I’m writing this post in celebration of #InternationalWomen’sDay and the #Women’sStrike. And today comes on the heels of seeing “Hidden Figures” yesterday.
In case you don’t know, this movie has two extremely powerful messages both about racism and women. As the movie starts, we see the young Katherine demonstrating her extraordinary mathematical powers. Her prodigious abilities made her someone with at least two strikes against her in life – her skin color and the fact that she was (is! she is still alive at almost 100) over the top smart.
These women prevailed as human computers in the almost all male enclave of the space program. They had undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics and science. But they were considered third rate citizens. Even their white female counterparts were not considered equal to the men, in spite of the fact that they routinely out performed them. One of them, Mary Jackson, overcame the odds to become the first black, female aeronautical engineer.
Katherine Johnson, whose story is pivotal to the film, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 in recognition of her role in making the U.S.’s first manned space flight with John Glenn possible by solving the problem of how to get an object back to earth after entering it into an orbit. She was also called upon by Glenn to double check the numbers crunched by the new IBM computer. “Have the girl check the numbers,” he said. No mean task. It took her a day and a half, but her calculations confirmed those of the computer, putting risk more or less to rest.
And Dorothy Vaughan became the first female computer programmer after teaching herself, and her staff of human computers, Fortran so they would not become obsolete.
The movie shows the inequality these women faced in everyday life. Especially bathrooms. While the movie takes liberties over the book’s account, it gets the point across strong and clear. For instance, in a scene after NASA makes the bathrooms color blind, the white supervisor, Vivian, reaches out to Dorothy in the women’s bathroom. She says, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all.” Dorothy smiles and answers, “I know YOU probably believe that,” and turns to leave.
The film also reminded me of an April day in 1961 when, as a fifth grader, I remember looking up into a sunny sky on the school playground and wondering what John Glenn was seeing in space. I relate to these women. While nowhere near as smart, I faced similar odds as a young woman. Yes, I’m white. But I am female. Early in my education, I found myself repeatedly put in my place by male classmates. Not only was I pudgy and taller than everyone else, I was (am!) smart. In sixth grade, one boy turned to me and said, “You know, if you keep acting so smart no boy will ever like you.” Fortunately, I realized he was wrong. And one of my sisters faced discrimination head-on as one of only three women in the engineering school at the University of Pennsylvania.
And today, I only hope we can continue to support our girls as they explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. And management. I am heartened by the statue of a girl confronting the Wall Street bull that was installed today to bring awareness to the lack of women in corporate board rooms. This is a first step. But we cannot falter. We must value the gifts of all of us, male, female, black or white. We must learn from the scientists at NASA who realized that if they overlooked Katherine’s gifts, they would not make it to the moon.
So today, International Women’s Day, I salute all the young girls, and women, who are working to reach the stars and make our world a better place. In spite of our leadership in Washington.