The Atomic Heritage Foundation has posted a page entitled “Women and the Bomb” in partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HIstory. This page provides a bit of insight into the lives and contributions of women who were involved with the Manhattan Project, whether solely as spouses of scientists recruited to work at Los Alamos, or as scientists or professionals in their own right. As the text explains:
Women played a very important role in varying aspects of the Manhattan Project. However, because both the military and upper echelons of the scientific community were male dominated, the role of women was often overshadowed. Women participated in both a civilian and a military capacity.
Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the women at Los Alamos worked as scientists. Most women found themselves at the Hill because their husbands had been recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. Isolated from the outside world by barbed-wire fences, and from the intellectual life of the Lab by the stringent regulations which prevented scientists from discussing the project with their spouses, these women had to create new lives and identities for themselves. They were encouraged to work, often taking positions as teachers, assistants, lab technicians, nurses and switchboard operators. Amongst these was Laura Fermi, the wife of Enrico Fermi, the associate director of the laboratories at Los Alamos. In her memoire “Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi,” she wrote:
Apart from the shortage of woman power, which slowly decreased as single girls joined the project, it was an established policy to encourage wives to work. Colonel Stafford Warren, the head of the Health Division of the Manhattan District, placed little faith in women’s moral fortitude. In the early days of the project he declared himself in favor of giving work to the wives to “keep them out of mischief.” The wives were only too happy for an opportunity to peek inside secret places, to share the war effort, to earn a bit of money. I worked three hours, six mornings a week, as clerical assistant to the doctor’s secretary in the Tech Area. I was classified in the lowest category of employees, for I had no special experience or college degree… So, in Los Alamos I was paid at the lowest rate for my three daily hours, which was not much; but I was kept busy, happy, and “out of mischief.” I was given a blue badge that admitted me to the Tech Area but did not permit that I be told secrets; these were all saved for the white badges, the technical personnel.
This is a relatively short summary of the women of the Manhattan Project, and well worth a view. You can read “Women and the Bomb” published June 5, 2014 here.
Atomic Heritage Foundation: Women and the Bomb, June 5, 2014. With references from:
Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1999)
Ruth Marshak, “Life at P.O. Box 1663,” in The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. Cynthia C. Kelly (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007)
Jane S. Wilson and Charlotte Serber, eds.,Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos (Los Alamos, NM: Los Alamos Historical Society, 1988)