Despite pitfalls, the journey of strong and ambitious women
Hidden figures is a feature film inspired by the real-life stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), mathematicians and engineers of a two-speed America, tainted by racial segregation. Yet, thanks to their exceptional capacities and unmatched determination, they manage to pursue their studies, and more importantly, to do so in establishments that until then were reserved for whites only. We follow their hard work as human calculators on the first space programs in the 1960s. Despite their onerous task of calculating astronaut orbits, they found themselves battling with the norms of the time and sought to overcome them.
Amid a space race against the communists, the young women try to establish respect in a working world that is difficult for women and Afro-Americans. For instance, having been transferred to another all-white male department, Katherine has to struggle on a daily basis to find a toilet or coffee-maker she’s allowed to use.
As to Mary, although school segregation had been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court through the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decree of 1954, she had a hard time gaining access to evening classes, taught exclusively for white men.
The lack of open-mindedness at the time is blatant, as everywhere, the three women are referred to by their skin colour: in the library, on the bus, in the canteen. They mustn’t mix. Dorothy sees this as an opportunity to teach her children a lesson: although they are supposed to be equal to white people, for her the message is clear, in the eyes of society they are worth less and cannot have access to the same things.
“Separate and equal are two different things”, Dorothy.
Her daily struggle at work and outside continues against the backdrop of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first sit-ins and speeches. Thanks to their abilities, these women silence critiques and gradually gain the recognition they deserve. In 2015, 97-year-old Katherine Johnson even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
Although close to the real-life experiences of these women, a certain degree of liberty has been taken with regard to certain aspects of their lives as mathematicians, such as the fact that Dorothy was director of the West Zone Computing Unit from 1949 onwards, while her character is seeking promotion throughout the film. This position may have surely been adopted, as she was never able to rise higher than supervisor of the group of mathematicians, despite her skills and appetite for computer science.
Afro-American women in the scientific sphere today
As shown in the movied, NASA was one of the forerunners in the field of equal pay, and provided opportunities for a wide range of profiles. Mary Jackson, one of the protagonists, embraced it as her profession, seeing as, after becoming the first black female engineer at NASA, she ends her career as manager in charge of women’s program at the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at NASA.
For the year 2022, this administration’s policy was very clear: it aims to reinforce egalitarian culture, a healthy work environment where everyone receives “fair, just and impartial treatment”. Now that the legal barriers to paying employees less due to their gender, or making work unbearable through the segregationist system have come down, so must the economic barriers and the glass ceiling.
In the United States, the school system is woefully inadequate, as too few grants allow for access to higher education. In reality, neighbourhoods remain marked by racial issues, and because of school mapping, schools suffer. Some magnet programs and other affirmative actions (AA) attract people from other neighbourhoods to study in classes with specific options, and bus routes are set up to enable students living further away to enrol. However, those who can afford to send their children to private schools do so whenever they can, and the majority of these are predominantly white.
A thorough reform of the school system would be necessary to enable more women like Katherine Johnson to fulfil their potential. In addition, the racism and discrimination in employment and in all spheres of society of previous centuries have left their mark: today, 21 % of African-Americans live below the poverty line, compared with 8.8 % of the white population.
To remedy the failures of this system, a San Francisco city commission suggested, for example, that African-Americans be allowed to live in their own homes for a symbolic $1 and receive an annual income to offset the inequalities in wealth that prevent them from pursuing higher education or entering the world of work. The proposal will most likely not be implemented, as it would cost more than the city’s annual budget, but it remains an interesting avenue for future projects across the country.
Hidden Figures, by Theodore Melfi, 2016, 2h07, currently available on Disney+.
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Human Rights Watch. (2022). Racial Discrimination in the US. [online] Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2022/08/08/racial-discrimination-united-states/human-rights-watch/aclu-joint-submission [Accessed 25 May 2023].
NASA. (2022). Diversity and Inclusion : Administrator Policy Statement. [online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/offices/odeo/diversity-and-inclusion [Accessed 25 May 2023].
M. (2023). Cinq millions de dollars par habitant noir, le plan “réparation” qui agite San Francisco. [online] Available at: https://www.tf1info.fr/international/san-francisco-un-plan-de-5-millions-de-dollars-par-habitant-noir-pour-indemniser-le-racisme-systemique-issu-de-l-esclavage-2251441.html [Accessed 25 May 2023].
Biography. 2016. Dorothy Johnson Vaughan. [online] Available at: https://www.biography.com/scientists/dorothy-johnson-vaughan [Accessed 2 June 2023].