Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mavis Batey 1921-2013

Mavis Batey's obituary in the UK Telegraph tells that she was one of the people working on breaking the German codes during WWII:

Mavis Batey, who has died aged 92, was one of the leading female codebreakers at Bletchley Park, cracking the Enigma ciphers that led to the Royal Navy’s victory at Matapan, its first fleet action since Trafalgar.
She was the last of the great Bletchley “break-in” experts, those codebreakers who found their way into new codes and ciphers that had never been broken before.
Mavis Batey also played a leading role in the cracking of the extraordinarily complex German secret service, or Abwehr, Enigma. Without that break, the Double Cross deception plan which ensured the success of the D-Day landings could never have gone ahead.

Her later life's work included the preservation of conversation of British gardens.

Here's how "knowing stuff" sometimes works for me, and I suspect, for others, too.  I was aware of the fact that women did all sorts of jobs during WWII that they wouldn't have done before.  I even knew that the code-breakers included women. 

But the impact of individual women on history of this type?  It tends to disappear in an odd way.

That needs an explanation.  I don't think that the erasure is usually intentional or even subconsciously sexist.  I think it has to do with the summary aspect of history:  Whole epochs are condensed into what a few people on the top achieved or damaged or affected.  The rest of the actors only appear in detailed studies of the epoch.  So when history is taught in that summary format women are more likely to disappear than men because they were much less likely to be on top.

What do you think of that theory, eh?  Probably many have proposed it already, but I'm far too busy and lazy to try to verify or falsify it. 

Based on that idea, someone like Elizabeth I of England seems to suddenly crop up in history books.  A female ruler!  So few of them!  What made her special? 

It's not that she wasn't special, of course.  But if we summarize history by listing a few people for each epoch, lots of people with some impact, influence or power will be made invisible.  And naturally the vast masses of people are invisible.  Or rather, generalizations about social classes and races and so on can be presented but individual stories are very rare.

To return to the disappearance of individual women, take another example from Britain: Jane Austen.  If you don't study the eighteenth century women writers in that country, her sudden appearance looks anomalous, something like a comet flashing across the sky.  And I think the reason for that, too, is that the many female writers of the preceding century are cut out of condensed history of literature, because they were not among the handful regarded as the very best (with perhaps the exception of Aphra Benn).  Which leaves us with less understanding of how women wrote (or broke codes or brewed beer or made clothing etc.)