One of our American values is equality. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly explores the fight of four black women for equal opportunity in the workplace. The book focuses on the lives and contributions of brilliant African American women who worked at NASA. They were Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden. As these women’s capabilities were recognized, they were gradually treated with respect by their white coworkers.The aeronautical industry needed more workers that could do advanced mathematics to be their computers, someone who checks the engineer’s calculations. Willing to hire anyone smart enough, NACA (later changed to NASA) provided an opportunity for brilliant black women to become computers. “They got to know the women by their work, requesting their favorites for projects, open to giving a smart person, black or white, male or female, the chance to work hard and get the numbers right” (Shetterly 47). At this time the main priority was to beat the Soviet Union, so the color of one’s skin became less important than one’s knowledge and work ethic.  

When the black employees first started at NASA, they were segregated in substandard facilities, including the cafeteria and restrooms. This was a parallel to society at that time. Subtle rebellion popped up when a “Colored Computers” sign appeared on a lunch table in the back corner of the cafeteria. One of the black employees, Miriam, became upset by the sign. She would take it off the table, put it in her purse, and later throw it away. Then a couple days later a new sign appeared. Miriam continued to remove the offensive “reserved” sign until it never showed up again. This was the start of the journey for acceptance of minorities and equality in their workplace.

Not only were these great women oppressed because of their race, society also held them back simply because they were women. Katherine Johnson was given an amazing opportunity to go to West Virginia University to pursue a graduate degree. She was one of three black students and the only female. Katherine became pregnant and felt pressured to withdraw from the program to focus on domestic life. During this time, all women were highly discouraged from pursuing a professional career. Instead they were influenced by the media and society to become housewives. “The perfect mother was supposed to stay home and nurture so society would accept them” (Coob). It has taken decades for women to enter the workforce and be recognized as equal to their male coworkers.

Not only were black women discriminated against in the workplace but it was part of day to day life. They had segregated bathrooms and a separate building at work but still worked along with whites. In everyday life segregation was extensive, from separate housing to schooling to public facilities. Gradually things started to change due to the Civil Rights Movement. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” (Mead). Margaret Mead made this statement after observing cultures around the world and how cultures develop, and how change is brought about.

By acknowledging others who were never given a chance before, we were able to walk on the moon. As Americans we have to push ourselves to accept others and what they can bring to the table. That’s how our country grows. “We believe in equality for all, and privileges for none. This is a belief that each American regardless of background has equal standing in the public forum, all of us”(Jordan). I wonder what these women would think about the equality in America today. Would they be proud of what we accomplished or would they be upset that we haven’t done more about gender and race equality? These women are recognized as heroes, I wonder if they thought they would be so inspiring.

Citations:

Coob, Roobix. A Woman’s Role in the 1950s. 17 November 2005. https://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/1025/women1950s.pdf

 

Jordan, Barbara. We Rise: Speeches by Inspirational Black Women. Phoenix Books Incorporated. 2010   https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/black-women

 

Mead, Margaret. Earth Day Speech. 1970. https://todayinsci.com/M/Mead_Margaret/MeadMargaret-Quotations.htm

 

Shetterly, Margot L. Hidden Figures. HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

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CC BY-SA 4.0 These Women changed NASA’s Opinion, Let’s change the Worlds. by Heather is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

3 Comments
  1. Adelle 1 month ago

    Hi Heather!
    This piece was very good. I have never seen or read Hidden Figures, but I am more interested than ever now. You did a very nice job of integrating the value of equality into your writing, and I agree with your assessment of segregation in the workplace.
    I never knew that NASA was more accepting of black and female employees, and I was wondering if you knew why their policies were different than most other places of employment.
    My only suggestion to your writing: introduce your quotes. Explain why you are about to use someone else’s words, or just make your writing seem more credible by using the name/organization responsible for the quote in your sentence. Why should we believe what this person has to say? It justs needs a little context.
    -Adelle

  2. Srihita 2 months ago

    Heather, I liked reading your description of these women and the discrimination they faced in the workplace. I like how at the time, discrimination started to reduce because people realized that it didn’t matter what people looked like because they had a more important issue to attend. I think that those women would be proud of how far we’ve come but they would be even more disappointed that we haven’t come far enough. I feel like after all these years, more things would have changed and things would be better now but unfortunately, that just isn’t the case.

    • Author
      Heather 2 months ago

      Thank you for commenting, Srihita! I would think that they would be disappointed and would push us to move forward. I love hearing what you had to say.

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