Author Denise Kiernan brought the story of The Girls of Atomic City to life during Meredith College’s spring 2018 convocation, held on March 13 in Jones Auditorium.
Kiernan discussed her book, The Girls of Atomic City, in which she told the true story of young women during World War II who worked in a secret city dedicated to making fuel for the first atomic bomb.
These women worked on the Manhattan Project, which harnessed the power of fission and resulted in the first nuclear weapons, without knowing it. Their roles in this project were largely left out of the history books.
“The common perspective on the Manhattan Project is a male perspective,” Kiernan said. “We have a tendency to view history from the top down, from the point of view of those leading. Tens of thousands of women and people of color were involved, and without them, this project would not have happened.”
Kiernan spoke about discovering an archival photo of women working in “Atomic City,” which is now known as Oak Ridge, Tenn., and being inspired to explore this story.
“We owe it to ourselves to examine history from as many perspectives as possible,” Kiernan said.
The women whose stories are told in The Girls of Atomic City show what a transformative moment World War II was in the history of women’s work.
Kiernan was able to interview many women who had worked on this project, and most of them did not think they had a story to share.
“For decades, these people had devalued their own role in history,” Kiernan said.
At the end of her lecture, Kiernan encouraged the audience to add to the country’s shared history.
“Tell your own stories and record the stories of others close to you,” Kiernan said. “History needs them. Nobody’s story is too small.”
While at Meredith, Kiernan also visited Assistant Professor of History Angela Robbins’ Women in Global Perspective course.
Students in this class were able to ask Kiernan questions about her career in journalism, the research needed for her projects, and more in-depth questions about The Girls of Atomic City project.
“A student asked her about the process of interviewing people for a project like this,” Robbins said. “She talked about the importance of listening more than you talk and working to make people comfortable so they will open up to you.”
Other questions were about the home front during World War II and how the experience of working during wartime changed women’s lives.
Kiernan's visit was sponsored by the Meredith College Convocation Committee.