghton emphasized just how pivotal the work of the cryptologists was. “Without the women working in code cryptology during World War II, the war doesn’t end when it does and potentially, we don’t win.” 

Nagahashi, who leads the design, development, deployment and management of advanced computing capabilities at NSA, is one of those women.

“Every day I get to come to work and learn from brilliant women who continue to push for this intellectual ferocity that we've seen since World War II,” she said.

Nagahashi’s story began on Sept. 11, 2001, when she was a student mathematician in Washington, D.C. She had come to school early that day and swapped classes with another teaching assistant. After she walked into the mathematics department, someone told her that planes had hit the World Trade Center towers.

“I looked out of the fourth-story windows of our building to see large black clouds of smoke flowing over the Potomac River from the Pentagon,” she said.

Shortly after the events of 9/11, Nagahashi received a call from the NSA with a job offer. Today, she is a leader in the NSA capabilities organization and sees firsthand how the marriage of math and technology saves lives and protects the nation.

Nagahashi pointed out that the number of women in STEM has expanded, thanks in large part to the pioneering women of World War II and those who followed them.

“Nearly 50 percent of STEM degrees in this country are now awarded to women,” Nagahashi said. “That's a huge change from the World War II era, and at work, and we're not isolated to all women teams.”

Alcalá, who designed the codebreaker stamp, talked about how he condensed such a huge story into a tiny piece of paper. He said his research at the National cryptologic Museum led to “the thrill of a lifetime when they pulled out the file folders that had the actual printout of the Purple code with the handwritten notes below it.” He incorporated it into the stamp.

But how do you honor so many women involved in breaking the codes? Alcalá solved this puzzle by using a blurred image from a Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) recruiting poster. “The image serves as figure behind the code which suggests all the women that were there,” he said.

The story of the codebreakers gained newfound attention after the 2017 release of the book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” by Liza Mundy. Munday had been invited to the stamp launch event but was unable to attend.

In her remarks at the event, Pailen quoted from author and illustrator Ashley Rice, who writes inspiring books for girls, both to celebrate the pioneering code breakers and to cast an eye to the future and our need to build on their success.

“There are women who make things better simply by showing up. There are women who make things happen. There are women who make their way. There are women who make a difference and women who make us smile. There are women of wit and wisdom who through strength and courage make it through,” Pailen quoted. “There are women who change the world every day.”