During WWII a surge of women workers spread across the United States to aid the war effort. Developed initially for the sole purpose of ending the war, Oak Ridge therefore had an immense need for women participants. Baited with good pay, housing, and transportation, women flocked to the rural hills of east Tennessee. Women carried out their duties without protest, slowly inching the United States closer to a weapon more powerful than anything before it. For women workers, however, the purpose of their strange, new jobs were shrouded in absolute mystery.
Women worked in a variety of high and low level positions at Oak Ridge, both in military and civilian capacities. Some, like Anne Keisling, worked as a leak tester for the Y-12 plant.
“They put me in a place where they calibrated leaks… They taught me to use a slide rule and run a formula up and I measured how much air came through this little tube. I don’t know what it was. I don’t know where they used it because they took it to the Secret Building. I wasn’t allowed to go there and I’d just do that over and over.” —Anne Keisling
Keisling, like many women workers, performed crucial tasks to aid the effort of enriching uranium for the first atomic bomb but were left in the dark, even after the war ended. Keisling remembers a man congratulating her, “’You did something that helped a whole lot, you can rest assured you did a great service to help us,’” but as she recalled, “I don’t know what I did.”
For many, it was enough to know they had, in some way, helped put an end to the war. Pauline Maxwell, who worked as a converter reader, which tested the temperature of uranium as it passed through converters, recalls:
“I just couldn’t comprehend it… But I knew we had to do it to win the War.” —Pauline Maxwell
Although their war efforts were never explicitly explained, both Maxwell and Keisling remember their Oak Ridge experiences as an exciting period of their lives.
The effects of such a massive nuclear undertaking would continue to ripple the currents of Oak Ridge for many years to come. Working with top secret chemicals and materials, in many cases, proved detrimental to worker’s health. Letters exchanged between Elizabeth Stephenson, Senator Albert Gore Sr. and the Atomic Energy Commission exhibit the effects of such work.
“I am very sorry that I cannot send you a more encouraging report.” — Albert Gore Sr.
Responding to Miss. Stephenson on her possible radiation poisoning from her work at Oak Ridge, Senator Gore could offer her no resolutions to her initial complaint from 1964.
Likewise, in the letter attached to Gore’s response addressing Stephenson’s illness, the Atomic Energy Commission reviewed her work history and concluded no solution was to be reached. They specify: “We are frankly unable to identify anything in the way of chemicals or materials in, or fumes, released to your laboratory, that could give rise to any long-continued discomfort.”
Women made up an essential group of workers and leaders in Oak Ridge’s secret project. Their sense of patriotism and desire for unconventional work during WWII infused their experiences and stories. In some cases, their histories illustrate the lives of women who for the first time felt independent, acquired new skills, and formed relationships with new people. While there were certain positive aspects to working and living in the secret city, unforeseen consequences slowly emerged. The tasks performed at Oak Ridge by unsuspecting workers highlight a longer tradition of hazardous exposure and public health concerns.
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