I 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.
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.
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:
- Hidden Figures
- Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
- Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist