Hidden Figures

The release of two widely publicized books on female computers in the early Space Age in the same year (one of them with a forthcoming movie adaptation too) has to be unprecedented. The first was Rise of the Rocket Girls, about the women who worked as human computers (a redundant term before the 1950s) for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The second, Hidden Figures, is about the African-American women among those who did similar work for the Langley research center in Virginia. (There’s even a third book, by Dava Sobel, that covers an earlier generation of computers who worked at the Harvard Observatory).

Both Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures are fascinating accounts of the essential roles that female computers played in aerospace research, capturing the challenging social milieu in which they worked. Hidden Figures also manages to address the impact of segregation and discrimination in the overlapping local, regional, and national contexts surrounding the work of the computers at Langley (itself a segregated workplace). It’s a story well worth reading, before or after the movie adaptation – focusing on Katherine Johnson’s contribution to the calculations for the first orbital Mercury flight – goes into wide release in January. The trailers I’ve seen look good, though Kevin Costner as a fictional NASA manager gets to strike a literal blow (with a fire axe!) against racism that goes way beyond anything NASA management actually did for their African-American staff.

In the last chapter of Hidden Figures, Shetterly discusses having to cut the section of the book about how several of its key figures moved into human resources and advocacy to try and overcome the less obvious discrimination against women and minorities in the workforce that was still going on in the 1970s and 80s. You never know from a trailer, but I suspect the movie’s not going to end with the uphill battle for recognition and equal treatment that persisted even after Johnson’s work.

As Sobel’s made clear in some of her pre-publication publicity, the stories of female computers are less undiscovered than regularly and distressingly forgotten. The women who worked in the Harvard Observatory were well known at the time; Katherine Johnson received substantial publicity at least within the African-American press for her work on Mercury. Academic writing, including a book with Princeton University Press, has covered the work of female computers in various fora. Perhaps a major Hollywood movie will help the story stick this time.

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