The Woman All Spies Fear by Amy Butler Greenfield is my book club’s read for February. Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892-1980) is another brilliant woman whose name we should all know but most of us do not. This is due to the secret nature of her war work and gender discrimination. Case in point: the man placed over her unit during WW2, a unit Elizebeth had created, received a slew of medals for “his” work during the war.
Elizebeth was from Indiana and came of age before WW1. She pursued a college education against her father’s wishes. When she couldn’t secure funding for her education he at least gave her a loan, charging 6% interest.
It was at the Newberry Library in Chicago that Elizebeth got her first big break. Through a conversation there, she got a job at George Fabyan’s research facility, Riverbank, in Geneva, IL. At first she was on a team that was scouring Shakespeare’s work for secret codes. Elisebeth met her future husband at Riverbank. They both came to believe that the work on Shakespeare was bunk.
With the outbreak of World War I, Elizebeth and her future husband would become instrumental code breakers for the war effort. Her husband’s skills grew faster than Elizebeth’s as he was able to serve overseas in the heat of the code-breaking action. Eventually she would catch up and they would both go on to become the biggest names in code-breaking.
After WW1, Elizebeth worked for the Coast Guard, breaking the codes of booze smugglers during the Rum Wars sparked by Prohibition. Her work drew the media’s attention, which was detrimental to the law enforcement effort and also dangerous that the mobsters knew her name. WW2 brought a host of challenges and strains in the Friedman’s marriage and for Elizebeth’s work.
This is not a rah-rah sort of biography. Greenfield celebrates Elizebeth’s brilliance and amazing accomplishments, but she also details the struggles, discrimination, and setbacks Elizebeth faced in her career and marriage.
I didn’t realize while I was listening to the book that its intended audience is young adults. This makes Greenfield’s representation of Elizebeth’s frustrations all the more important.
We all need women role models. It is important to show not only great achievements, but how and why a subject struggled professionally and personally. Lives are rarely straight trajectories and it’s helpful to have such stories in mind when facing our own dips and surprising life turns. This is a highly accessible and well-paced biography.
I enjoyed the audio version narrated by Samatha Desz. The Libro.fm audio version is 7 hours long. Listen to a sample.
Title: The Woman All Spies Fear: Code Breaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman and Her Hidden Life
Author: Amy Butler Greenfield (Read an excerpt of the book on her website)
Publisher: Random House Studio, October 2021