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The forgotten story of NASA’s black female scientists comes to life in ‘Hidden Figures’

This was a story just waiting to be told — so why hasn’t it been told before now?

CREDIT: 20th Century Fox
CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

In the introduction to her book Hidden Figures, now a critically-acclaimed movie opening in wide release on Friday, author Margot Lee Shetterly relays what it was like to grow up as a black girl in Hampton, Virginia, where most of her community worked at the nearby Langley NASA research center.

“I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did,” Shetterly, whose father was employed at NASA as an engineer, writes. “Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”

Some of those brown faces belonged to women, even in times long before it was normal for women to work outside the home. Before electronic computers made the job obsolete, the synapses powering the math behind the breakthroughs in this field belonged to women known as “computers,” meaning simply “one who computes.”

“Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”

But what Shetterly saw as the norm as a child likely comes as a surprise to most Americans today. In Silicon Valley, physics laboratories, and university classrooms — and particularly in popular media and imagination — the face of the research designed to propel America to the future is still disproportionately male, and often quite white. Stereotypes about “brogrammer culture” and inherent differences in mathematical ability dissuade women, particularly women of color, from technological fields.

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Meanwhile, stories like those of the women in the early years of NASA — who performed calculations that were literally out-of-this-world while curtailed by both sexism and segregation — have been largely forgotten.

Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, who became one of NASA’s first black female engineers CREDIT: 20th Century Fox
Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, who became one of NASA’s first black female engineers CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

That is, until now. Hidden Figures, the motion picture based on Shetterly’s exhaustively-researched book, has been racking up widespread critical and audience acclaim since its limited release in late December.

The movie distills Shetterly’s story to focus on three of NASA’s brightest black and female stars: Mary Jackson, who worked her way up to a job as an aerospace engineer; Dorothy Vaughan, who was the facility’s first black supervisor; and Katherine Goble Johnson, who calculated landing trajectories for John Glenn’s earth orbit and for the United States’ historic moon landing.

The movie is a rarity for Hollywood. It features a powerhouse cast of black women, with Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson. It focuses on the scientists behind early space flight, instead of the astronauts who strapped themselves to rockets and were shot into the stars (while both sides share their part in history, one is usually shadowed by the other). The movie, which is also rated PG and targeted to a wide, family-friendly audience, also grapples plainly and clearly with segregation, racism, and prejudice. All in all, it’s a story that’s extremely well-told, and more than worth watching.

But one of the most astonishing things about Hidden Figures is that most of what makes it so excellent — the pure bones of the story — is all true. It’s simply forgotten history.

Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician CREDIT: 20th Century Fox
Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

The story in history books typically focuses on John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, not Katherine Johnson. Maybe, for space geeks, the story might focus on the men behind the rockets, say, Wernher von Braun, the Nazi officer and inventor later given a prominent position in the U.S. space program. Yet without Johnson’s calculations — along with the calculations of female computers in laboratories across the country — these advances wouldn’t have been possible at all.

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The Hidden Figures movie hones in on three of the most successful of NASA’s black female mathematicians — and clearly presents them as being more skilled than many of the white men around them — but in real life, these women were hardly an aberration. In her research, Shetterly uncovered the names of nearly 50 black women working at Langley as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists between 1943 and 1980. Even that is likely an underestimation of the total number.

Women were also critical to other NASA laboratories, including Langley’s West Coast counterpart, Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). There, led by a female supervisor, both black and white women plotted everything from early missile tests to satellite launches with their calculations. Their contributions, however, were so thoroughly forgotten that when JPL celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first American satellite, the agency forgot to invite the women — some of whom were living mere miles away — who helped make it happen.

While mathematically gifted women often considered themselves lucky to land jobs as computers, as Hidden Figures demonstrates, their jobs were still secondary to the men’s. The overwhelmingly white male engineers still asked the questions while computers, paid less and considered to be akin to clerical work, did the equations to find the answers.

That meant that when IBM computers finally became workable, it was mostly women’s jobs on the chopping block. In the movie, Dorothy Vaughan sees this threat looming, and teaches herself FORTRAN, one of the earliest programming languages, so she and her team can remain indispensable.

Some women were able to parlay their skills and access into programming jobs as IBM computers became more common. Others, though, were simply laid off — the speed of electronic computing made the only skills they were hired for obsolete.

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The movie gestures to this reality: Katherine Johnson, portrayed as an insightful force within her high-level department, is told one day that her assignment has been eliminated. She’s sent back to comparative mathematical drudgery because only electronic computers are to be used. She may have helped solve high-level problems and been instrumental to the team, but ultimately, she was a computer — not an engineer.

Eventually, though, even the stereotype of “computer girls” turned into the masculine, current stereotype of “computer geeks.” As software design rose in importance, men took over — correlating with a rise in both prestige and pay of the formerly low-paid, female field. By that point, of course, human computers were completely obsolete, compounding the push of women out of laboratories. At the time, few engineering programs admitted women, let alone black women.

And as a result, the United States probably lost hundreds of brilliant scientific and mathematical minds.

This is a key undercurrent to Hidden Figures: the United States, biting at the Soviet Union’s heels, had no choice but to turn to every resource it had, regardless of skin color or gender. With a mandate for progress and a shortage of talent, prejudice was too high a price to pay (and it still is).

But that just got the women in the door. Then, they had to contend with the specific challenges facing them in the workplace — which clearly comes through in this on-screen adaptation of Shetterly’s book. One side of Hidden Figures focuses on the science. The other focuses on the segregation.

There were two sets of women working at Langley, the West and the East — and they were divided by race. Black women supported cutting-edge research while sitting at segregated counters and peeing in “colored” bathrooms. They worked without maternity protection and for wages lowered by both their sex and their gender. Issues of discrimination effected all of NASA’s female workers, but as double minorities, black computers faced double the hurdles.

The women of the West Computing group watch John Glenn’s orbital flight CREDIT: 20th Century Fox
The women of the West Computing group watch John Glenn’s orbital flight CREDIT: 20th Century Fox

That’s one of the reasons it took so long for Dorothy Vaughan to be promoted as a supervisor, another major plot point of the movie. While men could supervise both men and women, and white women could supervise black and white women, black women were only allowed to supervise other black women (though eventually, as a highly skilled supervisor and programmer, Vaughan did supervise white women).

Hidden Figures is built to inspire, and it is deservedly inspirational. The real story, though, is that these real-life women overcame tremendous odds to give tremendous service, and were repaid with relative historical obscurity — even while the work they supported became an American cultural milestone.

And in turn, gaps in science and engineering persist today: Black men and women continue to lag in the tech sector, and the share of women earning computer science degrees has actually decreased since the 1980s. One of the prevailing theories behind these persistent gaps in science and engineering is that they are a result of stereotypes, which cast science as difficult, isolating, and in short, masculine. With few prominent examples of successful female scientists, many women simply don’t think of themselves as scientists and don’t choose to pursue the career path.

The tragedy is that those examples of women succeeding in the sciences do exist — but because women’s contributions are too often left behind, we don’t usually hear about them.

Rosalind Franklin’s work was critical to the discovery of DNA, but James Watson and Francis Crick still get most of the credit. Lisa Meitner’s work led to the discovery of nuclear fission, but only her male collaborator received the Nobel Prize. The person considered to be the first computer programmer (who introduced many modern computer concepts well before computers, in the 1800s), was a woman — Ada Lovelace. Theirs are just a few stories of what are likely many.

Hidden Figures — on its way to widespread acclaim, potential Oscar glory, and, perhaps more importantly, to movie theaters near young black girls everywhere — is one small step toward helping to reclaim this history.