This weekend, I took my daughters to see the movie Hidden Figures. The movie was great; it tells the incredible true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson–three African-American women who worked as mathematicians for NASA in the 1960s. Despite facing incredible obstacles, these heroic women played critical roles in helping America win the space race with the Soviets, launching John Glenn into orbit, and eventually landing on the moon.
I highly recommend the movie, especially if you have daughters. My girls (6 and 8) loved it, and afterwards we spent quite a bit of time discussing the evils of segregation–they had never before seen segregated bathrooms, buses, and water fountains–and the significant barriers women faced (and still face) to professional advancement. It was a wonderful opportunity to encourage Caroline and Catherine that, with perseverance and hard work, they can accomplish absolutely anything they set their minds to.
Another particularly fulfilling aspect of the movie was that I was able also to bring my Mom, whose career bears some similarities to the protagonists. My Mom graduated from Rice in 1956 as a mathematician and worked as a computer programmer for decades. Indeed, she worked at the Smithsonian helping write programs to calculate the orbits of the Sputnik — which is featured in the opening scene in the movie. I asked my Mom how accurate she thought the movie was, how well it depicted the great challenges facing working women in the 1950s and 60s. She thought it was quite accurate; she could very much relate to the disdain and condescension that Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson fought to overcome. I observed to her that it was odd, to the modern ear, to hear all three women referred to as “computers” (all three started in the segregated West Area Computers division of Langley Research Center, working under the sign “colored computers”). Today, of course, we all think of computers not as people but as metal objects on our desks. My Mom laughed out loud; she said, at her very first job at Shell in 1956, her official title was “computer.” Pretty wild.
It was pretty special being able to tell our girls that Mimi (what they call my Mom) had done something similar, against great odds, and that America is a land where everyone can and should enjoy incredible opportunity to succeed.
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