My wife and I recently watched the movie, “Hidden Figures.” Aptly named, the film chronicles a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program. More specifically, it focuses on the lives of three of those mathematicians, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.
Prior to the release of the movie, an adaption from a book of the same name, I had not heard about these women, or their contribution to the space program.
These women, extraordinary by any standard, where often treated like second class citizens, not only because of their race, but because of their gender. These human “computers” as they were called, were relegated to a far corner of the NASA campus, with separate dining, restroom and other facilities — a point that was brought out time and time again in the film.
The interesting turn of events in the film, and hopefully backed up by history, was a change in the treatment — albeit slowly — of these highly gifted women.
For me, the overwhelming lesson from the movie was not how these women solved the problems before them. It was not the progress that was made in the perceptions of them. It wasn’t even the thrill of their role in launching an American into space. The lesson I found was how these women did not derive their sense of worth on what others thought of them, or how they were treated at any given time.
With a cool confidence, these women allowed their abilities to speak for themselves, often to the chagrin of their white-male counterparts. At times they did have an outburst — but usually contained within “righteous indignation.” In fact, when one would be frustrated with the situation, another would counsel, “you know that is the way things are.”
Not only did they fight the fight at work, but often those at home didn’t understand, or support, their aspirations. Mary Jackson desired to be an engineer, a vocation not attributed to a woman, much less an African-American woman. If the dialogue in the film is accurate, Jackson’s husband shared the male-dominated opinion of the profession.
The perseverance of these women, combined with their performance in their chosen vocation, proved to advance the cause for all women.
It is no coincidence that on April 24, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson flew through the standing record for cumulative time spent in space by a U.S. astronautt. In addition, with the recent extension of her stay at the International Space Station, she has five months to rack up a new one.
Record holder is a familiar title for Whitson – she’s held several over the course of her NASA career. In 2008, Whitson became the first woman to command the space station, and on April 9 became the first woman to command it twice. In March, she seized the record for most spacewalks by a female. Now, after launching on Nov. 17 with 377 days in space already under her belt, she’s surpassed astronaut Jeff Williams’ previous United States record of 534 days, 2 hours and 48 minutes of cumulative time in space.
The story continues for the advancement of women at NASA. Someday, these stories will be obsolete, as such “firsts” for women will no longer exist. Until then, we celebrate these accomplishments — some a long time coming. Hopefully, the days of “hidden figures” are long gone.
David Specht is president of Specht Newspapers, Inc. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.