The 1940s were a time for traditional gender roles: men were businessmen, scientists, and leaders, and women were housewives, teachers, or assistants. Yet, when World War II hit and the men were drafted out to fight, women entered the workforce in droves. Some, like Julia Parsons, even directly contributed to the United States’ wartime efforts.
“I thought, there’s got to be more I can do,” the 96-year-old told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I wanted to go in the service, too.”
Fortunately, she got that opportunity. With her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, almost completely devoid of men, Parsons secured a job at an Army ordnance laboratory, fixing gauges that were used in steel mills to produce shells and ammunition. It wasn’t exactly the most thrilling job in the world, though.
Parsons soon quit her job at the ordnance lab to join the Navy.
A recruiter asked if anybody knew German and she shot up her hand almost immediately. She had studied the language for a few years during her time at Wilkinsburg High School.
One thing led to another and soon she was part of an elite all-women code-breaking team working around the clock to decipher messages sent by German ships and submarines.
The team had help in the form of an encryption machine and some code books recovered from a German submarine, but it was still an incredibly tough job.
Near the end of the war, Parsons created a spreadsheet of all the messages and realized something shocking: the Germans had been sending weather forecasts every day at the same time. This tactical oversight allowed the team to decode many more messages and make an important discovery.
Parsons’ work as a code-breaker led to the locating of a hidden German submarine.
Once the war was over, Parsons settled down into civilian life again. She raised three kids and taught English at a nearby high school. She told absolutely nobody about her code-breaking experience, not even her husband.
Yet, when the government declassified her team’s records in the 1990s, the cat was out of the bag. There was no more need to keep it a secret.
These days, Parsons is far more outspoken about her wartime efforts.
She recently spoke at her alma mater Carnegie Mellon University to a group of high school students enrolled in the university-sponsored Girls of Steel robotics program.
Girls of Steel was started back in 2010 and consists of over 50 girls from all throughout the Pittsburgh area.
Many members, including senior student Corinne Hartman, entered the program after trying to take part in largely male-dominated STEM programs.
“I felt like my ideas or opinions weren’t being heard, that I didn’t have a place there,” Hartman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Though, once she joined Girls of Steel, “I absolutely fell in love and have been here ever since.”
Girls of Steel owes a lot to Parsons and the women of her era. They were among the first women in the tech industry.
It seems that Girls of Steel is well aware of their importance, making a cyborg Rosie the Riveter (a World War II era symbol of women in the workforce) their mascot. When Parsons gave her lecture, each student was dressed in plaid shirts and polka dot bandanas just like Rosie.
Julia Parsons, a Carnegie Tech grad who was a WWII Navy codebreaker, visited @TheGirlsofSteel this weekend to provide some extra motivation as the team prepares for @FIRSTweets Robotics Competition https://t.co/hQ9QNdiJKT https://t.co/NnuPHTb4c7 pic.twitter.com/rxRObSIp95
— CMU Computer Science (@SCSatCMU) January 29, 2018
Hartman, who sat in the middle of the front row during the lecture, certainly seemed appreciative.
“It was awesome to see her experiences and how they similarly reflect experiences we have—but in a different time,” she said. “She was working with a group of women who worked together to help do this really big awesome technical thing.”
In listening to Parsons’s story and trading questions and answers back with her after the lecture, Hartman’s faith in pursuing technology as a career was completely restored!
“We try to get ourselves out in the community,” the 18-year-old said. “This has shown me I want to continue doing robotics in the future.”
Julia Parson’s is photographed with the high school all-female robotics team The Girls of Steel at her alma mater Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. She was one of the all woman’s team for the U.S. to crack the German code in WWII. @TheGirlsofSteel @CarnegieMellon pic.twitter.com/yEm1DRi77j
— PGVisuals (@PGVisuals) January 28, 2018