How 'Manhattan's Women Fight The '40s For Agency

If there's one thing Manhattan made clear in its first season, it's how many limitations women faced in the 1940s — especially on the Hill. We watched Liza Winter struggle to maintain her botany work after leaving her successful career to accompany Frank to Los Alamos, while Helen Prins fought to make a name for herself as the only female scientist working on the Manhattan Project and Abby Isaacs wrestled with her roles as a wife and mother when another opportunity presented itself. Even with the gendered restrictions of the time imposed on them, the women of Manhattan stood out in Season 1 for their complex personalities and intriguing storylines, making them some of the series' most fascinating characters. It makes you wonder, what would Liza, Helen, and Abby be like if they were living in 2015?

The stars of Manhattan are just as interesting and intelligent as the women they play on the series, so it's not surprising that while on set of the WGN America series, they have a lot of excellent ideas about what their characters would be like if they had today's opportunities, as well as how they manage to find agency on the Hill. And of course, the person behind all of these characters, Manhattan creator Sam Shaw, has some thoughts on their arcs as well. Here's what they had to say.

Katja Herbers (Helen)

The 34-year-old actress feels just as strongly about Helen's fierce determination as fans do. "I think Helen is very inspiring," Herbers says. "She doesn’t let any, any scrutiny stop her from trying to do the best work she possibly can. She has to have worked so much harder than any of the guys to get here."

And where would that dedication to her career land Helen in 2015? "She’d be Clinton or something. I think she’d be running for office." I'd definitely vote for President Prins.

Rachel Brosnahan (Abby)

Of everyone on the Hill, Abby may have had the most tumultuous story last season, between adjusting to her new home, learning secrets about her husband, and beginning an affair with her neighbor, Elodie, only to end it with a brutal betrayal. Portraying all of these situations has really affected Brosnahan. "I’ve become very aware of the privileges I have as a woman in 2015. And also frustratingly how far we still have to go," she says. "How we’re still years and years later still dealing with some of these issues that woman dealt with."

However, it also opened her eyes to some of the advantages the time period simultaneously offered to women like Abby. "There was this strange pocket of accidental progressiveness that happened on the Hill and during World War II, because all of the men were gone," she explains. "Some of these roles that were ordinarily filled by men had to be filled by women, who found that they enjoyed, much like you see Abby do, this newfound responsibility and new skill sets. And start questioning their purpose and their world outside of being a wife and a mother."

So what would Abby be like if she had more choices available to her? "Ohhh, running rampant," the actress says with a laugh. "She’s a very interesting sort of middle ground on this conversation about feminism that we’re having today. There’s a lot of misconceptions about what that word means, but really it means equality, that you can be what Abby is, which is somebody who loves being a mother and a wife, and also having a life independent of that. She’s sort of the birth of a modern day feminism in a lot of ways." Basically, Abby would be an excellent role model to young women in 2015, and one not afraid to embrace the word feminist.

Olivia Williams (Liza Winter)

"I think ... it was quite an interesting time for women. That they were being allowed into the universities on a level with men." Williams says of Manhattan's setting. "What’s dreadful is that at this time of relative female emancipation, [Liza's] being put ... behind a chain link fence, with Billy Peterson telling her she’s not allowed to leave the house." That feeling of isolation is something we saw Liza seriously struggle with over the course of Season 1, and will surely continue when Season 2 picks up, since she hasn't exactly been granted any more freedom.

"I am quite rebellious" Williams continues. "I find that I’m very, very reasonable and will do almost anything you want me to do if you give me a good reason why I should do it. And if you can’t give me a good reason, I won’t do it. And Liza has a similar problem. You know, in the military ways [of], you do what I tell you, because I told you to do it. And that makes her go a little crazy." We'll have to wait and see whether Frank's absence makes Liza's current state better or worse.

Sam Shaw

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The Manhattan creator and showrunner says it was "enormously important" to him and the other writers that the women of the Hill be just as complex as the men. "We were excited about ... representing aspects of [the Manhattan Project] story that hadn’t really been represented before," he says, and that includes women who contributed in many different ways. "There were a lot of woman who worked on the project ... But also the experience of wives, of spouses, Olivia Williams’ character Liza was inspired by a lot of women who were at this place, who were incredibly accomplished and brilliant. Who had marriages of equals who seemed to kind of confound your idea of what marriage looked like in the '40s, but got to this wall of secrecy and it had a really devastating effect on what that relationship was."

We certainly saw that happen to both Liza and Abby last season, and rest assured, it can be just as hard for Shaw and the writers to put the characters in these difficult situations as it is for us to watch. "Sometimes it’s painful for us to write for those characters, because history doesn’t always afford them the opportunities that they deserve," he says. "At the same time, it’s interesting to try to tell the story of what it is for them to come up against the structural opposition that women faced in the 1940s." As long as Shaw and his team keep writing those hard stories and let the talented cast bring them to life, Manhattan will continue to boast some of the most complex, captivating female characters on television.

Images: WGN America (4)