SIAM News Blog

Hidden Figures: The Untold Women Who Inspired a Nation

By Samantha Schumacher

Hidden Figures enjoyed its wide release on January 6th, and I got to see the film the night before. Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer outshine the other stars in this beautiful movie. Hidden Figures is based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, which was released in mid-2016.

The film was so anticipated, it was actually optioned before the book even published. 2016 produced two amazing books about female computers and their contributions to the space race: Rise of the Rocket Girls and Hidden Figures. Rise of the Rocket Girls focuses on the female computers in southern CA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Hidden Figures follows the black women in Langley, VA, who were computers for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and later the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Each book is excellent, and I highly recommend them both. Go get them. Right now. It’s cool, I can wait. Got them ordered? Okay, let’s continue.

Back in the 1930s, women who liked math had limited career options: teacher, nurse, or secretary. These were the same options for all women; excelling in math did nothing for them. In very particular circumstances however, a women could be hired as a computer. Before computers were machines, people who computed things were called computers. This complicated task often fell to women because it was considered basically clerical. That’s right: computing triple integrals all day long qualified as clerical. And, gosh, how many of us could do that today? Not many! I, for one, can’t do very much without the help of a machine computer (I have been advocating for the benefits of using calculators for basic math for a while!) Without these highly-skilled women putting pencil to paper, we would not have been able to complete in the most challenging orbital computations of the day.

Karl Zielinski: Let me ask you, if you were a white man would you wish to be an engineer?
Mary Jackson: I wouldn’t have to, I’d already be one.
Hidden Figures, the film

Women often couldn’t move up, neither to management nor to more challenging technical roles like engineering or mathematics. They were forever stuck in their role as computers. Mary Jackson (portrayed by Monáe), one of the key characters in the narrative, wishes that she could be an engineer. But “most of the country’s top engineering schools didn’t accept women…As for black female engineers, there weren’t enough of them in the country to constitute a rounding error.” (Hidden Figures, page 144). The film chooses to make this a key plot line. Obviously the issues of today influence this choice, because black women are still struggling to get their fair shake at the jobs white women have worked at for decades.

Hidden Figures enjoyed its wide release on January 6th. This inspirational film tells the story of three brilliant African American women who worked for NASA during the space race. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On top of societal prejudice, legal bounds also held these black women back. Segregation in all public life was standard at that time. And being that Virginia is in the south, segregation was even more ingrained in laws and society. But Hidden Figures exposed a bit of magic that took place in Langley. “Unlike public schools, where minuscule budgets and ramshackle facilities exposed the sham of ‘separate but equal,’ the Langley employee badge supposedly gave Mary access to the same workplace as her white counterparts.” (Hidden Figures, page 108). But, despite that, the women had to fight for the removal of each and every injustice. And I do mean each and every.  For example, they waged a silent battle lasting many months where the ladies removed the “colored” sign from the lunch table everyday only to have it return the following day. In the film, this particular injustice wasn’t highlighted; instead, it focused on the immense challenges of colored bathrooms for Katherine Goble (later Katherine Johnson), portrayed by Henson.

In this way, Hidden Figures offers beautiful insights into what life was like for a female mathematician 50+ years ago, and has the added layer of communicating was it was like for a black female mathematician. “Compared to the white girls, [Mary] came to the lab with as much education, if not more. She dressed each day as if she were on her way to a meeting with the president” (Hidden Figures, page 108). I believe the film highlights this imbalance beautifully with the costume design. There is a fabulous scene where a large group of male scientists are gathered, and every one of them is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with a thin black tie. Katherine Johnson is with them and wearing a modest green dress. Despite the dress’s modesty, she stands out from the crowd with her color, style, and poise.

The film is sharp, witty, and surprisingly optimistic. If you only see one movie in 2017, see this one. While there are other recent films about mathematicians (e.g. The Man Who Knew Infinity), Hidden Figures has the heart to make it a classic. Because if you are black or female or a mathematician or a fan of space, this film will speak to you. And if you aren’t any of these things… that’s okay! I won’t hold it against you. Go see this movie to learn more about life in Langley during the biggest and only race to space there ever was.

Paul Stafford: There’s no protocol for women attending.
Katherine Johnson: There’s no protocol for man circling the earth either, sir.
Hidden Figures, the film

This post has been republished from the author's blog, Social Mathematics. 

Samantha Schumacher is a data scientist at Target Corporation. She holds a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Minnesota. She is also the cartoonist and blogger behind, where she enthusiastically investigates many of the ways math interacts with the modern world.
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