By Joy Rankin
I was a math major in college. I now study – and care deeply about – the history of gender and technology. So yes, I will admit that I was predisposed to like a PBS-aired mini-series about British women who were codebreakers during World War II. But the brilliantly executed The Bletchley Circle (TBC) is more than just another entertaining historical drama with a science-y premise. It is also a carefully crafted and powerful commentary on classism, sexism, and violence against women in postwar England.
TBC aired in the UK, the US, and Australia as two mini-series, the first with three episodes and the second with four episodes. From its opening, TBC set itself apart. We viewers are immediately drawn into a dramatic world full of women – and women only. They are working diligently, concentrating, collaborating. The women are some of the thousands who participated in the effort to crack encrypted Nazi messages during the war. These codebreaking efforts were centered at the Government Code and Cypher School in Bletchley Park (about 50 miles northwest of London), which gives the series its title.
As we’ve observed as a general pattern in the history of women and technology, the work of women codebreakers has since been largely forgotten. Instead, one man has dominated the discussion of British codebreaking and Bletchley: Alan Turing. The popular media and historians alike have devoted significant attention to this man credited with cracking the German Enigma code and revolutionizing computing theory. In Alan Turing and His Contemporaries: Building the World’s First Computers, editor Simon Lavington and his collaborators scarcely mention the thousands of women computers, codebreakers, and programmers who were critical to the war effort in the UK and US. Similarly, in the centenary edition of Alan M. Turing, written by his mother Sara, the women are dismissed as “girls” and “slaves” (70). Both books have likely been overshadowed by the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as codebreaker Joan Clarke. Although The Imitation Game showcases Clarke’s extraordinary mathematical and problem-solving abilities (Clarke was a real person who worked at Bletchley), the movie deploys her more as a romantic foil and social tutor for Turing than as an intellectual partner.
But women were critical to computing and codebreaking in the UK and the US during WWII, and people are finally beginning to take notice. The 2010 documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female “Computers” of WWII shares their story, as does the innovative iPad book app The Computer Wore Heels. In her excellent monograph Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, the historian Janet Abbate chronicles the women who programmed the ENIAC in the US, but she also provides the history of the British women who programmed Colossus as part of the Bletchley efforts. The first Colossus computer at Bletchley began decoding encrypted German messages in January 1944. In his book The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, Sinclair McKay paints a vivid picture of quotidian life for the women (and men) of Bletchley Park during the war.
The Bletchley Circle’s compelling opening sequence introduces the four central characters and their work: Susan Gray recognizes and analyzes patterns. Millie is fluent with languages, maps, and geography. Lucy possesses a photographic memory, which she deploys with amazing recall and analytical precision. Indeed, Lucy – for me – embodies the powerful memory and processing that we now associate with electronic computers. Jean is their supervisor, coordinating their efforts and deciding what analyses or findings to escalate up the chain of command. Susan, Millie, Lucy, and Jean are the Bletchley Circle. From this opening, we see that their work is central to the war effort. Their teamwork deciphers orders for Nazi troop deployment. They know that their work is making a difference to the war, and they know that they are extraordinary.
The bulk of the action, however, occurs nine years after the opening sequence. This shift in time enables the series to comment on postwar social relations through the lens of the Bletchley women and their postwar lives. Susan is now literally and figuratively a tightly wound, buttoned-up, proper British housewife and mother, devoid of make up, with her hair pulled neatly back from her face. But she is straining against the seams of this constricted role that postwar society has demanded of her. In the course of her ordinary postwar day, we see that she has been following the disappearances and murders of several young women around London. And she wants to do something about it.
Susan’s husband, Timothy, believes that she performed “clerical work” during the war, a fiction that she perpetuates to protect her work under the Official Secrets Act, under which she could not reveal what she actually did during the war. Tim believes that Susan is good at puzzles and such, but he clearly has no idea what she has achieved. Nonetheless, Tim uses his work connections to arrange a meeting for Susan with a police commissioner to discuss the murders and Susan’s theory about them. Here, we see the first of many social conventions and strictures that limited women: Susan must ask her husband to pave her way to the police.
When Susan is left alone with the police officer to explain her theory of the pattern with the murders, she is transformed. She comes to life explaining how to glean information from a pattern of paper-clips-as-U-boats on the officer’s desk. She is luminous, and the commissioner recognizes her brilliance, deducing that she did far more than clerical work during the war. He is convinced by her analysis, deploying officers to search where Susan has predicted. But when the officers don’t find a body and eventually another woman is found dead, Susan recruits her former Bletchley allies to solve the case and find the murderer.
Through this process, we viewers observe the subtle and overt discrimination and violence against women and how our heroines live within and around those bounds. Susan’s husband, who represents proper British society and the police, is dismissive of the murder victims because they are working women. In his eyes, they don’t matter as much as men, and they matter even less because they’re not fulfilling their expected roles as wives and mothers. When the police hunt turns up a pornographic pinup photo instead of a body, the officers joke about it, sending the very clear message that one female body is the same as any other and only valuable for its sex and sex appeal.
Indeed, part of the reason that Susan succeeds in reuniting the Bletchley circle (who are at first wary to join her) is because the women identify with – and care about – the victims in a way that the all-male police force does not. Millie endures sexual harassment and threats at her job simply for requesting a shift change. Lucy’s husband verbally and physically abuses her. And Susan’s husband remains wrapped up in his world of work politics and appearances. He’s not terribly concerned about her obvious unhappiness; rather he worries that her unusual skills and interests are unseemly.
I love TBC for its nuanced portrayal of the multifarious ways in which the women empower themselves while navigating the casual misogyny of the postwar era. I love that the series celebrates collaboration and teamwork and the ingenuity of women. I love that they solve the mystery. You should, too.
Joy Rankin is a historian of computing, community, and gender. She studies the textures of digitization in daily life since World War II. Rankin earned her PhD in History from Yale University in 2015. She will soon be an assistant professor at Michigan State University, jointly appointed at Lyman Briggs College and James Madison College. Rankin's book project, Authoring the Digital Age, examines education and the origins of America's digital culture. Her dissertation, “Personal Computing before Personal Computers,” earned recognition and support with the IEEE Life Members’ Fellowship in Electrical History, the Adelle and Erwin Tomash Fellowship in the History of Information Technology, and the Yale University Dissertation Fellowship. Rankin's other projects include a digital exhibit of the biographies and geographies of American computing, a history of democracy and technology during the intertwined rights and protest movements of the long 1960s, and a novel about Denmark's Golden Age. Joy can be contacted at joyrankin.com or on Twitter at @JoyMLRankin.