Liza Mundy has a burning desire to tell stories. More specifically, the longtime journalist is interested in shedding light on topics that, for one reason or another, have been in the shadows for far too long — stories that often focus on women and their place in society.
A former staff writer at The Washington Post, Mundy has focused most of her energies on books in recent years: 2007’s Everything Conceivable, which looked at the rising childbirth phenomenon of “assisted reproduction”; 2008’s Michelle, a biography of former first lady Michelle Obama; and 2012’s The Richer Sex, which is best described by its subtitle: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.
But Mundy’s most recent book, last year’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, took things to a different level in terms of the time and effort involved. The U.S. Army and Navy recruited more then 10,000 American women as code breakers during World War II, yet their vital roles in aiding the war effort had never been told. Women like Dot Braden, a onetime Virginia schoolteacher now in her late 90s who jumped at the chance to take a mysterious job with the Army in 1943. Braden and various other code breakers are at the center of Mundy’s fascinating book — a herculean reporting endeavor that finally gives its subjects the credit they deserve. She’ll be discussing Code Girls Wednesday (July 11) at downtown’s Mercantile Library.
“It was the most challenging research effort I’ve ever had, and also the most satisfying,” Mundy says.
Mundy was just as surprised as everyone else when confronted with the facts of how these women and their contributions could be hidden for so long — women who, in decoding Japanese and German correspondence, were essentially the cyber-hackers of their day and assisted U.S. military and the Allied cause in such an important way.
“It was a top-secret project at the time, and so in the moment, when it was happening during the war, the women of course couldn’t talk about what they were doing,” Mundy says. “They were told to tell people, if anybody asked what they were doing at these giant compounds that they were secretaries, that they sharpened pencils and filled inkwells and emptied trash cans. And because they were women, people believed that — people believed that the work they were doing couldn’t possibly be important.”
But even decades later, when some of what these women did was revealed, their stories were still obscured or even denied.
“I think that in the 1980s and ’90s, when the books started being written about World War II code breaking, historians really committed the sin of ignoring the women’s contributions and ignoring records that were there,” Mundy says. “I had to get a lot of material declassified, but when I went to the National Archives, just to look at the voluminous records that had already been declassified, I was really surprised at how much information was in those records already: women’s names, women’s addresses, oral histories. I think that historians had looked at those records and dismissed the ones that were about women. The records were there but historians just weren’t ready to open their mind to the significance of these women’s contributions.”
The parallels to the current “Me Too” movement are obvious. Asked why she thinks women’s stories and voices are finally being taken seriously, Mundy points to the fact women are now in positions where they can make a difference.
“When I got started in journalism, almost all of my editors were men — older men who, to varying degrees, didn’t think these issues were important,” she says. “They thought something like sexual harassment would not be a very prestigious topic to write about. It’s been the accession — sometimes invisible but evident to those of us who have been working in the field long enough — of woman into top editing positions so that these kinds of stories are now seen as important, prize-winning journalism.”
And Mundy’s dedication to tell these types of stories is stronger than ever.
“I believe in telling people’s stories and educating the public about the truth and reality of other people’s lives so that it enlarges everybody’s understanding of what other people are going through,” she says. “I firmly believe that this kind of reporting has a social value in making us all more humane people.”
Liza Mundy discusses Code Girls 6 p.m. Wednesday (July 11) at The Mercantile Library. More info: mercantilelibrary.com