Ellie Cawthorne, Section Editor of BBC History Magazine, spoke to Margot Lee Shetterly about the exceptional real-life women who broke the mould and smashed through the racial and gender prejudices of their time…
EC: How did you first come across this remarkable true story?
MLS: I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where this story takes place, and my dad worked at NASA as an atmospheric scientist. So I spent my whole childhood going over to NASA; Christmas parties with NASA-themed Santas just seemed normal to me. The wonderful thing was that the very first scientist I knew, my dad, was black. For me, that’s what science was. Many of the other scientists around me were also black, or women, or both. So I had a truly privileged position which normalised what women and African-Americans could do.
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A few years ago my husband and I visited my parents, who were talking about some of the African-American women who worked at NASA during the early years of the space race. I knew these women from the local community – they were my parents’ friends. But my husband was so surprised; he couldn’t believe that he’d never heard this story before.
While I knew these women, I didn’t really know their stories – why they were at NASA, what they were doing and why there were so many women who worked there. Investigating these stories set off a whole chain of dominoes, which eventually became Hidden Figures.
Why haven’t we heard this remarkable story before?
There are a lot of reasons. One is that, very much like the British ladies at Bletchley Park, the work these women were doing was classified. During the space race and the Cold War there was a very real fear of espionage, people were looking for Soviets round every corner.
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But I think the bigger reason is that these women were unseen. They were in a segregated office and their work was considered ‘women’s work’, meaning that it was valued less. At this time, even if a woman was doing exactly the same thing as the engineers, who were predominantly men, she could be paid less and be given a lower job title. Now, with the distance of many decades and a different awareness, we are reevaluating these women and their work. Our eyes are now sharp enough to see them the way they need to be seen.
These women weren’t just doing something that no African-American women had done before, but something that no-one of any race or gender had done before. They were on the pioneering edge of science and technology, which was thrilling for them. And they were doing all of this without calculators. They were called ‘computers’ – this was a time when a ‘computer’ was a job title then rather than an object on your desk. It’s amazing what these women were able to do with just data sheets. There’s more computing power in a toaster than what they had to send people into space.
While these were exceptional women, I want to make that clear that they weren’t the exception. The thing that was thrilling to me was that this wasn’t the story of a first, or an only, or even just a few. At this time, women mathematicians were the rule, not the exception. From 1935 to 1980, counting women of all backgrounds and races, there were more than 1,000 women doing this work for NASA. That’s a huge amount. We have this idea that women aren’t good at math and don’t exist in these fields, but that simply isn’t the case – Hidden Figures is correcting that misconception.
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Can you give us an idea what was it like to be an African-American woman during the 1960s – what kind of obstacles did these women face in everyday life?
Segregation was still in place, and it was very important for me in the book to show the real banality of that, the daily humiliations and slights. These women were creating calculations to make something happen that had never happened in the history of humanity, and yet they still had to go to the ‘colored bathroom’. That is how these women experienced segregation in their everyday lives – they may not have been barked down by dogs in the street, but they faced humiliation at every turn.
Most black women at the time were working as domestic servants, or in factories, really scraping just to get onto the first rung of the social ladder. The African-American women working at NASA were largely middle class and educated, so even within the black community these college-educated women were outliers. They were generally expected to go into teaching, which was a prestigious job at the time, but it didn’t pay very well. As professional mathematicians, they could make two or three times more than as teachers.
Considering the social situation in the United States at the time, how did these women manage to get jobs at NASA?
During the Second World War, the demand for aircraft exploded, while at the same time, a lot of male mathematicians and engineers went off to fight. There was a real need for people who could do the math, so Uncle Sam put out the call.
At the same time, the civil rights leader A Philip Randolph (1889–1979) was pressuring the federal government to open up war jobs to African-Americans, Mexicans, Poles and Jews – a lot of people who were being discriminated against during this period. Once that door had been opened, these women just walked through, and after the Second World War ended they basically resolved: “I’ll be damned if I’m leaving this job.”
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This was a fascinating period in US history – coming out of the Second World War, there was a certain idealism that pervaded the space race, the advance of technology, the civil rights and women’s rights movement – a belief in a better America. Even as there was lot of conflict, there was also a lot of optimism.
What was the workplace environment at NASA like for these African-American women?
As well as an aeronautical laboratory, NASA really was a weird social laboratory at this time. On the one hand, they had segregated office with a ‘colored bathroom’ and a ‘colored cafeteria’. But on the other hand, NASA was more progressive than many other aircraft or commercial agencies at the time. They employed more women and African-Americans and these employees had access to some very high-level work.
Many of the engineers at NASA came from the north or west of the US [where racial divisions were less pronounced] or abroad – from Germany, Britain and Italy. So many of the employees weren’t used to living under Jim Crow segregation and actively opposed it. So NASA was definitely a weird in-between zone, a very unusual place.
You interviewed many of these women, including Katherine Johnson (played in the film by Taraji P Henson). What were they like?
They loved talking about the details of their work, and had a real passion for NASA, despite all the difficulties. The women I spoke to really loved their jobs and the people they worked with – Katherine Johnson talked about her colleagues being like brothers and sisters.
They are also hugely humble and modest. When they first heard that their story was going to be told, through my book and the film, their reactions were: “What’s the big deal, what’s the hoopla, why is everyone interested?” But although they loved the work, they did know that they didn’t get the accolades they deserved. They recognise the power of their stories to inspire younger women and feel proud about that.
Can we still see the legacy of these women and their achievements today?
Absolutely. All you have to do is look at NASA’s astronaut corps, which is very diverse. We’re still having discussions about how to get more women and African-Americans into STEM fields, so we need to be aware of these stories – there’s a lot they can teach us.
I’m so glad that we are finally thanking these women for the work they did and the ways they transformed the American workplace. These jobs formed an amazing base for people in later years like my dad. When he joined NASA, he was able to stand on their shoulders. The work that these women did was transformative, not just for them but for their communities, and their children and grandchildren as well.
Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, the book that inspired the film.
This interview was first published by HistoryExtra in 2017.