“Computers in skirts,” they were called: highly skilled but underappreciated black female mathematicians working in chauvinist, segregated 1950s Virginia. Now the movie Hidden Figures has brought these women’s story into the spotlight.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were part of a team that began to coalesce in the 1950s at the aeronautics agency that preceded NASA. The crude computers of the time couldn’t do the math required to advance America’s flight programs. Instead, gifted women were employed to do the work. They toiled separately from men — and from each other: black apart from white, with segregated dining and restroom facilities.
Black women from the West Area Computing Unit would later fill the desperate need for brainpower in the race for space, many taking critical but hidden roles at NASA that made America’s early space missions successful.
Taraji P. Henson plays mathematician Johnson in the film. “When I was in school, I was told that math and science were for boys,” Henson said via email. “It never occurred to me that they could be for girls.”
Henson came to Virginia in 2016 to meet Johnson, 98 years old, at her home in Hampton. Shoulders back, head up, nails manicured, shy but approachable, Johnson was an inspiration.
“It frightened me, in a way, that I had to do her justice,” Henson said. “Telling these stories comes along only too rarely.”
Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918, the daughter of a farmer and handyman. School there only went to eighth grade for black students, so Johnson’s father moved the family to a place where she could continue school. By 14, she finished high school. By 18, she graduated from historically black West Virginia State College. Numbers were important.
“They tell me I counted everything,” she recalled in footage from an AOL video.
She fell in love with math. “You are either right or you are wrong. That, I liked about it.”
Johnson eventually ended up at Langley Research Center in Hampton, which had just opened its hiring to women. She was put in pool of “black women computers” and began working on space projects as NASA was born in 1958 as a new — and desegregated — government agency. “They just wanted someone to do all the little stuff while they did all the thinking,” Johnson said wryly.
Johnson calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s 1961 suborbital flight, the first manned U.S. space mission. Johnson had begun using computers to aid her work by the time John Glenn orbited the next year, solving or checking the complex geometry of launch and re-entry.
“John Glenn wouldn’t fly unless Katherine Johnson checked the math,” White House chief technology officer Megan Smith told The Washington Post in 2015.
Her colleagues from NASA are also depicted in Hidden Figures.
Dorothy Vaughan handled many of the most challenging assignments and became the head of the West Area Computing Unit. She later became an expert in the FORTRAN computer language and the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. She was an important part of Langley’s Scout Launch Vehicle project, helping to program a reliable launch vehicle to put heavy satellites into orbit. Vaughan died in 2008.
Working at NASA during the space race made you feel on “the cutting edge of something exciting,” she said in 1994 in a bio posted at NASA’s site.
Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan in the film.
Mary Jackson rounds out the trio of Hidden Figures. After five years at NASA as a research mathematician, she became an aerospace engineer working on wind tunnel data. When she saw that other women weren’t being promoted, she began to quietly advise them on how to earn changes in their job titles, which increased their chances for a deserved promotion. Jackson died in 2005. She is portrayed in the movie by Janelle Monáe.
Though the movie has brought their stories to a wider audience, some women of color in STEM careers have known about them since they were children.
Rosario Robinson, a director at the Anita Borg Institute, remembers reading a page and a half about the women in an old textbook.
Donna Harris-Aikens, a director at the National Education Association, heard about the black women at NASA while growing up because her dad worked with Johnson.
“All students … need to be aware of this history,” she said. “Not enough women are entering the STEM field, and not enough are sticking with it.”
Robinson wants the “hidden” part of the tale to reveal itself more fully to the world.
“Hidden Figures uncovers what is already in front of us,” she said in an email. “What we’ve learned in history time and time again is that women, and women of color, have always been there during some of the greatest movements and innovations in the world.”
The film was released on Christmas and was the No. 1 film on at least two weekends in January, according to Box Office Mojo.
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