Hidden Figures had a powerful impact on me on me and I imagine so many others who have seen it. A story weaving together the historical narratives of the beginning of the United States space program, the civil rights movement and the emerging role of working women during and after World War II has so much deliciousness to work with, and Hidden Figures did it with aplomb.
It laid bare the injustices people “of color” fought against in the sixties without being heavy-handed. And it even showed how a handful of well-positioned white colleagues were able to see past color, and embolden these women to aim higher.
At a time when fewer women pursued college degrees, let alone higher degrees in math and science, when a woman’s place was either at home raising her children, or in the workplace as a secretary, sales associate or teacher, these black women defied norms to become NASA mathematicians, computer programmers and engineers.
How did they do it? Part of it was luck. Had the men not gone off to serve in World War II, few women would have found themselves in such non-traditional work roles to begin with. But, as we all know, “Chance favors the prepared mind” (attributed to French scientist Louis Pasteur). Though these women were given the unprecedented opportunity to work at NACA, NASA’s precursor, it was actually their education, hard work, perseverance and ingenuity that brought them success.
It was their education, hard work, perseverance and ingenuity that brought them success.Click to tweet
These women chose to pursue rigorous math and science degrees, helped NASA solve problems for which the “math hadn’t been invented yet,” worked unusually long hours, even when their contributions went unrecognized, and, when faced with obsolescence — with the end of World War II and the introduction of the IBM mainframe — retrained themselves to remain relevant.
Mary Jackson petitioned the Virginia courts to attend a whites-only school at night to train to be an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan taught herself and the other west computers the computer language FORTRAN, as computer mainframes were replacing calculations by hand. Katherine Johnson’s mathematical expertise and her ability to apply it to new and uncharted territory tasked her with doing the trajectory analysis for both Alan Shepard’s and John Glenn’s Freedom 7 missions.
Today, in an era punctuated by hashtags, 140-character attention spans and an Internet swelling with digestible misinformation, it’s difficult to imagine a time when people would choose to do things that weren’t easy and came with no guarantee of success.
And yet, these brilliant black women answered John F. Kennedy’s clarion call for the hard work necessary to take us to the moon and back:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President John F. Kennedy.
Hidden Figures teaches us how education, hard work, persistence and ingenuity turned a few highly qualified, though unlikeliest of, women into architects of America’s burgeoning space program.
What do you think education, hard work, persistence and ingenuity could do for you?
Watch the video above for the full lesson.
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