Under his eye

How resisters throughout history used secret messages to overcome their oppressors

In the new season of "The Handmaid’s Tale," hidden messages become a powerful tool of resistance.

Under his eye

How resisters throughout history used secret messages to overcome their oppressors

In the new season of "The Handmaid’s Tale," hidden messages become a powerful tool of resistance.

In 1929, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson closed the U.S. Cipher Bureau, the country’s very first code-cracking agency, famously declaring, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

If only.

Throughout history, the ability to secretly exchange information without an enemy catching wind has been a crucial strategy to ultimately achieving victory. “Coded messaging has always been part of resistance movements in the Americas, dating back to indigenous resistance to colonial encroachment,” said Jeff Biggers, author of "Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition."

While technology has undoubtedly changed the type of covert communications used over time—that bureau Stimson closed became the basis of what we know today as the NSA— the philosophy remains the same: whoever can deliver their messaging without getting caught will have the upper hand.

Whoever can deliver their messaging without getting caught will have the upper hand.
Whoever can deliver their messaging without getting caught will have the upper hand.

But what happens when power and resources are unequal? What happens when one side does not have meaningful military or governmental support? As history has shown us, successful movements require networks of brave people who must think outside of the box in order to fight for change.

Today, resisters understand that visual symbols, too, have the power to effect change. Women across the country have protested what they see as oppressive legislation by showing up to courthouses and marching on Washington in red handmaid’s robes—a nod to Hulu’s "The Handmaid’s Tale." The robe has become a powerful symbol of resistance, communicating that women cannot—and will not—be controlled.

The following creative moments of resistance remind us that everyday individuals have the power to subvert oppression.

As Biggers noted: “To resist, ultimately, is to create another future.”

Covering their tracks

Covering their tracks

In the early- and mid-nineteenth century, tens of thousands of American slaves escaped from their owners and traveled to free states or Canada to live freely. At some point, a network of safe houses and escape routes became known as the Underground Railroad. Slaves knew they were risking their lives by trying to escape to freedom, so communicating covertly was their only option.

“Enslaved Africans and African Americans embedded codes in songs, including adopted gospels, that served to organize secret meetings, escape plans and uprisings,” said Biggers.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans embedded codes in songs, including adopted gospels...
Enslaved Africans and African Americans embedded codes in songs, including adopted gospels...

Surviving documents suggest that some abolitionists used code words and sounds to communicate about the travel routes of escaped slaves, but the exact details aren’t totally clear. It’s been rumored that people used railroad terminology—like “conductor,” “station,” and “passenger”—to discuss escape routes and hiding spaces.

Much of what we’ve heard about the Underground Railroad cannot ever truly be verified, as the very nature of it was secret.

While many escaped with simply the North Star to guide them, coded communications were an effective part of the network used by abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and William Still.

Cookbooks with an ulterior motive

Cookbooks with an ulterior motive

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, women across America published cookbooks to educate women about voting equality and raise money for their cause—something considered highly rebellious at the time.

In The Woman Suffrage Cookbook, published in Boston in 1886, editor Hattie Burr included recipes, as well as a chapter called Eminent Opinions on Woman. The Suffrage Cook Book, published in Pennsylvania in 1915, contained recipes like Suffrage Angel Cake and Suffrage Pie interspersed with encouragements from politicians.

The Suffrage Cook Book...contained
recipes ... interspersed with encouragements
from politicians.
The Suffrage Cook Book...contained
recipes ... interspersed with encouragements
from politicians.

These cookbooks did not contain hidden messages or codes per se, but they were undoubtedly subversive. They sent an eduring message that women will not be silenced.

Women who sought the vote were widely sneered at, and married women or mothers who were also suffragists were accused of ignoring their “household responsibilities” to fight for political power. People against the enfranchisement of women did not want suffragettes raising money or spreading awareness for their cause—but the women did so anyway, right under their noses, through creative outlets like cookbooks.

Like Biggers said, “Creative resistance has been a quintessential part of the American experience.”

Morse code in a pop song

Morse code in a pop song

In 2010, the Colombian army wanted to reach members of the armed forces being held hostage by FARC guerrillas. The hostages were often held in extremely remote areas, and had no contact with anyone besides their kidnappers.

One creative agency knew just what to do.

“We got intelligence from the army that those people, the kidnapped, were allowed to listen to music on small radios... early in the morning, like 3 am to 4:30 am,” said Juan Carlos Ortiz, an advertising executive at DDB Worldwide. They also knew that soldiers learned Morse code during military training.

In order to reach the kidnapped—many of whom had been hostages for years—DDB created a song containing a message in Morse code: 19 people rescued. You’re next! Don’t give up hope.

We got intelligence from the army that those people, the kidnapped, were allowed to listen to music on small radios...
We got intelligence from the army that those people, the kidnapped, were allowed to listen to music on small radios...

The resulting song aired on government-controlled radio stations in rural areas where the army believed hostages might be listening.

“The song is like a romantic song,” Ortiz said. “But really, it was built with beeps on drums and guitar sending Morse code.”

Ortiz and the DDB team did not know if their song had the intended effect for years after creating it. However, the army shared some information after the operation became declassified. “Yes, some of them got the messages,” Ortiz said. And most likely: The FARC guerrillas had absolutely no clue.

The last FARC hostages were finally released in 2012.

The red thread

The red thread

“Artists, including writers, have always played a critical role in resistance movements,” said Biggers. “They have allowed oppressed populations to imagine and envision other ways of living, and emboldened them to take on seemingly impossible odds for social change.”

And sometimes fictional art has the power to jog this type of imagination as well—letting us live alongside people in unthinkable circumstances, broadening our empathy and offering perspective.

The women of Gilead will continue
fighting back
The women of Gilead will continue
fighting back

In Hulu’s hit show "The Handmaid’s Tale," members of the Mayday resistance movement use covert messages to fight against Gilead, a totalitarian regime—like the carving of “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (meaning “don’t let the bastards grind you down”) in protagonist June’s closet. Other messages enable the enslaved citizens to rebel “under the eye” of their oppressors. For example, when the butcher says he has “a fine cut of meat for Commander Waterford,” he’s referring to a package of letters from women in Gilead, pleading for help from the outside world.

In the new season of "The Handmaid’s Tale," the women of Gilead will continue fighting back. The season will begin with June briefly getting a chance to see her daughter Hannah, who has been stolen from her. Before she must leave, June will tie a red thread around the little girl’s wrist—a secret sign that Hannah’s mother was there and to not lose hope.