The highlights of the space race still loom large in the American imagination. John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, are both household names. But behind those celebrated men were legions of scientists and engineers, among them scores of brilliant women of all backgrounds, whose brainpower made it all possible. Those women, for the most part, have been forgotten — until now.
The trailer for Hidden Figures, an upcoming movie focusing on three black female mathematicians working at the NASA during the days of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, attacks this erasure head on.
The movie trailer premiered to Twitter fanfare on Sunday night during Olympic prime time. Sandwiched between two Olympic events, the timing of the new trailer seemed aimed at generating buzz for these long-overlooked women among the widest audience possible.
In the trailer, a white cop comes across the movie’s three central women — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) — marooned on the side of the road thanks to car trouble (the alternative, one of the women says half-joking and half-not, would be to “sit in the back of the bus”). When the cop asks for ID, they hand over a NASA ID card.
“I had no idea they hired…” he drawls.
“There’s quite a few women working in the space program,” Vaughan cuts him off. It’s pretty clear that “women” was not what he was going to say.
Quickly and efficiently, the moment sets up the two considerable sets of hurdles these real-life women had to navigate.
NASA’s “human computers” were essential to the space program. And many of them were women and people of color because, during WWII and the Cold War, the U.S. was too desperate for brainpower to turn anyone away.
But similarly qualified men were hired as engineers, while the women came in at a lower rung. And being a black woman got you pushed even further down the ladder. As documented by Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the forthcoming book Hidden Figures, which the film is based on, black women were given few paths to advancement — they could only supervise other black women, while white women could supervise both black and white women, and white men could supervise anybody.
Compared to their other options, working at NASA gave black women the kind of economic security they couldn’t have dreamed of elsewhere. But they still had to beat every kind of odd to be taken seriously. Even while doing cutting-edge science alongside white peers, black engineers and computers still had to sit at marked, segregated lunch tables in the cafeteria.
“If you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” an administrator asks Jackson in the trailer. “I wouldn’t have to,” she replies saltily. “I’d already be one.”
Just like the cop in the trailer for Hidden Figures has no idea that a place like NASA would hire black women in the 1960s, most Americans are oblivious to this part of NASA’s history today. In fact, the New York Times reports that when Octavia Spencer first read the script, she thought it was fiction — too good to be true.
Spencer isn’t alone. When Americans think about the history of science, black women don’t spring to their minds. Research has shown that most people — even science students — are hard-pressed to name prominent scientists that aren’t white men. When asked to name an iconic scientist, Watson and Crick are more likely to come to mind than Rosalind Franklin (Franklin’s work was instrumental to the discovery of the structure of DNA; Watson and Crick got the credit, and the Nobel Prize).
This tendency to think of white male scientists first contributes to a stereotypical perception of the field that pushes out women and people of color, who remain vastly underrepresented in most scientific areas. Even in areas where women do earn the majority of degrees, like the biosciences, the higher up in the food chain you go, the more likely it is that the position is held by a man. And in computer science — which, as the story in Hidden Figures demonstrates, was once considered to be “women’s work” — shares of women earning degrees have actually dropped.
Advocates suggest that one of the ways to counter these stereotypes — and thus cast a wider net for bright scientific minds — is to give young people examples of role models that look like them. The tragedy is that these role models have existed all along: They’ve just been erased from the dominant narrative of history.
Hidden Figures might help change that. The trailer promises to tell a true story seemingly tailor-made for mass appeal and inspirational cultural currency: Plucky, exceptional individuals overcoming extraordinary odds to accomplish amazing, historically significant feats. It’s a great story, painstakingly unearthed by Shetterly. According to reporting by the New York Times, a movie producer bought the rights to the film as soon as she saw the book’s proposal.
Though the movie focuses on a few extraordinary cases — Katherine Johnson last year received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — it’s by no means an isolated story. Female computers powered scientific advances since before NASA was an agency, yet as documented by another book on the subject, Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt, which focuses on the women working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, in many cases they were forgotten even by the agencies they served.
Recently, however, women in science — and particularly the women of NASA — are being given their rightful place in the spotlight. This year, there are two prominent books focusing on the history of female computers, and a major motion picture. The new Ghostbusters film focuses on female scientists, nonchalantly taking it for granted that the most brilliant engineers and ghostbusting experts could be women. A recent pitch for a Lego set featuring the women of NASA sparked widespread enthusiasm across the web.
Hidden Figures adds to this momentum. In focusing on women of color as a pivotal part of history, the forthcoming movie shows the loss to progress we all suffer when brilliant people are left out careers because of their race or gender, and it puts three brilliant black women (played by an all-star cast) in front of the narrative — where they should have been all along.