The Women of Hanford

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“I look back now and realize this was a free country but we were living behind barbed wire at Hanford, all to protect womanhood. I know that where women were concerned, Hanford could either make you or break you.”

                                    —Jane Jones Hutchins, 1940s Hanford worker

In early production days, women workers had distinctly different experiences at Hanford than their male counterparts. On site, women lived in barracks surrounded by a steel and barbed wire fence which was patrolled by guards to keep male workers out. Sexual assault was not uncommon at the time. Women workers were cheaper to hire than males because they were “paid less and did not qualify for subsidized housing in Richland” (Brown).

Women worked disproportionately in chemical processing roles, ostensibly because they were safer than jobs in the nuclear reactors on site — an assumption that later proved inaccurate. Many women also worked in kitchens and in administrative support roles. A few women scientists played significant roles in the Manhattan Project, including Leona Marshall Libby, an associate of Enrico Fermi, who helped solve the issue of xenon poisoning, which was interfering with plutonium production in Hanford’s reactors. If you want to learn more about the experiences of women in Hanford’s production days, the Atomic Heritage Foundation has a number of oral histories at Voices of the Manhattan Project.

As a woman doing work around Hanford in 2015, I can attest that women continue to have a distinct experience navigating the Hanford world. Even in an age in which women rank highly in managerial positions on site, many of us have experienced being talked down to in conversations about Hanford. I recall one humorous instance in which a young female friend of mine was enduring some unsolicited “education” from a gentleman about Hanford until she politely interrupted to inform him that she was currently finishing up her dissertation on Hanford and was already well-informed on the issues. 16917828829_2be631b428_z

A desire to foster community between Hanford women prompted a group of us to create “Ladies of Hanford,” an informal intergenerational group of women who work on or are interested in Hanford issues. Last week, we had our first meetup, a bowling night inspired by a picture of women Hanford workers bowling in the 1940s. Although my bowling skills are laughable, I had a great time talking Hanford and hanging out with some truly brilliant women. If you are a woman interested in Hanford issues, you can contact Liz at lizm@hanfordchallenge.org to learn more and get involved with Ladies of Hanford.

By: Emily Bays

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