The Girls of the Atomic City

Cover image for The Girls of the Atomic City by Denise Kiernanby Denise Kiernan

eISBN 978-1-4516-1754-2

“She had spent years not knowing, wondering, sometimes guessing, and then giving up. She had accepted the need and duty to not know; and now this. Today, for no apparent reason, without any warning and out of the sweltering summer blue, came the Secret.”

In 1942, the American government began buying up and seizing a significant amount of land in the hills of East Tennessee. This was nothing new for the locals; land had been taken from them by the government before, first for the creation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and then again for the construction of the Norris Dam. And of course, that land had first been taken from the Cherokee. But this seizure was different. Fast and secretive, soon an entire town stood where there had been only a few scattered farmsteads before, a town guarded and secured by the military. And from all over the region, women began arriving, many of them living away from home for the first time. They had been offered jobs, but told nothing about them. They knew only that their purpose was to help bring about “a speedy and victorious end to the war.” For many of them, that was all they needed to know, when their other choice was to wait at home for brothers, and fathers, and lovers to return from the war. And most of them would not learn the truth until “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, ushering in the atomic age they helped create.

After introducing the code name for uranium—tubealloy—in the opening pages, Denise Kiernan refers to it by that code name throughout the text, until after the Secret is out. The narrative actually begins with the revelation of the Secret, but then circles back to show how the eight main women Kiernan follows arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). The chapters alternate between the women’s lives and work in Oak Ridge, and chapters about the science and history of the Manhattan Project—things the women in Tennessee knew nothing about at the time. This is part of Kiernan’s strategy of compartmentalization, designed to mimic in literary form the secrecy that the CEW employees operated under during the war. The view from within CEW is narrow and circumscribed, each woman confined to her own role. Talking about your work was forbidden, and anyone might be a spy. The Tubealloy chapters treat history and science more broadly, although the two begin to bleed together as the Secret comes closer to being revealed. Many other books have been written about the Manhattan Project, and these chapters largely retread familiar ground if this is not your first read on the subject.

Kiernan’s unique angle is the women who formed much of the workforce in Oak Ridge. The rationale for hiring so many women was part practical and part cynical. With so many men gone to war, women had to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers. But young women with only a high school education were also considered biddable; it was easier to get them to follow orders without asking questions. The curiosity of women who had pursued higher education was looked at askance, a potential security risk. University types in general—male and female—were considered a particular security risk because of the unusual amount of Communist literature that circulated on university campuses. A test at the plants showed that the high school graduates could produce more Product in a shift than the PhD scientists, and by quite a significant margin. They didn’t theorize or tinker; they just worked. Although women formed a good part of the Oak Ridge work force, they still faced inequality. Jane Greer, a statistician, knew that she was making less money than the men who worked below her in the department she supervised. Nor could women serve as “head of household,” disqualifying families without a man present at CEW from applying for a shared house or apartment.

Kiernan also draws attention to the situation of black workers at CEW. Her primary window into this world is Kattie Strickland, who came to Oak Ridge with her husband to work as a janitor. They had to leave their children behind with family in Auburn, Alabama; black children were not allowed to live with their families at CEW. In fact, Kattie and her husband didn’t get to live together either. When demand for white housing outstripped the expected pace, the allotted black subdivision was handed over, and black couples had to continue living in gender segregated hutments. Segregation applied to the community’s social life as well. The temporary town already survived in pioneer conditions, but the black workers had it worse. Kiernan also brings up the case of Ebb Cade, a black construction worker whose hospital stay after a car accident was transformed into an opportunity for the Project to investigate—without Cade’s knowledge or consent—the potential dangers of plutonium for the human body.

Kiernan carries on a little bit beyond the war, documenting Oak Ridge’s growing pains in the transition from secret government facility to proper municipality. Her follow up on the lives of the women is largely limited to their marriages and families; most do not seem to have had careers after the war. Nothing is said about how they felt about that transition. Similarly, Kiernan largely restricts herself to documenting how the women felt about the bomb at the time of its revelation, long before its significant fallout was clear. Most were simply happy that the war was coming to end, although some expressed reservations about the bomb being deployed against civilians. As for reflection, one of the women, Colleen, “hoped never to see the bomb she helped fuel used again. She continued to hope that the first time was the last.”

The Girls of the Atomic City explains the Manhattan project in understandable terms for those who have never read about it before. But more compelling are the stories of the women who lived and worked under such unusual conditions, labouring away on a project they knew nothing about. For better or worse, it is difficult to imagine placing so much trust in the government or the military today.

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3 thoughts on “The Girls of the Atomic City

  1. This book has been on my to read list for a long time now… time to bump it up a few places! I’m also looking forward to Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about African-American women that worked as “human computers” for NASA. The history of that time is so wide and deep and interesting!

  2. This seems like it would be a great book to pair with The Atomic Weight of Love, a fictional story about a woman who gives up her career to move to Los Alamos with her husband. I don’t know how I haven’t read this yet! With its combination of history, science, and social commentary, it’s definitely my kind of read 🙂

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