Steven Levy can write compellingly about deeply technical subjects. He makes the history of cryptography come alive in Crypto. But god, I hate the way he writes about women.
To be fair, Crypto is better than Hackers in that there is more than one mention of a woman in the entire book. But women in his writing are still “diminutive” (a word likely never before or since used to described Cindy Cohn) (301), “diminutive” and “benign as Betty Crocker,” (describing Dorothy Denning, 249). They are nearly always meant to provide texture to the men around them, not to be examined as humans in their own right. The popularity of crypto is illustrated by a sex worker recognizing Phil Zimmerman’s name, nevermind that, of course, sex workers care about the security of their communications (289). That’s even true when the men aren’t part of the story. Maria Cantwell’s stature is apparently not relevant to her effort to oppose export controls, but her father who isn’t a character is - she’s described as the “daughter of a Wisconsin politician.” (264)
The woman who were dating or married to the main characters are even worse off. Take, for example, this description of Jim Bidzos, the successful marketer of RSA. “His journals from the seventies are permeated with notations about this woman or that. Still in his late twenties, he was living a Hugh Hefner–esque bachelor existence.” On the next page, he meets a young woman that he “sensed might be the one.” But what happens next?
“But when he finally cut the cord at Paradyne [the company he had been working at] and began a global marketing firm with some friends, his girlfriend uttered the words every confirmed bachelor dreaded: it’s now or never. She felt that if they didn’t marry, this new venture would take him away. Ever the deal maker, Bidzos chafed at being handed an ultimatum. It would be submitting to her terms. He would never get married under pressure, even to a woman he loved. So it was over. His girlfriend had been right about the lifestyle…” (139).
His girlfriend (we don’t learn her name) serves a prop in a story about leaving a company - to show how much of deal-maker he is. Likewise, Mary Fisher, who Levy clearly interviewed extensively, is used as a way to introduce the reader to Whit Diffie and his personality. She’s his “cryptographic muse,” (25). (One of the first interactions the book chronicles is how he mansplained her about keeping exotic animals. But the behavior is excused as “she hasn’t yet cracked his code.”) Even how Mary told Diffie (who would later go on to be her husband) to treat her like a human is framed in terms of his reaction.
“Mary began to reconsider her initial repulsion to Diffie. But, in his failure to decode her, he seemed generally oblivious to her. On his visits he interacted only with the man of the house. After Mary and her husband moved to New Jersey, where he started veterinary school, she would sometimes pick up the ringing phone and hear Diffie’s cuttingly precise voice brusquely ask for her spouse, as if she were an answering service. One day she made her feelings plain. “Look,” she said, “I understand I’m not as bright as you and some of your friends, and I understand your friendship is primarily with my husband. But I don’t really think it would kill you to say hello.” The message got through. Diffie’s demeanor toward Mary dramatically improved, and she was not just startled but saddened when one day in 1971 he told her that he was going to travel for a while.” (4).
If they are not visibly dating someone important to the story, their technical credentials are ignored or downplayed. Levy describes Susan Landau as an “academic researching crypto policy” (168), but in fact, she was originally trained as theoretical computer scientist. Whit Diffie has a girlfriend who worked on an ARPAnet team, but we don’t find out anything about her or what she did (25). Elizabeth Friedman, the first female cryptanalyst, is described as the wife of William Friedman. (33).
It’s infuriating. It encourages the reader to discount any woman who shows up in the story, because clearly their behavior is only relevant in so far as it gives us information about the men, the main characters. There are opportunities to feature technical women, or to tell us stories about people who are not Rivest, Shamir, or Adleman or Diffie or Hellman. But rather, we get the reactions of someone’s wife or girlfriend as a poor substitute. Gender is the most obvious axis in which this marginalization happens in this book, but I’m certain that this also occurs in race - it’s just less obvious because the reader isn’t tipped off by pronouns.
The story Levy has told does not have a main female character. That constraint comes from history. But that is no excuse for discounting, marginalizing, and/or framing in terms of men the women who were actually there. It’s sloppy. And although it may have been more mainstream in 2001, I expect better now.