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Invisibilities of nuclear engineering: Harassment, patriarchy, and the social reproduction of nuclear engineers

Authors: Patrick Vitale*, Eastern Connecticut State University
Topics: Historical Geography, Women, Sexuality
Keywords: Harassment, patriarchy, gender, engineering, science, suburbs, laboratories, Pittsburgh
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Using oral histories and archival research on nuclear engineers who worked at the Bettis Nuclear Laboratory during the Cold War, this paper explores how patriarchy and harassment were essential components of nuclear technology. Women largely did not occupy professional positions at Bettis and other Westinghouse nuclear facilities, but gender nonetheless deeply structured the work and daily lives of nuclear engineers. Most nuclear engineers assumed that it was the role of women to care for their homes and families so they could commit most of their time to their work. Many wives also did essential professional work for their husbands, including relocating households across the world, entertaining, and introducing new co-workers’ spouses to the Pittsburgh region. Nuclear engineers also relied on patriarchal relations with single women employed at the lab, not only to complete administrative tasks, but also to form heterosexual relationships and families of their own. Lastly, the objectification of women was, oddly, a sacrosanct, but unnamed part of nuclear engineering. Patriarchal social relations were as essential a component of nuclear reactors as zirconium alloys or steam generators, but they are largely invisible in scholarly and technical accounts of the work of nuclear engineers.

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