"A GOOD WIFE"
From "The Wives of Los Alamos" by TaraShea Nesbit
Before we arrived at Los Alamos as wives and mothers we had been teachers in Seattle, housewives in New Jersey, watercolorists in Nebraska, writers in Des Moines, chemists at Harvard, and one of us had been a dancer in the Chicago ballet. Ingrid, Marie, Pauline, and Marjorie all had B.S.s in mathematics with minors in home economics. We were halfway through school when our husbands asked us to marry them, and it didn’t seem there was a point in continuing: few married women had careers, and our family did not need the extra income. Or we had once wanted to pursue doctoral degrees but were told by our male mentors during our senior year of college, There is no place in higher mathematics for women, no matter how brilliant. Some of us were told, The universities won’t want you, and you’ll be overqualified to teach high school. Many of us did not pursue a doctoral degree but married a man who got one instead. But a couple of us were encouraged to keep going, or kept going despite what our mentors told us, and we, too, became doctors.
And now here there were jobs for us. The Director came to our house and asked us to Please think about working while you’re here, it would be a good career opportunity. And if that failed to get a yes, if we lowered our heads and said, Sorry, no, thanks, he replied, Consider the war.
Our husbands were great physicists and we were considered great secretaries. Or we were hired because the military questioned our moral backbone and wanted to keep us out of mischief. And as secretaries we prepared and fi led personnel cards, or stamped SECRET in red on medical records. We knew first who was moving to another division in the lab and who had an inexplicable rash. Our husbands appeared to know nothing so we were always telling them the news, despite the fact that they were the ones doing important things in the Tech Area.
We were quite happy to peek inside the secret lab, to make a little bit of money, and to share in the war effort. And when we got inside the infamous Tech Area to begin our job as secretary, or calculator, it was, like most things one builds up in one’s imagination, disappointing. The mystery and glamor we’d fabricated was instead a dirty, cluttered, overcrowded mess. But the interior was quickly overlooked by the exciting tempo, casual attire, and jovial atmosphere. Someone was always pulling a practical joke. One bored scientist asked the operator to page Werner Heisenberg, which she did for three days straight— Heisenberg never materialized— until someone told her she’d have to page Berlin instead, as Herr Heisenberg was a famous German physicist working for the other side.
Our first bosses felt that they needed to explain a few things to us and said, Some of the men are exposed to radiation due to tube alloy, and we asked, What’s tube alloy? They blushed and told us to ask our husbands. We knew our husbands: if we were to ask them, they would just give us a mischievous grin. So we did not learn what tube alloy was until much later.
We were secretaries for three hours, six days a week, or we were teachers for eight hours, five days a week. Without any special degree or education, many of us were given the lowest form of security clearance and learned very little of interest. As lab technicians we were paid seventy percent of what a man would make in our position, and the cost of maid services would not be added on to our own salary. When we did the math, we discovered that our family would make only ten percent more a year if we worked than if we did not work. Several of us decided it was too much of a hassle, and we said No, thank you to the job offers. Lucille and Patricia said, No. Katherine, speaking for a large group of us, said, We have babies to take care of. Some of us tried it for a week and quit, ultimately choosing to stay home. And we got others to follow us.
If we were British we were not given clearance to work in the Tech Area, and we were told we could not teach school because our upbringing was very different than the American way, and we did not want to organize a library for residents who were tired of having to go to the one in Santa Fe to get their books. We were busy enough with our jobs as mothers, housekeepers, wives, and social organizers.
One Brit, Genevieve, could not be busy enough. She left her house every morning to visit the other wives on the mesa, to share advice or receive it; or she left town on the bus with an empty bag and returned in the evening with a full one, bringing back a low-point pot roast bought in Santa Fe and announcing a dinner party. She loved a bachelor with a cold, because it meant she could feed and mother him.
If we declined working we were accused of disloyalty to our country. Our husbands said we were being obstinate. Or our husbands said we did not have to do anything we didn’t want to. We worried that if we said yes our home would suffer, our husbands would feel neglected, and our children would become delinquents.
Or we had taught college-level history classes when we were graduate students at Yale, and now we were teaching the children of Nobel laureates, but some of our best students were the children of mechanics. It was not fun to wrangle teenagers who were much more interested in passing notes than history.
Or we would have worked— we’d been a telephone operator once— but our husbands did not think it was a good idea, they thought wives should stay home, and we could see their point to some degree, and though we wanted to get out of the house, though our children were away at school most of the day, though we were stirring, stirring, all day, alone, though it would have been better for us, we did not work.
We had degrees in chemistry and when we said, Okay, thinking we would get a chance to do real research in the Lab, we were asked to take a typing test. And that’s when we said, No. We said No and we were punished with less help. We were tired of being told by men what to do and we said, No. Or we had two toddlers and were not interested in a career in science anymore.
Those of us who worked did so because we were curious or bored, or we did not know how to decline the offer and not feel guilty. And if we did work we were told on our first day not to ask any questions and we didn’t— much.
We were mail carriers and we took long trips down winding cliffs to gather the mail in Santa Fe, escorted by an armed guard. We had mailbags locked to our wrists, and only one person— another woman— had the key. We were scolded by the other women if we did not deliver all the mail immediately. We monitored each piece of outgoing mail and sometimes corrected the grammar, or let the writer know that though she said a check was enclosed, she had forgotten to include it.
We worked in rooms full of only women and we were called calculators. We sat six to a table at calculating machines and processed ten- to fourteen-digit numbers. We clanked and banged continuously. We solved differential equations without access to the physics behind them. We made plots of French curves. Eventually, IBM equipment replaced us. We thought our biggest accomplishment was not our calculations, but the survival of our families in this wild military camp.
As part of a volunteer community protection team, we issued passes to new residents and listened for spies, though we had no idea what we were listening for. We were given a list of watchwords, words we had been hearing around town already. Uranium. Fission. The Gadget. We were told to look for nervousness, to listen for inflection, and we thought we would be brilliant at this kind of work: we had a lifetime of experience in paying attention. But we never caught a spy.
Some of us did things no one will ever know about because we did not discuss our jobs with anyone. There was a fracture: the tired wives who worked in the Lab and had security clearance and the tired wives who did not work in the Lab. We all worked, of course, cleaning, cooking, bathing, loving, but some of us fabricated lenses using molds that reminded us of cookie cutters. Louise went into labor while at work but monitored her contractions with a stopwatch and still finished her experiment before leaving the Tech Area.
We were scientific librarians, personal secretaries, switchboard operators. The Director gave us fatherly advice about the pressures of wartime marriages. We sang Happy Birthday to senior scientists over the PA system.
And after our shift Clara came by and asked us what we did all day and we shrugged, noting how we hated that shrug from our husbands, how we were doing the thing that annoyed us the most, but Susie was polite and knew we could not say and therefore did not ask us. At night we were exhausted and told our husbands, What I need is a good wife.