Breaking the Code of Independence: A Spinster’s Rich Life

Breaking the Code of Independence: A Spinster’s Rich Life

The tiny red country cottage in Georgetown, Washington’s oldest and toniest neighborhood, belonged to a code-breaking spinster who lived to 94.

I mean that word as a badge of honor for America’s top Soviet codebreaker in the Cold War. And much more, according to The Washington Post. Ann Z. Caracristi, who lived there for 65 years, rose to deputy director of the National Security Agency. She advised President Clinton on foreign intelligence.

Sadly, “spinster” gets a bad rap. But not today on 28th Street, northwest, near the breezy blue Potomac River. Curious neighbors squeezed inside a Sunday open house to see what it was like beyond the friendly little fence.

To the community, the bright red house was a shared storybook they had walked by for years and years. Its constancy was a comfort in a city ruled by cycles.

Caracristi’s dollhouse walls, held up with pre-Revolutionary ceiling beams, spoke of a life lived large and full, complete on the winter day she died.

If those walls could talk, maybe they’d tell that unmarried women are a rising force in society, as a brand-new book, “All the Single Ladies” by Rebecca Traister, points out. Watch out.

Let Caracristi’s life speak to an arc of independence. Contrary to popular myth, it’s no tragedy. They say single women are often happier.

Then and now, Washington is an excellent place for capable single women to converge and work in the federal government, especially in wartime. To this day, Washington ranks as the third best state for closing the gender wage gap, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found. Come hither!

Caracristi’s brilliant career shines a light on this, for the young cryptanalyst hit the waves just right. She graduated from college in 1942, in the churn of World War II, and went straight to work for the secretive agency, then called the Signal Intelligence Service. The Post reports she first worked on breaking Japanese shipping codes.

The nation’s capital was exhilarating with working women like her, who kept the homefront war going. On the nation’s waterfronts and in factories, Rosie the Riveter was a symbol of all the women who did heavy work, building airplanes, ships and munitions.

It happens every time. The classic demographic shift is that women thrive in the workplace when men are called to mobilize on land or sea. The military relies on women, too, such as the Navy WAVES in World War II, yet it may forget to honor them with burial at Arlington. This is a source of angst for families, a couple generations down.

And the high wage-earning Rosies got laid off when the winning soldiers and sailors came home. In 1946, after being shooed out of their jobs, these women were pressed to marry fast. What could be better than suburban domesticity at the end of every female quest?

Thus the post-war baby boomers were born, like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They were not an easy lot.

Caracristi was a character who liked her own company. You could just tell, since her spirit dwelled there still in her own solitude. The heart of the house remained intact, with her furnishings: lamps, rugs, art, bed, books, mirrors. It seemed she had left to go to the corner store.

The house is up for sale with all her stuff — less than $900,000 for a precious part of our past. Included: a feel for the dignity of living free and single.

Speaking strictly for me, I wanted to move in and curl up by the fireplace, with “1721” faintly etched in stone. An English sea captain is believed to be the original owner. I’ve always been an Anglophile. And I am a single woman.

The scale of the narrow winding stairs, the cozy bedroom and the sunny garden off the kitchen was perfect for flying solo. The fireplace was dressed up with a pewter collection and framed by the lady’s own library of books. All that was missing was the cat.

Once I was married — to a lawyer in London. On the British marriage certificate, I was listed as a “spinster.” Ironic. Maybe I am again.

If so, I am in excellent company.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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