Book by: Denise Kiernan
Review by: Matt Church
Academic Advising Coordinator
University of Louisville

The Girls of Atomic City recounts the role of American women in the Manhattan Project. The work focuses on the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town vital to the Manhattan Project. Recruited from throughout the country and inspired by patriotism, a sense of adventure, and financial need, many women worked in various roles at Oak Ridge and none, initially, knew the purpose of their work. The book is organized into chapters focusing on women’s experiences at Oak Ridge followed by sections detailing the creation of the Atomic Bomb.   

The purpose of the facility, unbeknownst to most of its employees and residents, was to enrich uranium. Kiernan effectively describes the secrecy and security surrounding the project and how it permeated the lives of Oak Ridge residents. Workers recount how they were recruited to work at Oak Ridge, but given no specifics about their particular jobs or the location. They were told not to discuss work and only what was needed to complete their tasks. Despite these restrictions, the women describe Oak Ridge as a self-contained city that attempted to provide opportunity for a normal American life. One particularly interesting chapter relays the reactions of Oak Ridge employees to discovering the purpose of their work. Interestingly, most were in favor of using the bomb to bring about peace and end the war.

Kiernan explores issue of 1940s social inequality within the book. African Americans at Oak Ridge were forced to live in segregated areas of the base and received lesser quality food and housing. Kiernan describes gender inequality, particular in the sciences. She discusses the experiences of one of the statisticians at Oak Ridge, who pursued her field of study because she was told women could not be admitted to engineering and later recounts how female chemists were subject to derogatory comments from male colleagues. Despite these perceptions, the employees at Oak Ridge proved superior to male employees at other sites. At one point, women workers at Oak Ridge were pitted against the PhDs at UC-Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory to see which could enrich more uranium and the Oak Ridge women won handily.

Throughout the work, the American experience of war is portrayed. Women at Oak Ridge mention the participation of relatives in the war as one impetus for working at Oak Ridge and wanting to do their part to help bring an end to the war. Within this secret base, the subjects of the book experience life, find love, and work towards a common goal. Typically, the success of the Manhattan Project is attributed to Oppenheimer, Fermi, and the test at Los Alamos. Kiernan’s book provides more names to attach to the success of the project. The work of these women at Oak Ridge was vital to the American war effort and should be held in great regard.

While not specifically related to academic advising practice, this work can be utilized in an advising setting. The work can be used to demonstrate potential changes in the direction of historical scholarship and to help inform students interested in history about future research areas. In terms of campus life, this would be an excellent work for utilization in Women’s and Gender Studies classes, as well as a potential common reading for campus organizations. It would be beneficial for anyone to read to show the heretofore unpublicized contribution of women to the Manhattan Project.            

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (2013). Book by Denise Kiernan. Review by Matt Church. Bend, OR: Books in Common. 416 pp., $16.00 (Paperback). ISBN 978-1-4516-1753-5

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