Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Equality -- a curious and elusive concept

The News Hour (PBS) just aired an interview with Denise Kiernan, author of a new book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, about the female workers of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who in the 1940s played a role in constructing the atomic bomb. They did this, according to Kiernan, while completely in the dark about it. [Photo: James Edward Westcott/National Archives]

Ray Suarez asked her to discuss the difficult and limited roles assigned to women back in the 1940s, within living memory and yet so remote from our modern ideas of what’s proper and fair. The women were secretaries and nurses but barred from technical or administrative roles as a matter of course.

It’s timely, too, on the same day we see Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg formulating her opinion on same-sex marriage, another startling shift in mass consciousness about who we are as people. The New Yorker has a profile this week of Ginsberg, who finished first in her law class at Columbia, but received exactly zero job offers upon graduation and ended up in an obscure post where she had to learn Swedish to unravel the intricacies of that country’s legal system.

But while some things change and evolve, others don’t. Suarez never thought to pause in his laudatory interview to consider the subtler messages embedded in Kiernan’s title—such as, How exactly did the ‘women who helped win the war’ do that? Why, by helping to build a weapon that incinerated the civilian populations of two major cities. Did they reflect on that? Did they discuss it? We know the men mostly didn’t; did the women? Was there something in their restriction to the domestic sphere that might have made them think about the families their Atomic City-birthed device just evaporated? It’s amazing—and revealing—that a professional journalist in a liberal venue could spend 10 minutes on that story and never even think about the tens of thousands of human beings on the receiving end of that patriotic project. But American women had a great chance to excel.

Suarez also had nothing to say about the total absence of black women in the photos of the Atomic City ‘girls’. Did the barriers facing women even apply to non-white females? Were they invited to come live in Atomic City as part of the war effort, say as maids, or was Tennessee-style segregation and the close proximity of all those white men going to make that a tad too complicated?

It’s a good corrective to the celebratory mood about how gay Americans are becoming more and more mainstream to recall that we’ve got plenty of blind spots still operating.

No comments: