This holiday weekend, I went to see the new film “Hidden Figures” based on the book of the same name by historian Margot Lee Shetterly. The film is a dramatization of Shetterley’s research, which traces lives and work of NASA’s West Computers, a group of black women who calculated launch trajectories and landing windows at Langley, and exposes the discrimination that kept them buried in history. Of the group, the film singles out three particular women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, each of whom struggled against NASA’s professional hierarchy-- a hierarchy constructed on racial and gender exclusion.
One of the film’s strengths is its honest portrayal of NASA as an exclusive institution that claimed to speak for the progress of all humanity even as it was systematically denying women and people of color advancement within its own walls. Throughout the film, we are constantly reminded that the face of NASA was first, white, and second, male. Even the white women were allowed access and privileges that black women were not. The “colored” signs on water fountains and bathrooms were only one iteration of this idea (though presumably Kevin Costner effectively ended racism at NASA forever when he tore down the segregated bathroom sign to the cheers of white people in the theater).
The more subtle ways discrimination showed itself was in the clear difference between the East Computer wing, belonging to white women, and that of the West. The West Computers were crowded together in a basement with older looking furniture and dim lighting, and when Dorothy strides into the East wing, we see white women in an open white room at desks of their own. The West bathroom was dingy, lacking soap and towels. But the East bathrooms were clean and a (ugly) shade of pink. Black women were addressed by their first names; white women were called “Miss.”
All of these women sought to secure their jobs at NASA and advance within its ranks, but at every turn, they confronted a system made exclusively for white men. When Langley acquired an IBM computer to eventually take the place of the human computers, Dorothy jumped on the chance to learn Fortran, the programming language of the machine, to secure her job and those of the other computers. Unable to attend higher education in a segregated state, she turned to self-education, but found the book she needed to learn Fortran belonged in the “whites” section of the library. Mary applied for an engineering position, but needed more education, despite men holding the title “engineer” (which guaranteed better pay) without the extra education. She had to petition a judge to allow her to attend a white school for the classes she needed. Katherine attempted to put her name as author on reports that included her work, but was told computers didn’t author reports. Although they were denied titles and opportunities, all of these women eventually succeeded.
These women were both invisible and a spectacle. When Katherine walks into a bright room full of white men working at their desks, she is mistaken for the custodian, and no one looks up as she walks among them. To those of us watching, she is the most noticeable figure on the screen, as her blackness and femaleness stand in stark contrast to everyone else. She becomes a spectacle when she reaches for the engineers’ coffee pot that a black person had probably never touched.
Perhaps the belief that genius comes naturally to men while women have to work for it is actually true, in a sense. The structures that legitimize and recognize genius are built by and for men, and women have to work to tear down those structures and create their own inroads for recognition.
Telling histories from the margins, like that of “Hidden Figures,” is inherently a social justice endeavor. People who occupy the margins of history and science are often from disenfranchised communities, usually relegated to a footnote (if that) in the “real” story. Focusing on the black women of NASA, who were literally kept out of sight in a basement, centers their accomplishments and their struggles, their blackness and their femaleness. Stories like “Hidden Figures” highlight both the overt and subtle ways that discrimination has been embedded into our scientific institutions, even ones as awe-inspiring as NASA. Understanding the historical roots of oppression allows us to identify them where they persist even today. If we can uncover how these oppressions come to be, if we can realize that even our revered scientific institutions are flawed,we can collectively begin to advocate for change.
More history like this in the public please.