I have always been a fan of films based on the lives of inspirational women in history. Hidden Figures, released in 2016, is definitely one of my favourites. The film is set in the 1960s and tells the true story of three African American women who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Space Race. It is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name.
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan played vital roles as mathematicians and engineers in some of NASA’s historic space missions. For instance, the film shows Katherine’s importance in John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. It is revealed that she was responsible for checking the capsule’s landing coordinates.
Although the film focuses on Katherine, we see her relationship with her colleagues Mary and Dorothy and the gender discrimination they faced in their daily lives. Katherine was assigned to assist Al Harrison’s Space Task Group; however, she was the only woman working in a team of white men who were dismissive and hostile. The women also deal with casual sexism, even from their significant others. Katherine meets a man who undermines the mathematical abilities of women. Similarly, Mary’s husband often finds it difficult to accept her ambition as a black woman trying to achieve equality.
As black women, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy were also subject to blatant racism and segregation whilst working at Langley Research Center. The film gives an insight into their shocking working conditions. They were expected to work in the room for “coloured computers” in the west section of Langley’s segregated campus, a long distance away from NASA’s working hub. Katherine expressed her upset and frustration at having to walk half a mile to use the nearest bathroom for “coloured” people. In another scene, Dorothy resorts to stealing a book from the public library after being kicked out for not using the coloured section.
Despite their struggles, there were moments of breakthrough for these women – they always fought for what they deserved. Mary was the first black woman to attend the all-white Hampton High School to take qualifying classes to become an engineer, and Dorothy became the first black supervisor at NASA.
Katherine, Mary and Dorothy are much-needed role models to all girls in overcoming any challenges that come their way and show that nothing should stop them from achieving what they want. Celebrating historical women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) gives girls examples of women they can identify with and subverts gender stereotypes often associated with the field. They made their mark as black women working in a male-dominated sphere, breaking racial and gender barriers. Most importantly, the women were not just colleagues but friends, showing how progress is made when working together and helping each other succeed.
Girl Museum Inc.