"X"-ing Site "Y": Manhattan's Portrayal of Women at Los Alamos

By Nathan Kapoor

Manhattan is drama’s latest foray into the history of the atomic bomb, a topic, which given its rich historical literature, should have yielded a fascinating TV series.  The history of the atomic bomb contains everything a good screenwriter needs to craft an engaging drama-- harsh secrecy, families struggling in the strange new environment of Los Alamos, the thrill of atomic destruction, and all the uncertainty and paranoia of the top secret war effort. These are the things at which Manhattan excels, and they are also the things with which the historiography of the Manhattan Project itself seems most preoccupied. Where the show really encounters problems is in its representation of women. And in some sense, who can blame them; as Leila will explain, the history of The Manhattan Project is notoriously bad with women and gender. Its reproduction of Great Man History, the anachronistic importation of some especially pernicious forms of 20th century sexism, and its mishandling of the few women who are shown to participate in the Project are all symptoms of larger inadequacies in the retelling of the story of the bomb.

Every celebrated stereotype about American women in the 1940s is fulfilled in the invented character of Abby Isaacs. Abby, a young housewife with at least a French class from Princeton, came to Los Alamos with her husband and two-year old son. In the early episodes, Abby, along with other wives, briefly demonstrates how physically and mentally difficult such a move would have been. However, the story Abby could have been used to tell was tossed aside for a dramatic affair. Instead of seeing these women as part of the scientific and technological effort, you can see them gossiping, tanning, forcing soldiers to wash their cars shirtless, and in Abby’s case, having an identity crisis that results in  an affair with her female French neighbor Elodie. Abby could have been representative of so many women that were as much a part of the Manhattan Project as their ‘scientific’ spouses. There were women scientists and technicians in the laboratory, but women outside of the laboratory were as necessary as anyone labeled a “scientist.” The purpose of the Project was dictated by the military and scientific authorities, but as Denise Kiernan so eloquently stated in Girls of the Atomic City, “women infused the job site with life, their presence effortlessly defying all attempts to control and plan and shape everyday existence.”  Abby’s character was not granted that kind of power. Her purpose was to have a love affair, complicate the life of her ‘important’ husband, and for the writers to pretend to be familiar with Proust. 

In contrast with the previous two characters, the writers saw fit to include one lady in the lab…but not really. Dr. Helen Prins was labelled as the most brilliant mathematician in the implosion group, the bomb design developed to begin a fission reaction with plutonium, but the show never really allows her to demonstrate any brilliance or usefulness. Rather, Helen is cast to play a number of roles, each of which embodies a negative stereotype about women who step outside of traditionally feminine gender norms. There are several moments in the show where she exclaims, “I make my own decisions.” The writers were invoking a tired feminist trope rather than an actual feminist. However, her role in the lab is explicitly sexualized; she is shown sleeping with members of her team, guiding them to prostitutes, and tempting the stalwart Dr. Isaacs to commit adultery while touring the uranium facilities at Oak Ridge. This seems to only fulfill past and current perceptions and expectations of women who do not conform to strict gender roles. Dr. Prins then becomes nothing more than a sexual distraction in the laboratory that corrupts the science. The writers use her to fulfill their strong female character quota–the one that exists in the domain of men, at the very least, to acknowledge inequality as if to pardon the absence of inclusion elsewhere in the show.

One of the most curious female characters in the show is Dr. Liza Winter, the wife of Dr. Frank Winter, the leader of the implosion bomb design team. She is oddly similar to the outspoken Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s wife. Coincidentally, Kitty and Liza both held degrees in botany and had a troubled past. On the surface, Liza serves as a moral check to Frank Winter’s work on the bomb. If, however, we look further her character becomes representative of many of the prejudices against women that were and still are commonplace in science. She is written as moody and emotional and is often portrayed as resentful of the authorities, like the military officers. Thus, she cannot do real science and does not belong. Further, her scientific inclinations also sequester her from the rest of the housewives as she defies prescribed gender roles with which they identify. While her doctorate in botany might appear at first a license to participate in the community, it really only serves as another indication that women were not a part of the real science. Botany, like home economics, sociology, psychology, etc., was not a noble or masculine science in Western tradition, rather it was a feminine science. How can you compare unlocking the secrets of the atom to picking flowers? 

The show packs quite a few gendered scientific stereotypes into the character of Dr. Liza Winter. Apart from the time she is portrayed as a housewife, she takes up studying mutated flowers and beekeeping in her spare time. This is connected with botany to be sure, but it is also indicative of a historical association between women and Nature that has been so often reinforced by men of science. After her other projects ceased, Liza took up working in the hospital to care for irradiated soldiers, as of yet unaware of the nature of their burns. Liza’s role here as nurse reinforces the assumption that women are well-suited to nurturing. After the death of her plants and bees and her discovery of radiation as the cause, the writers anachronistically forced Dr. Winter to embody an eco-feminist trope, which did not really emerge as an identity until the 1970s. The writers force a false equivalency between Liza and people like Rachel Carson, who inspired the beginnings of the environmental movement.

So why even write about such a show? Despite the problems I have with the writing and direction the show has taken, I support demystifying the Manhattan Project and portraying the involved parties as human rather than legend. Though few of the many women in the show are written to be more than a backdrop, Manhattan is not alone in re-tellings of the Manhattan Project that exclude women, displaced local populations, non-white, and even non-American participation. Half a century’s worth of historiography is guilty of the same type of exclusion by celebrating the few major scientific actors. Would it not be worth tapping into the lives of the women involved in the Manhattan Project? And in doing so celebrate the roles they played rather than only identifying them as dial operators There were women like Joanne S. Gailar, Jane WilsonLill Hornig, and Phyllis Fisher that were just as crucial to the completion of the atomic bomb as male theoretical physicists. There were people other than J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves that have their part to own and their own story to tell in the creation of an atomic weapon. With some work and the support of a more inclusive body of history, Manhattan could be a great medium for challenging the historiography of the Manhattan Project, and the show could facilitate discussion over what constitutes science and who gets to participate.

Further Reading:
Mariner, Rosemary B. and Piehler, G. Kurt, eds. The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives. Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 2009.

Roensch, Eleanor Stone. Life within Limits: Glimpses of Everyday Life at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Seen through the Experiences of a Young Female Soldier while on Military Service There, May 1944-1946. Los Alamos, New Mexico: Los Alamos Historical Society, 1993.


Nathan Kapoor holds a BA in History from Tennessee Technological University and an MA in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine from the University of Oklahoma. Currently, he is working on his doctoral degree in the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma researching the ways electrical generation supported and undermined the British Empire. Contact Nathan through email at nnkapoor42@ou.edu, on Twitter at @nathan_kapoor, or at nathankapoor.com.