To Equality and Beyond!: NASA and Gender in the Civil Rights Era

Early last year, as I was catching up on my weekly dose of entertainment news, I stumbled across an exciting announcement.  NBC was preparing a pilot for a sitcom called Mission Control, which promised a comedic take on the successes and struggles of a woman aerospace engineer working on NASA’s Apollo Program, played by Krysten Ritter.  As a space historian with an interest in gender studies, this was going to be my show.  Did producer Will Ferrell and writer David Hornsby somehow access my subconscious mind, where my intellectual interests and love for hilarious high jinks coexist freely and without shame?  Unfortunately I will never know the answer to this question, as Mission Control was canceled before a single episode was ever broadcast.  The show’s premature cancellation is both a personal disappointment and an indicator of a disturbing trend addressed in last month’s issue of Lady Science Newsletter- the marginalization of women in science in popular culture.  

Historical studies of women in science are also marginalized, but over the past two decades many scholars have given serious attention to integrating women into historical narratives about science and technology.  Like Margaret Weitekamp and Lily Koppel, I’m also interested exploring the roles of women in the space program.  Rather than focusing on women and their relationship to the astronaut corps, I’m interested in the multitude of women scientists and engineers whose mostly unrecognized efforts undergirded every NASA mission.  The inspiration for this project is partially personal.  Reflecting on my mother’s stories of sexism during her career as a chemical engineer in the 1980s made me wonder what things were like for the generations before her.  

I recently embarked on a project to record and interpret the histories of women engineers working at NASA from the Administration’s founding in 1958 through the 1970s.  I’ve chosen this periodization in order to understand if and how workplace equality legislation shaped the careers of women in the aerospace profession.  The space age and civil rights era were contemporaneous, but are rarely studied together.  I’m excited to contribute to the limited scholarship that has been produced on what I think is an exciting historical intersection. 

At the same time that the United States was using its achievements in space to portray itself as technologically and morally superior to the Soviet Union, stories of discrimination and violence against African Americans in the South appeared in newspapers across the globe.  Embarrassed by this institutionalized inequality, President Kennedy, and later President Johnson, began to craft legislation that would guarantee African Americans a life in line with the nation’s founding ideals.  During the Congressional debate over the bill, Howard W. Smith (D-Virginia) proposed that women be protected by this legislation too, which resulted in an outburst of laughter on the House floor.  In 1964, after an 83-day long filibuster, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, making racial or sex discrimination of employees unlawful, specifically in consideration of hiring, firing, and promotions. 

So what was it like for women scientists and engineers at NASA in the years immediately preceding and following the passage of the Civil Rights Act? I’m not the only one starting to ask such questions, but other inquiries have been rather superficial. I’m not concerned with documenting sex-based discrimination at NASA during the 1960s and 70s- this is well known.  My focus is if and how women’s career trajectories were influenced by this legislation.  With Weitekamp’s encouragement and advice, I began reaching out to women who had worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. I was honored to receive an invitation to the Goddard Retiree and Alumni Association monthly luncheon, where I spoke with an enthusiastic and fascinating group over a heaping plate of macaroni and cheese.  

Through a chain of recommendations I found many women willing to talk to me about their space age careers. These remarkable women welcomed me into their homes and generously shared their time and memories with me. I quickly learned that, for an organization intent on breaking every vertical barrier on its way to landing a man on the moon, a thick glass ceiling remained for its women employees.  While they were as capable at programming and problem solving as their male peers, they were repeatedly passed over for promotions. These ambitious women were also encouraged to participate in Goddard’s yearly beauty pageant.  The women I spoke with expressed annoyance at this frivolous distraction from their work, which left the competition to be populated by secretarial staff, rather than canceled outright. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s offices of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action opened at various NASA facilities, including Goddard.  As I learned from my interviewees, the priority of the office reflected the spirit of the Civil Rights Act; racial, not sex, discrimination was its primary concern. With limited institutional support, the women were left to advocate for the improvement of their working conditions.  They proposed and successfully managed an on-site childcare center available to all employees.  They also organized a yearly “women’s week,” that included public awareness campaigns and events that highlighted the capabilities of women scientists and engineers at Goddard.  Did you know that the women working around you are making significant contributions to NASA’s mission? Apparently, their male peers and managers needed to be reminded.  Additionally, the women participated in mentorship programs, both informally and through the Equal Employment Office.  It’s this story of women’s cooperation and activism that I will continue to explore in future interviews and research.  

I’m grateful for the willingness of my interviewees to share their lives with me- not a single person decline my invitation to participate in my project.  But I’ve encountered a major challenge in locating primary documentary sources.  This problem is common to all historians who study marginalized groups, and it demands creativity of the research. I’m motivated to look for new sources in new places in order to fulfill my obligation to the women engineers and scientists in my story (and suggestions, Lady Science readers?). 

I hope that this work will provide a more nuanced understanding of the struggle for workplace equality at NASA following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.  I also hope it will encourage historians to expand their scope of inquiry beyond astronauts to the other people and projects that dominated NASA's time and budget, and especially consider the women and other marginalized individuals who were integral to America’s early space program.  Perhaps more research like this will bring women scientists and engineers out of the shadows, and worthy of a place in popular culture.   

Further Reading/Listening:
Rocket Girls and Astro-nettes, a radio piece by Richard Paul
Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace, Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 

Billy Watkins, Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes, Lincoln, N.E.: Bison Books, 2007.