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Women of the Manhattan Project

By Evangeline Leggatt (@evie_leggatt)

Traditional narratives of the Manhattan Project emphasise a group of heroic white male physicists in the United States who succeeded in creating, testing, and using the world’s first atomic weapons. Perhaps the most recognisable figure in atomic history was the project’s scientific leader, Dr J. R. Oppenheimer. Other prominent male figures include Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi. What is missing from the narrative, however, are the contributions and experiences of the thousands of women who worked and lived on the Manhattan Project.

One reason for this historical amnesia was the widespread belief amongst the American public and global scientific community in the early twentieth century that women were incapable of learning scientific subjects. Women were regarded as ‘soft, maternal creatures’, whereas science required ‘ruthless rationality’.[1] Austrian-born chemist Lise Meitner played a leading role in her collaborations during the 1930s. Yet she was later described by a male scientist as a ‘sort of assistant’.[2] Meitner had interpreted the findings of fellow chemist Enrico Fermi, and even coined the term ‘fission’, the chemical process underlying the nuclear bomb. Yet, in 1944, Meitner’s male colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission.[3]

The belief that women were ‘soft-maternal creatures,’ led some American institutions to bar women from their physics or chemistry courses, and many imposed anti-nepotism rules, meaning women could not work within the same departments as their husbands if they wished to marry. Women were often denied the same opportunities to study and work in the scientific realm as men, often being confined to lower-ranking institutions. Yet, World War Two demanded a workforce, and the Manhattan Project leaders were forced to hire anybody with the right experience, regardless of gender.

The largest group of women working on the Manhattan Project was at the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Y-12 Plant was home to calutrons which separated the fissionable uranium-235 from uranium-238 using electromagnets. The physicists who built the calutrons were looking for a certain type of person to operate them. Women who had high school degrees and could be taught to watch the meters and keep them within certain limits, yet would have an insufficient knowledge of science to work out what the calutrons were doing, were the perfect operators.[4] Physicists purportedly argued that ‘Our wives all drive automobiles. Do they have to know about the principles of combustion?’[5] Male physicists reacted with surprise when the women operators did ‘extraordinarily well’ at operating the calutrons.[6]

The experiences of female scientists on the Manhattan Project reveal the most interesting and complex gendered aspect of the project. They revealed a transcendence of the ‘feminine’ home front, to the ‘masculine’ realms of war and science. Physicists Leona Woods and Elisabeth ‘Diz’ Graves fell pregnant during their time working on the Manhattan Project. Woods hid her pregnancy under her bulky overalls, and Graves timed her contractions with a stopwatch whilst working on an experiment. Woods took just two days maternity leave, suggesting that she removed herself from ‘femininity’ in order to continue working on the nuclear reactor. In later recollections of her time on the Manhattan Project, Woods spoke little about her pregnancy, for it ‘underscored how different she was from men in the lab’.[7] After the birth of their child, Woods and her husband, John Marshall, moved to Hanford, Washington, where plutonium production reactors were being constructed. Woods distanced herself from the domestic world of women in order to devote herself to the production of plutonium, delegating childcare duties to her mother. This was not without male detractors, who resented her lack of maternal concern, although they said nothing of the sort about John Marshall.[8]

Contributions made by women were largely written out of male scientists’ recollections of the project. For example, even though Leona Woods called out the counts on 2 December 1942 under the stands of Stagg Field, few of the men present recalled Woods’ presence at the sustained chain reaction.[9] To celebrate their success, the scientists had shared a bottle of Chianti, and all those present signed the label as a memento. Perhaps, had her name not been on the Chianti label, or if she had not written Uranium People, Woods’ contribution might have been completely forgotten.[10] Similarly, Katherine Way had been a member of Fermi’s team, analysing data from atomic piles, and to the understanding of fission-product decay which led to the Way-Wigner formula, yet few people recorded her contributions.[11]

Investigating the lives and experiences of women on the Manhattan Project reveals how men and women were viewed in relation to science and war during the early twentieth century. Their stories were deliberately written out of the historiography of the project in an attempt to maintain the masculine image of the project that military and scientific men desired. Yet, despite gendered segregation and compartmentalisation, women lived and worked there with ardour, and their stories are finally beginning to be told.


[1] Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 348.

[2] Raymond Sheline Oral History Lecture in 1995, Voices of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Heritage Foundation <https://www.manhattanprojectvoices.org/oral-histories/raymond-shelines-lecture> [Accessed 10 December 2020].

[3] Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), p. 32.

[4] Julie Des Jardins, The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (New York: Feminist Press, 2010), p. 144.

[5] Howes and Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun, p. 169

[6] Theodore Rockwell, Atomic Heritage Foundation oral history, 9 August 2005 in The Manhattan Project ed. by Kelly, p. 206.

[7] Jardins, p. 148-149.

[8] Jardins, p. 148.

[9] Howes and Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun, p. 38.

[10] Jardins, pp. 147-148.

[11] Howes and Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun, pp. 42-43.

Image: Austrian-born Lise Meitner’s contribution to atomic science has been largely forgotten. <https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/lise-meitner > Taken from Flickr.

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