Filed Under Women and Gender

Women in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project

With the war effort withdrawing men from the domestic labor force, women became an increasingly important part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos.

Wartime labor shortages were a constant struggle for the United States during World War II. They needed to send troops overseas, develop weaponry, spy on their enemies, strategically plan, and mobilize the entire nation as quickly as possible. By 1943, the United States Army was 200,000 men short for their invasion on D-Day, they were in need of 315 more physicists for their defense projects, and the Manhattan Project was desperately in search of all kinds of labor from scientists and engineers to machinists and pipefitters. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into existence the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps established “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of women of the nation” on May 15, 1942. Still facing discrimination, unequal pay, and fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, women played an essential role in World War II, especially in Los Alamos. 

Because Los Alamos was such a restricted town and the directors wanted to limit the number of outsiders, General Leslie Groves encouraged wives of scientists to work on the project in whatever capacity they could. As an incentive, they provided nursery schools for their young children to aid with childcare. Despite the government’s encouragement, some women were still hesitant to work on the project over concerns for their family’s well-being. Many had not expected to work at all, and quite a few were dissatisfied with the living conditions in which they now were expected to raise their children. Charlotte Serber, the only female group leader at the laboratory, wrote, “For the potential working wife, there was one chief worry. Could she manage her home here on the mesa and work too?” These were fair concerns. The conditions under which they were expected to work were difficult. They were isolated from extended family, were allowed only one day off of work per month for shopping in Santa Fe, were expected to work forty-eight hours in a week, and had almost no bargaining power to shift their rules or salary. They were also far less likely to gain security clearance than their male counterparts, so it was unlikely that they knew what they were helping create. 

Despite these stringent circumstances, many women in Los Alamos did work on the secretive atomic gadget. By October 1944, women constituted about 30% of the labor force in the Tech Area, hospital, and schools. It is also notable that although they did employ some women in clerical positions, the vast majority were scientists or technicians. They were metallurgists, engineers, physicists, chemists, and teachers, involved in every aspect of the atomic effort until the very end. The exception for this participation was in Project Alberta. This was the very last phase of the project; the physical delivery of the bomb to the Pacific island Tinian where the nuclear components were assembled before being dropped on Japan. Women who had spent years contributing to this moment were left behind in the United States to learn about the bombingsfrom the same newspapers as everyone else. However, the atomic bomb could not have been built as quickly or efficiently as it was without the contribution of women. They faced gender discrimination, suboptimal conditions, and unfair pay to contribute to the atomic effort in Los Alamos. 

Images

WAC March in Los Alamos
WAC March in Los Alamos Women’s Army Corps (WAC) marching in Los Alamos. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
ID Photo: Charlotte Serber
ID Photo: Charlotte Serber Charlotte Serber ID badge for her position as Los Alamos site librarian and group leader. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
WAC in Los Alamos
WAC in Los Alamos Women Army Corps members at Los Alamos. Photograph courtesy of and used with permission by the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Location

Metadata

Abigail Beus, Brigham Young University, “Women in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project,” Intermountain Histories, accessed February 22, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/756.