What WWII-Era Codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman Can Teach The Modern Woman

By Regan Monnin··  6 min read
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She solved the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity, brought down Prohibition-era rum running operations, and foiled the Nazis' plan to take over South America — in addition to being a wife and mother. Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s accomplishments make her a contender for the most interesting woman of the 20th century.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Elizebeth Smith Friedman. There’s a good, albeit sad, reason for that. At the end of WWII, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took credit for her accomplishments and erased Friedman from the official record. Once the leading codebreaker for the U.S. government, Friedman took her involvement in breaking WWII code to the grave. 

Now, her story has been resurrected in the form of a PBS documentary called The Codebreaker. The documentary not only chronicles Elizebeth’s life and accomplishments, but also her thirst for an extraordinary life. While her accomplishments occurred 80 years ago, the legacy of Elizebeth’s life lives on. 

Here are four things that Elizebeth Smith Friedman did to cultivate her extraordinary life:

Elizebeth Friedman Pursued Her Passions

Elizebeth chased her passions her entire life. She pursued poetry as a young child, a college education as a young woman, and cryptology as a wife and mother. Elizebeth never set out to be an integral part of American WWII intelligence. She merely followed her passion for codebreaking and allowed it to influence her career. That passion turned into the most prolific codebreaking career of the 20th century. Without Elizebeth following her passion, the outcome of WWII may have been dramatically different.

Instead of chasing that one perfect career or vision of your life, just pursue what you love.

Women are told to follow our dreams, but we should instead follow our passions. Let’s forget the lie that following our dreams will make us happy. Instead of chasing that one perfect career or vision of your life, just pursue what you love. Whether it’s writing, filmmaking, rock-climbing, or underwater basket-weaving, chasing what we enjoy will make us happier and more well-rounded people. Follow Elizebeth’s example. Find your passion and follow it. It may turn into an opportunity beyond even the dreams you were once told to follow. 

Elizebeth Friedman Was Strong during Adversity

As a female professional in the early 20th century, Elizebeth faced her fair share of adversity in a male-dominated field. She was passed over for a myriad of jobs because of her gender. The director at her first laboratory threatened and sexually harassed her. While serving as a witness against alcohol smuggling gangsters, opposing attorneys tried to discredit her on the stand. Her solution? Ask for a chalkboard and teach a class on cryptology. Yes, she did that in front of Al Capone’s lawyers.

She remained calm, cool, and collected, focusing on the crucial work before her.

Elizebeth’s strength is found in how she responded to each of these scenarios. She remained calm, cool, and collected, focusing on the crucial work before her. We talk often of empowered women. Elizebeth is the model of an empowered woman. She faced real sexism and misogyny, as well as real issues, but she didn’t allow herself to become the victim by focusing on the injustice happening around her. Instead, she focused on her work and single-handedly saved American lives in WWII.

Modern women need strength. Compared to women like Elizebeth, our lives are cushy, clean, and calm. We play the victim card at the drop of a hat, and we see trivial trials as mountains rather than molehills. The next time you face hardship, remember Elizebeth and her ability to face adversity head on. 

Elizebeth Friedman Was Courageous in Impossible Situations

Elizebeth dealt with incredible challenges in both her personal and professional life. On the professional side, she worked countless hours striving to break thousands of codes while the fate of WWII hung in the balance. Her work decrypting American mob codes put her and her family in danger. On the home front, Elizebeth tried to make a home all while working long hours. Her husband, William Friedman, worked similarly long hours on top-secret decoding projects. But William suffered a mental breakdown as a result of his work, leaving Elizebeth as the sole breadwinner of the household while he recovered. 

Her work decrypting American mob codes put her and her family in danger. 

Elizebeth faced each impossible situation with confidence. She overcame each impossible situation the same way: hard and diligent work. Hard work is lacking in modern society. We preach self-care and rest to the extreme. Our days are spent glued to phones and computers. Elizebeth Smith Friedman accomplished so much without any of our current technology. Imagine what could happen if women showed Elizebeth’s courage and drive in impossible situations. 

Elizebeth Friedman Was Dedicated to Her Husband

Elizebeth and her husband enjoyed a long, happy marriage. They met at Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois and married in May 1917. Elizebeth taught William about cryptology and code breaking. Together, William and Elizebeth determined that William Shakespeare’s works were indeed written by William Shakespeare. The couple also originated the field of cryptology, breaking codes together.

Things took a darker turn later in their marriage when William suffered a mental breakdown. For the three months that he was in the hospital, Elizebeth visited him daily, while maintaining her professional and personal responsibilities. William eventually recuperated from his breakdown, but he was never quite the same. As he grew older, he was often so depressed that he couldn’t even move his hand to write on a piece of paper. Elizebeth would cover his hand with hers and guide his hand to write. She did this every morning when he could not do it himself.

Perhaps this is the greatest testament of all to Elizebeth’s extraordinary life, that through everything, her dedication to her husband came first. Elizebeth completely dedicated herself to her husband until the day he died. Even while she was constantly working and running a household, she made William her first priority. 

The Friedmans’ love story should be an inspiration. Their story proves that love doesn’t fade with marriage, it only grows stronger. Elizebeth and William show that a career doesn’t have to replace love, marriage, and a family. Their unconditional support for each other was the backbone of their relationship. As we look to maintain marriages or relationships of any kind, let us look to the Friedmans. Unconditional love and support are crucial to forming strong relationships and friendships. Their example of such a loving marriage amidst hardship provides a blueprint for our own relationships.

Closing Thoughts

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was far from your average early-20th century woman. She trained military units, broke Nazi code, and saved many American lives. As a young woman, Elizebeth strove to be anything but ordinary. But, in many respects, Elizebeth led an ordinary life like any of us. She had a good marriage, a family, and a career much like most modern women today. What made her life extraordinary was her drive, courage, and dedication. In fact, it’s the kind of life we should strive for.

  Society  Femininity
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