As a little girl growing up in the early 1960s in a suburb of Pittsburgh, it was not always easy to find role models.
But I was lucky. In my childhood, I knew smart, strong women who had accomplished much: our family’s veterinarian; a colleague of my father’s, who invented the world’s first computer compiler; my high school biology teacher, who introduced me to genetics.
Recently, though, I learned about a role model who was right under my nose — my own mother, Barbara June Whitt.
Growing up, I knew she had worked as a secretary before I was born. I knew that she had joined the WAVES — the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service branch of the U.S. Naval Reserve — during World War II. And I knew she’d worked in an office that was involved with codes. But when she talked about it — rare, because she had been sworn to secrecy — she described her duties as clerical, ordinary, routine. I never questioned it. After all, the woman I knew was a reserved suburban mom.
Not long ago, a chance conversation with a colleague led me to the book, “Code Girls,” by Liza Mundy. It tells the story of the WAVES and their counterparts in the Army, the Women’s Army Corps (WACS), who decrypted and encrypted secret messages during the war. Under oath (and penalty of dishonorable discharge or worse), they worked around the clock, knowing that the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers — their brothers, husbands, fathers — were on the line.
Inspired, I began a journey to unravel the mystery of my mother’s service that continues to this day. I got some of her naval records. Her unit, called OP19, scrambled and unscrambled Allied messages. In two years, she was promoted three times. She was no secretary, and her duties were hardly ordinary.
My mother was a Code Girl.
My mother always encouraged my interest in science and insisted to my father that I go to college. Her support never wavered. “You’re going to grow up to be another Madame Curie,” she told me. She was always pointing at other women. She did not see herself as someone to emulate. Neither did I.
She died in 2010, her memory largely gone years earlier, having never shared her story. I never got a chance to ask her about it, to thank her for her service, or to tell her how wrong we both were about who makes the best role model.
Women’s History Month is not just about paying tribute to people like Indira Gandhi, Margaret Mead or Marie Curie. It’s also about celebrating the lives and stories of the women in your own family. Women like Barbara June Whitt.
Gail Simmons is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Hofstra University. This is adapted from a speech she delivered in November, when she was honored at the Girls Inc. of Long Island Butterfly Awards.