Legacy of Hidden Figures
The 2016 movie 'Hidden Figures' was based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. Both formats highlight the African American women who faced many obstacles in the 1950-60s doing their jobs as 'human computers' (which was, at the time, an actual job description meaning "one who computes" or performs mathematical calculations).
The women faced, and overcame, gender and race barriers to assist astronauts and United States space command centres in their efforts to win the space race. Until 1958, segregation of blacks was enforced. This meant, among other things, blacks had to eat and work separately, use different restrooms and drinking fountains from their white colleagues. Being a black woman added another layer of discrimination in that women were not allowed to attend briefings, or be recognized for their work in any way.
The title, Hidden Figures, actually has two meanings. First, it refers to the women as hidden figures. Although the film focusses on three women - Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson - in reality these three were members of very large teams. Due to their race and gender, they had to work in segregated areas that lacked basic facilities and apart from other members of their division. The second meaning comes from the mathematical figures (or numbers) they worked with. Indeed, their abilities and accomplishments in fields such as mathematics, physics and engineering was a vital ingredient to help solve difficult aeronautical problems, calculate flight trajectories and launch many successful space missions. However intelligent and capable they were, they were still denied recognition for all their contributions.
Katherine Johnson recalled these hidden figures being referred to as "computers in skirts". She reflects on what was required of them in that era and environment:
We needed to be assertive as women in those days – assertive and aggressive – and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be. In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their names on the reports – no woman in my division had had her name on a report. I was working with Ted Skopinski and he wanted to leave and go to Houston ... but Henry Pearson, our supervisor – he was not a fan of women – kept pushing him to finish the report we were working on. Finally, Ted told him, "Katherine should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway." So Ted left Pearson with no choice; I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something. *
In this painting I used a reference photo** from the film because it best conveys how I view the legacy left by these incredible hidden figures. I wanted to depict many women, not just three, walking in a basement hallway, with the 'Coloured Ladies Room' sign visible. For me, this represents the power of women who walk together and, as a result, achieve great things. When we use our gifts, act assertively, stand in our own power, and have each other's backs no matter what environment we work in, then just about any obstacle can be overcome, while also creating an important legacy.
*Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson". School of Mathematics & Statistics University of St Andrews, UK. School of Mathematics & Statistics University of St Andrews, UK. Excerpt from W. Warren, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, in Black Women Scientists in the United States (Indiana University Press, 1999), 140–147.
**Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Hopper Stone, SMPSP - © TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.