Hidden Figures: when men were men and women were computers
“Behind every great man is a great woman,” goes the time-worn aphorism. On the surface it’s a noble thought, recognizing the vital influence of women in shaping the lives and achievements of men. But a closer look reveals a sadder picture: the great woman is in fact behind the man, in the shadows, her efforts unseen by the world at large.
When the woman in question is also African American, working for NASA in the early 1960s, her accomplishments become doubly invisible.
That’s the story behind Hidden Figures, a film about three such women whose contributions to the U.S. space program went virtually unnoticed in their day. Even as America was set to explore a new frontier of God’s creation, these women’s lives declared – in the face of humiliating prejudice – that every person bears God’s image and has incalculable worth.
[Spoiler alert: this article discusses themes, plot and characters from Hidden Figures. If you’re planning to see the film, you might wish to do so before reading further.]
One of the enduring images of the 60s space race is of NASA’s mission control centre, its rows of workstations occupied by clean-cut white men in shirts and ties. No women or minorities were anywhere to be seen.
That didn’t mean they weren’t present, however. A group of female African American mathematicians had been working for years in NASA’s West Area Computing Unit, crunching numbers and checking formulae that would send American astronauts into space. They were kept separate from white women doing the same job, and from their male bosses upstairs, because segregation laws were still in force in the U.S. at the time. These women, who did all their math by hand before the advent of electronic data processing, were called computers.
Hidden Figures, based on a book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, chronicles the stories of three of these human computers, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
Jackson, the youngest of the three, had an aptitude for engineering but was unable to pursue it because the courses for an engineering degree were restricted to white students only. She had to appear in court and petition a judge to grant her special permission to attend the classes she required.
Vaughan was the de facto supervisor of the West Area group, but was denied official status in that role. Recognizing that electronic computers would soon replace the human variety, she sought to learn programming and teach it to her women. But the books she needed were in the “whites only” section of the library, and when she tried to access them, she was roughly ejected from the premises.
Johnson, the main focus of the film, was a mathematical genius who could solve complex problems that had stumped the engineers. This talent earned her admission into the elite company of the command centre. However, she wasn’t allowed to put her name on her reports, being forced to credit her work to one of her white male colleagues. She couldn’t drink coffee from the communal office coffee pot. And when she needed to use the ladies’ room, she had to run back to the West Area, a 40-minute round trip, because it was the only building with “coloured” bathrooms.
Like most historical films, Hidden Figures takes some dramatic liberties with its source material. Events are conflated, fictional people added to flesh out the story. Nevertheless, it offers a potent snapshot of an ugly social reality from the not-too-distant past.
Even so, despite the unsavoury backdrop of racism and sexism, Hidden Figures is a remarkably upbeat movie. Much of this can be attributed to the three women at the heart of the story. Confronted with the most egregious displays of bigotry, they carry themselves with dignity, showing genuine affection for each other and zeal for their work. Their lives aren’t defined by their social standing, but are rooted in their friendships, families and Christian faith.
In the end, each of their tales winds up on a triumphant note. Jackson finished her degree and was the first black woman to become an aeronautical engineer at NASA. Vaughan taught her staff programming and became the space agency’s first female African American personnel manager. And Johnson continued to do the brilliant math that would land the men of Apollo 11 on the moon. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, at the age of 97, for her contributions to space exploration.
The history of the human race begins in a garden, with the creation of male and female in the image of God. It ends in a city, in the new heavens and new earth, with women and men of every race gathered in eternal worship of God and His Christ.
Between those two events, people of all backgrounds are called to fill the earth and subdue it, as God’s representative image-bearers. Part of that divine image involves the human mind, with its capacities to study and imagine, to discover the patterns and harness the wonders of creation.
Hidden Figures reveals that when people are allowed to do that, to express their God-given dignity and talent, humanity can begin to fulfill its divine creation mandate – even to the point of reaching for the stars.
[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Hidden Figures, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Hidden Figures is appropriate for you or your family.]
Sources and further reading
Jon Agar, “Hidden Figures takes us back to when computers were people, women, and black,” MercatorNet, February 23, 2017.
Kimberly Davis, “Intellect and imago dei in the women of hidden figures,” Think Christian, February 14, 2017.
Bronwyn Lea, “‘Get the girl to do it’: What ‘Hidden Figures’ reveals about race, women, and how our sons see our daughters,” Christianity Today, January 3, 2017.
John Stonestreet, “Go see Hidden Figures: The beauty of dignity and endurance,” BreakPoint, January 27, 2017.
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American dream and the untold story of the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race, New York: William Morrow, 2016.