Friday, June 14, 2024

Cornelia Meigs: A Wildly Successful Experiment

Cornelia Meigs. The Recipient of the Newbery Medal in 1933 for her children’s book Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott. Even if you were to Google her, her accomplishments as a fiction writer and English professor dominate. What you might not know about her is that Meigs was also a dedicated cryptographer who decoded enemies’ messages during WWII. Rauner holds many of Meigs’s cryptography workbooks, lesson plans, letters, and applications from this time in her life.

With the increased need for manpower and military men in WWII, women were encouraged to take their place in the production line and step outside the bounds of traditional domestic work. Countless women stepped up and worked behind the scenes (and on the battlefield), helping the U.S. bring back a victory, too. And they did this work not just in factories; women flew planes and became cryptographers like Meigs.

Yet, even with this need for workers, Meigs’s example shows that women at the time still faced pushback. In December of 1941, Meigs applied for a job as an Information Specialist in the Research and Writing department, as she was an English professor and a writer. In 1944, already an experienced cryptographer, she applied under the Bureau of Facts and Figures. However, she checked the “Male” box for gender on the application form. Given that cryptography is fundamentally a profession focused on small details, it’s difficult to believe that she made such a blatant error and reasonable to suggest that she is responding to the discrimination she certainly faced as a woman entering a field traditionally dominated by men.

One particular document from her training, “The Introduction to the Cryptography course in the Navy for Students,” provides insight into cultural attitudes towards women taking over male tasks, such as cryptography. The second paragraph calls Meigs’s cryptography class “experimental” and ends with the statement that “cryptanalytic work has usually been done by men in the previous years. Whether women can take it over successfully remains to be proved…”

However, Meigs proved that women can, indeed, succeed as a cryptographer: she completed the class and became a talented crypto-analyst during the war. We have many of her exams, all with high marks; as shown by this featured test, Meigs frequently earned a perfect score. 

Meigs can inspire women who, even today, face pushback as they break into predominantly male spaces. Between her Newbery Medal and her cryptography work, Meigs shows us that women can–and did–do it all.

To see Meigs’s cryptography coursework, ask for ML-41, Boxes 28 and 29.