Hidden Figures Brings Math to Hollywood

The new movie, Hidden Figures, tells the true stories of three extraordinary female African American mathematicians working at NASA in the 1960s. The story primarily follows the lives of Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, who fought against great odds to achieve unprecedented opportunities of the time but were still mostly forgotten by history.

Women, and especially African American women, were largely unappreciated for their work in the space program at the time but they are remembered even less now. This movie helps to shed the light on some of the real women who helped put an American into space. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures shows us the complex and incredible women involved in the 1960s space program.

The main premise of the movie centers around the attempts to achieve space flight and successfully orbit the Earth by the first American Astronaut, John Glenn. In the lead up to his launch we see Katherine Goble(played by Taraji P. Henson), acting as a ‘computer’, a woman who performed and checked calculations by hand. She becomes a part of the special group working on Glenn’s launch and landing calculations. In her new position she finds herself as the only Black and the only woman actively working on the mathematics.

As a member of two minorities she faces many struggles, perhaps one of the most prominently featured was the fact that there was not a colored women’s bathroom in the building she was working. This leads to several montages of Katherine running to and from other buildings to use the bathroom and leads to an incredible explosive confrontation that leads to the de-segregation of women’s bathrooms at the NASA facility.

In addition to issues of segregation, Katherine Goble also faces the issue of her work being claimed by others. There are several instances where she is explicitly told to take her name off of reports because as a black woman and a computer, her achievements are not truly seen as being worthy of recognition.

Katherine Goble’s scientific and professional achievements are heavily highlighted but there is also a strong emphasis on the other parts of her life. We see the blossoming romance between her and Jim Johnson, a man who she eventually married, and there are many heartfelt moments between her and her three daughters. Hidden Figures shows Katherine Goble as not only a mathematician but also as a woman, mother and wife.

One of the most incredible parts of the film is the relationship between Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, the other two main figures in the story. The friendship and support network that all three women represent is one of the most inspiring parts of the film.

When Mary Jackson decides to apply for the opportunity to become an engineer but is rejected due to being unable to take some required classes at the white only high school, the other two women let her complain to them for hours as a sign of support but in the end they push her to seek change. This leads Mary Jackson to apply to the court for permission to attend the white only school. She succeeds in the court system and attends the school, leading to her one day becoming NASA’s first black female engineer.

In Dorothy Vaughan’s main story line, we see her fighting for the position of supervisor of the other African American female computers, a position she was already doing the work for but without any real recognition. As the story progresses, NASA sees the arrival of their new IBM machine, a very basic form of what we now call computers. This new IBM machine will lead to the replacement of all of the women working with Dorothy Vaughan so, in an act of forethought, she begins to learn all she can about this new machine and teaches herself Fortran.

In addition to trying to secure her own job, Dorothy Vaughan also begins to teach the other computers all that she is learning about the operation of the new machine. This ends up saving the jobs of many of these women as they are able to operate the new machine that no one else seems to really know what to do with. Dorothy Vaughan would later become NASA’s first African American manager, as the manager of the IBM computer group.

Hidden Figures shows us a world full of racism, sexism and discrimination and three incredible women who were willing to stand up for themselves and each other to help change the world. In the same week as we remember the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr, this is a powerful story that inspires everyone who watches it.

As members of the Mines community, there is always an extra little excitement whenever a movie about any kind of math or science figure comes out. This movie was additionally exciting to women at Mines, and many other women, who often struggle to find personal representation in media of female mathematicians and scientists.

The women in this film are inspirations and their stories deserve to be remembered and honored because they achieved so many firsts in their fields. There are many other women and members of other minorities that have had credit for their work stolen or their achievements ignored but by seeing a few of these stories told, hopefully this will help shine a light on other hidden figures.

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