By Leila A. McNeill
When researching the piece I wrote about the women of the Manhattan Project, I read a particular story from The Girls of the Atomic City that has stuck out in my mind over the months. Recall Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the site of three uranium enrichment plants, Y-2, K-25, and S-50, which separated the fissile isotope uranium-235 from uranium metal. Ernest Lawrence, administrative lead of The Project, and Colonel Kenneth Nichols, head of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, decided to compete to see which one of the Oak Ridge plants could produce the most U-235 the quickest-- the plants run by the male PhDs or the “hillbilly girls” from the backwoods of Tennessee. Ultimately, Lawrence’s PhDs lost to the hillbillies.
Lawrence believed that the problem with the male scientists was that they got caught up science-ing and had become distracted from doing the actual labor necessary to complete the task. On the other hand, the hillbilly girls won because according to Nichols they were more like soldiers in that they would follow orders without asking questions. Science was for the men; taking orders was for the women. In a 1943 booklet put out by the U.S. War Department, the government and military supported and legitimized such views: “Women can be trained to do any job you’ve got…” (found in Light pg. 482). Yet, despite women’s ability to get a job done accurately and efficiently, this wasn’t seen necessarily as a valued skill. Rather, as the pamphlet goes on to show, it was a notion steeped in sexism: “...but remember ‘a woman is not a man;’ A woman is a substitute--like plastic instead of metal.” These women were malleable, replaceable, and dispensable.
The Manhattan Project is not the only place where we find this gendered separation of science and labor. During this same time period, women who served as computers were active at Bletchley Park in Britain, another secret wartime mission concurrent with the Manhattan Project that demanded an around the clock workforce. Prior to World War II, the Harvard Observatory employed a group of over 80 women astronomers who worked under Edward Pickering from 1877-1919 cataloguing and classifying thousands of stars. They were insultingly dubbed “Pickering’s Harem.” After World War II and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, NASA for the first time actively sought to employ black women. Despite the superficial image of this racially progressive workplace, black women were separated from the white women and were referred to as the “West Computers” to designate their difference and their segregated area of Langley. Both white and black women served the same function as “mathematical ground troops in the Cold War” analyzing incredible amounts of data to help send the US to the moon. Though the goals and context of these big science projects are quite different, a pattern emerges in the shared act of delineating men’s work from women’s work in the realm of science and technology.
Simply employing these women computers for big science projects wasn’t always a progressive anomaly in an era where workplace chauvinism was commonplace-- it was often another manifestation of that chauvinism. Long-standing beliefs that aligned men with the mind and science created the foundation in which sexist hiring practices and gendered separations of scientific work took root. The creation or production of scientific knowledge was viewed as a male trait, and it remained so, not because women were incapable, but because women had been systematically excluded from education and positions of power that would grant them such opportunity or acknowledgment. Moreover, this cultural belief that science and thought were inherently male traits informed a perhaps unconscious understanding that the work that men performed in these spaces was Science. Everything else, the time-consuming, labor intensive, hands-on work of calculation, cataloguing, and analysis, was something separate and less-than. As Nichols concisely illustrated with his belief about the hillbilly girls from Tennessee, women were more suited for the labor, which clearly was not actual Science because that was what the men were doing over in the other plant.
The computing tasks these women performed were often compared to housework. The attention to minute detail in doing calculations by hand resembled the precision of needle work. Grace Hopper said that programming a machine was just like planning a dinner. At Langley, women’s hands were a hot commodity. The dexterity of their thin fingers and the smaller size of their hands supposedly made women particularly well-suited for using manual adding machines. And as with any other type of work thought to be ‘women’s work,’ these positions when occupied by women were always paid less than men’s, no matter one's education or skill level. The women at the Harvard Observatory received half the payment as men. NASA’s women computers were classified as “sub-professional,” whereas men with similar qualifications were hired as Junior Engineers and thus classified as “professional,” a status which gave them almost double the starting salary as a woman. This gendered separation in sub-professional and professional status for the exact same job shows that it wasn’t the work itself that created a hierarchy of science over science-related labor but rather who was doing that work.
The way these women were represented in media and in their scientific communities during their time has further contributed to their invisibility in the history books. As Jennifer Light points out in her article “When Computers Were Women,” J. Presper Eckhert and John W. Mauchly were the faces of ENIAC that the majority of the media presented to the public during WWII. In published photographs of ENIAC’s workers in action, women were often intentionally cut out of the frame. When women were shown in photographs, their titles reflected sub-professional work like “setting switches” or “standing at function tables,” but men featured doing the exact same job received the status “maintenance engineers,” which denoted skill and expertise. While white women computers were shown as sub-professional and unskilled, black women computers were almost never shown in photographs at all, even though they made up a large number of the computers at NASA. Black women were rarely represented to the public, which has contributed to the near erasure of their presence in the history of computing.
In these work spaces, Science and labor were inherently gendered iterations of the same type of work. Science has always been privileged over the labor, so we must be aware when making a distinction between the two that relationships of gender and power were and still are pervasive in how we write and think about that distinction. To ignore that is to render these women invisible and to de-value and de-skill the scientific and mathematical work that women do and have always done.