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Nuclear Weapons

The Women Who Built the Bomb

February 20, 2018

Women worked on the Manhattan project in every role imaginable. Were they pioneers for equality, or exploited by the war industry?

The men of the Manhattan Project, like J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, tend to get all the credit. But women also made significant—and critical—contributions to the effort to build the first nuclear bomb. At a time when they were discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees and careers, women in the Manhattan project worked as pipe-fitters, inspectors, machine operators, typists, and nurses—as well as doctors, physicists, chemists, and engineers. More women worked on the Manhattan Project than on the comparably-sized Apollo Project, decades later.

Calutron operators at work at the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Calutron operators at work at the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Calutrons refined uranium ore into fissile material.

Department of Energy

Working for the Manhattan Project was taxing—for everyone. Many people were overworked, and women were underpaid. Many of the project sites were top-secret, which meant remote and often austere living conditions, isolation from friends and family, and a need for secrecy that could be crushing.

Manhattan Project site: University of Chicago

The Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago was one of the Manhattan Project’s key research sites. Leona Woods Marshall, a chemist, was hired by Enrico Fermi’s lab in her early 20s and was present when Fermi successfully demonstrated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Katherine Way, who had been a professor at the University of Tennessee, also worked at the “Met Lab” and contributed calculations to the first nuclear chain reaction, the Chicago Pile-1. Way later co-edited a book of essays about scientists’ concerns about the use of the bomb.

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Manhattan Project site: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was built in a hurry. Its main purpose was to produce enriched uranium and plutonium which would be sent to Los Alamos to create nuclear weapons. The government recruited thousands of young women with minimal education and no prior work experience to staff Oak Ridge: 22,000 workers alone ran the complex machines that separated bomb-grade uranium 235 from uranium 238.

A control panel operator at the Y-12 Plant, Oak Ridge Tennessee.

A control panel operator at the Y-12 Plant, Oak Ridge Tennessee. The government recruited tens of thousands of young women for jobs at this Manhattan Project site.

US Department of Energy

Secrecy was tantamount. Most of the women and men at Oak Ridge did not know what they were working on until after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Manhattan Project site: Los Alamos, New Mexico

A small number of women worked as scientists at the famous Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico. The vast majority of the research and development was done by men—men whose wives joined them in the top-secret project site. These women lived behind a guarded fence, isolated from the outside world. Authorities encouraged them to work, and many were hired as teachers, administrative assistants, lab technicians, nurses and switchboard operators. Laura Fermi, the wife of Enrico Fermi, served as a clerical assistant. But women also took on roles of tremendous consequence. Miriam White Campbell, an architecture student who joined the Army in 1943, drew the designs for the internal workings of the gun-type bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima.

A mugshot style photograph of a woman with short curly hair, wearing a suit and a gingham button-down shirt.

When Lilli Hornig, a Harvard-educated chemist, first went to work at Los Alamos, personnel officials asked her how fast she could type. “I don’t type,” Hornig replied. She eventually worked in plutonium chemistry and later on explosives.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

A step toward equity?

What did women’s involvement in the Manhattan Project come to mean? Historians are still grappling with this question. The majority of women who were scientists and researchers continued their careers after the war and paved the way for greater gender equity in academia and science. But they were often undervalued and underpaid compared to male colleagues. For women in lower-skill—and lower-wage—positions, the end of the war often brought an end to their jobs. Social expectations around women’s value as workers seemed to return to what they were in 1940. But many argue that it was the beginning of a cultural shift—and that the women of the Met Lab, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos were an important part of that shift.

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