Hidden Figures: Film and Reality

Hidden FiguresI went to see the movie Hidden Figures recently. It is a movie about the women “computers” who were critical to the American space program. The twist, if that’s the right word, is that these weren’t just women; they were black women.

NASA’s Long History of Women Computers

Back in the day, NASA, along with it’s precursor the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), used people who were known literally as computers; “computer” was a job title. Starting with Virginia Tucker in 1935, NASA hired hundreds of women who had math or other science degrees to do the calculations for the work of the engineers. Since it paid more than being a teacher, plenty of women took these positions.

But the Langley campus did something remarkable: it recruited black women for the positions, and created a specific sub-department for them and assigned them as needed throughout the campus.

Hidden Figures Differences

In Hidden Figures, the timeline is a bit different than it was in reality. For instance, Dorothy Vaughn (PDF), who became the first black woman to be a supervisor (in 1949), actually learned programming before the film’s time. Desegregation occurred (legally) in 1945 with an executive order by FDR. Emotionally, it was another matter. However, it isn’t easy to say, “Oh yeah, this executive order made this possible.” It doesn’t relate to most film-goers because few know that he did that.

Setting it between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the earthshaking change of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it showed how the black women of the time navigated the dangerous waters of their race and gender even in the federal government. By doing this it lets the average viewer see how the world was changing towards a more just outcome for these women.

One of the women, Mary Jackson obtained permission to attend an all-white high school right about the time that Brown v Board of Education was decided (in 1953). And she completed her courses to become an engineer in 1958. The movie has her doing so after the setting of 1961, as it once again, showed the problems that lingered despite the efforts of the federal government.

Hidden Figures Similarities

Where Hidden Figures was similar was in the difficulties that women still face — especially black women. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) was eventually assigned, in 1958, to the Space Task Force. This was the unit that did the calculations and other needed work for Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s first space flights. Right before that though, Johnson’s husband passed away leaving her the single mother of three girls. It became a balancing act between the needs of her family and the needs of the space program. Things get even more complex when she is wooed by an army colonel.

Bathroom Breaks

Hidden Figures shows the numerous times that women, especially non-white women, have to bite their tongues. Because of the segregation still left in place in many places, the black “computers” were relegated to colored-only bathrooms that in this case was a half mile from the main facility that Johnson had to do her work. That meant she had to do a mile hike just to use the restroom. In heels. As fast as she could.

Then one day, she has to do it in the pouring rain and that is, of course, the day that her boss wants to know where she disappears to for forty minutes. In a powerful, but short, outburst she explains exactly why she has to disappear for forty minutes with a simple reference to one other indignity: the coffee maker labeled colored. The next scene shows the boss personally smashing down the signs and saying as of right now, where you piddle is desegregated.

It is an important scene because it means that the black women are treated at least as equals to the white women. It is about respect and dignity and why things like fighting HB2 are so important even though they can have real political costs.

Final Thoughts

Hidden Figures was extremely powerful, but not overwhelmingly so. It was ably broken up by the parts that showed the home lives of the women, but focused mostly on the work that the women did. For me, watching this in the aftermath of the painful results in November, what struck me the most was how quietly and overwhelmingly competent these women were forced to be in order to simply get the minimum standard of respect that white men and, to a lesser extent, white woman got.

After the movie was over, the audience applauded. So did I. I cannot recommend it enough.


For further reading on the ladies of NASA:

2 thoughts on “Hidden Figures: Film and Reality

  1. I’ve been having arguments with my conservative friends who see the answer to every marginalized group’s problems being that members of that group need to pursue careers in STEM. This comes up most frequently when the gender pay gap into play. Conservatives say that it is because there are not more women in engineering and technology. Of course, there are right on one level.

    The problem is that on a deeper level, our society devalues the work that women do. If a majority of engineers were women and majority of school teachers were men, the public policy that influences the wages ofr those professions would be different. Public schools would get F-35 money and teacher pay would go up dramatically while the DoD would get much less generous funding and there would be less money in military contracting and engineers’ wages would decline.

    I suppose the conservative (and moderate Democratic) talking point about math and science careers is just another way to avoid any discussion of society wrongs and to focus on perceived short comings of individuals.

    • That’s a tremendous point. The fact is there are only so many high-paying jobs out there. And they’re going to go to the “in group,” even if the hiring bias is subconscious. I remember a test someone did where they took sample resumes of equal qualifications and sent them to employers. Some had obviously Anglo names, others more Africanized names. Guess which resumes got callbacks?

      It all has to do with perceptions. A woman applying for a nursing position is appraised fairly. Applying at a law firm, she wouldn’t be. There’s a perception that women can’t be “tough,” and that certain professions require “toughness.” Add to that the fact that our child care industry and family leave laws are completely behind Europe’s, and women applying for high-paying careers are at a disadvantage. Because, you know, they have the baby tubes inside. Maybe they don’t have the same “commitment” to work. Nobody thinks this way in Sweden.

      When we think of family leave laws, we think of mommy staying home. But that’s not how other countries do it! A Danish couple might well decide for Daddy to stay home. And the amount of leave differs by country, yet they’re all much longer periods than ours. AND the parent staying home keeps getting paid. AND child care is free. It’s no accident those countries all have more women in politics. Subconsciously, Americans still want women in the kitchen.

      (I’m an equal-opportunity tyrant at any job where I cook. I don’t want ANYONE else in my kitchen!)

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