Manhattan's Missing Women

By Leila A. McNeill

With hundreds of books and academic articles attached to its name, The Manhattan Project has generated a publishing industry as wide-reaching in scope as the Project itself, which many consider to be the largest organized scientific endeavor in history. As a historical inquiry, The Manhattan Project is rife with research possibilities, for it is a site of intersection between science, military, industry, government, and, of course, ethics and values. This also intersects with women’s history, but of all the scholarship written about The Manhattan Project, I can count on one hand the works that highlight the women who were involved.

Much of what has been written focuses on the wives of the scientists, and most of it is first-hand accounts of the women themselves. Laura Fermi, Enrico Fermi’s wife, wrote Atoms in the Family, a short book about her whirlwind life with Enrico, from his childhood self-education in physics to their immigration to America to flee the Italian fascist regime. In Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, nine women recount their experiences living in Los Alamos-- the abysmal living conditions, the secrecy, and the Pueblo natives. Most recently in the popular history sphere, first-time fiction writer TaraShea Nesbit has written The Wives of Los Alamos, an historical fiction about life in the desert town based on true accounts, though Nesbit’s choice to use the first person plural as the narrator makes it nearly impossible to determine who is who and what is what. Similarly, The WGN series Manhattan represents women predominantly as wives, which ends up telling us more about their brilliant scientist husbands than the wives themselves. 

I find this singular representation of the women involved in the Manhattan Project to be problematic. To be clear, in no way am I implying that the experience of the wives who lived and breathed The Project is negligible. But, I do question why there was virtually no scholarship on the women who worked in The Project itself until 1999 when two female physicists Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg wrote Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It would be another decade before the next serious investigation of women and gender in the Project was published, Science on the Homefront: American Scientists in World War II by Jordynn Jack, an English professor. Additionally, there wasn’t anything in the popular history sector until 2013 with journalist Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women who Helped Win World War II. Untold stories, indeed, none of which were eventually told by historians.

From 1942-1946, the Project operated in three major locations, Hanford, WA, Oak Ridge, TN, and Los Alamos, NM, and a fourth minor location, under the football stadium at the University of Chicago (minor in size, not in importance). The Hanford location contained the first production-scale plutonium reactor, which transmuted irradiated uranium into plutonium- the fissile plutonium that was ultimately used in Fat Man and devastated Nagasaki. In Oak Ridge, three uranium enrichment plants separated the fissile isotope uranium-235 from uranium metal. The famous Los Alamos site overseen by J. Robert Oppenheimer was where the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy were actually constructed. At the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and a small team of scientists witnessed the first controlled and self-sustained nuclear chain reaction in 1942. At all four locations, women were active every step of the way.

Unlike the space program (see previous two issues), women worked on all levels of the Project. At the peak of Hanford’s population in 1944, 9% of the 51,000 employees were women, and 30% of the employees in the Tech Area, hospitals, and schools at Los Alamos were women. At Oak Ridge, the population peaked at 70,000, and though I could not find definitive demographics, others have speculated that more women worked at the Oak Ridge site than any of others. Compared to the Apollo program when at its peak in 1965, NASA employed 5.4% of the nation’s scientists and engineers, and of that 5.4% only 3% were women. This sharp drop off in female employment in science and tech between the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program is, I believe, evidence of two things: the expanding labor opportunities for women in war time and the subsequent decline in opportunities in peacetime and the increasing masculinization of tech jobs.

By comparing these two big science projects, I am not implying that the projects are the same, for both happened under different historical situations and cultural tensions unique unto themselves. The comparison to which I am drawing attention is the way women have been omitted from these two histories. While the Margaret Hamiltons were extremely rare in the Apollo Program, that was not so in The Project. 

The two women typically associated with The Manhattan Project, Ida Noddack and Lise Meitner, were only tangentially related to it through their individual contributions to nuclear science. The former was initially disregarded for her challenge to Fermi’s work, and the latter declined an invitation to work on the Project. Both Noddack and Meitner are easy to integrate into the historiography of the Project because their work was that of discovery and invention, which most closely resembles the work of their male colleagues, the Oppenheimers and Szilards.

Perhaps the secrecy and intense compartmentalization of tasks across the Project has made it difficult to piece together a coherent history of the women involved. Perhaps our current perception of STEM as a masculinized field imposes an anachronistic understanding of women’s past involvement in big science, indirectly making us overlook their contributions. Or perhaps, even when women are overwhelmingly present, we refuse to see and hear them.

I am impatient with the acceptance and normalcy of women’s absence from history. In historical narratives where women’s voices are silent, we must question that silence and search for meaning in their omission, for women are present in every narrative, especially in the silenced spaces.

Further Reading:
Julie Des Jardins, The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (Women Writing Science) (New York: The Feminist Press, 2010).

Charles W. Johnson and Charles O. Jackson, City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1981).