A number of us recently read and watched Hidden Figures, a book and its film adaptation about a group of female black mathematicians, known as computers, who individually and as a group played a crucial role in early air and space flight. It focuses on Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn. Both the book and movie touch on topics of racism, sexism, and how a combination of smarts, hard work, and confidence can break barriers.
What was the most relatable part of the story for you?
SweetScience: I related to the way many of the people featured in this book more or less stumbled into their careers – yes, based on talent and interest in mathematics, but also because they just needed a job and this was the most appealing one for practical reasons. Especially early in my education and career I felt like I just kept going ahead in a field I enjoy and am good at even when I didn’t know where the path would take me. These brilliant women make you wonder how many people have the abilities to make a major impact if only given the opportunity and exposure to different fields to test their talents.
Curiouser: Although the book only touched on this peripherally, I related to the two body (or more) issue that popped up for many of the women in the book. It was interesting to see them choose between career and living close to family and how they managed having families and husbands with their own careers.
peírama: I related to the relationship between work and family that was highlighted in these women’s stories. Some gave up career opportunities to get married and have children, even though they really enjoyed their work. They all ended up getting the opportunity to do work that they loved in addition to having families, a situation I hope can be achieved for all of us.
StrongerThanFiction: These women accomplished so much. I related to the quiet persistence that they had. Sometimes in the type of world we live in today that seems like it is never-ending headline to headline with constant drama. I found it so refreshing to read about people who worked so hard professionally, and made slow but steady steps in social justice issues. They earned respect instead of trying to grab it.
What surprised you about the story?
SweetScience: I was constantly surprised by the treatment of women and people of color as ‘less than’, even though I already knew. For example “The black teacher and her colleagues, including the principal, made less money than the school’s white janitor.” Ugh, it just hurts!
Curiouser: Since I had not heard of women computers of any color, that was fascinating to me. It made me wonder how we went from the mentality that women were able to do the advanced and meticulous math required to be a “computer” to the idea that (hopefully is going away) that girls aren’t good at math.
peírama: I know that before computers people did math by hand, but it is still amazing to think about the calculations required for space travel being written out with pen and paper.
StrongerThanFiction: I knew that race relations were very bad at the time, but I was very surprised by the persistence into the professional sphere. An analogy can be made relating the work that gets done to currency. The more work, and the better quality work that gets done is like more money. It is crazy to me that supervisors and other higher ups could still be totally degrading and unfair when they saw firsthand the work that these women did.
Who would you recommend the book or movie to?
SweetScience: The book was a little hard for me to follow even though the author clearly tried to keep reminding the reader who was who, so I would probably only recommend the book to anyone who really wants to understand the history of this group of women and operations related to race. I imagine I would recommend the movie to everyone though!
Curiouser: I also had a hard time following the book. I wanted to be fully engaged but because of the range of characters and time, the plot was a little meandering. However, I think the facts and message behind the story are absolutely critical for everyone to know so I would say either give the book a try or at least watch the movie.
peírama: The movie is great for all audiences. It is easy to follow and inspiring. Like the other reviewers said, the book is not so straightforward. I really like the background that the book includes that the movie does not have time for and I highly recommend the book. However, you may enjoy it more if you have a lot of time in a couple of sittings to read it rather than spread out over weeks like I did.
StrongerThanFiction: To parents that want to watch a movie with their kids and discuss it afterwards. To my daughter when she gets old enough.
Here are a few quotes that resonated with us.
While the importance of mentors and women helping one another is stressed throughout the stories of Hidden Figures, the primary theme was about women who forged their own paths, and earned their positions and respect in a meritocracy.
“There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities – legalized segregation, racial discrimination – there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.”
“A new future stretched out before them, but Dorothy Vaughan and the others found themselves at the beginning of a career, with few role models to follow to its end. Just as they had learned the techniques of aeronautical research on the job, the ambitious among them would have to figure out for themselves what it would take to advance as a woman in a profession that was built by men.”
“Each one had cracked the hole in the wall a little wider, allowing the next talent to come through. And now that Mary had walked through, she was going to open the wall as wide as possible for the people coming behind her.”
The women coped with bias on several levels in a variety of ways:
“Bemused, Katherine considered the engineer’s sudden departure. The moment that passed between them could have been because she was black and he was white. But then again, it could have been because she was a woman and he was a man. Or maybe the moment was an interaction between a professional and a subprofessional, an engineer and a girl.”
“Against ignorance, she and others like her mounted a day-in, day-out charm offensive: impeccably dressed, well-spoken, patriotic, and upright, they were racial synecdoches, keenly aware that the interactions that individual blacks had with whites could have implications for the entire black community.”
This quote is really important for everyone to consider regarding how invisible fences and glass ceilings can cause biases about limits to be internalized – think about it for any marginalized group, and think about it for yourself.
“The electrified fence of segregation and the centuries of shocks it delivered so effectively circumscribed the lives of American blacks that even after the current was turned off, the idea of climbing over the fence inspired dread. Like the editorial meetings in 1244, like so many competitive situations large and small, national and local, black people frequently disqualified themselves even without the WHITES ONLY sign in view.”
One impression that stuck out was that these women had different expectations for themselves. They worked harder than anyone else, and (it seems) made more sacrifices than anyone else just to coexist. While they noticed this, they persisted. I think that they noticed that while they could certainly have an influence on social dynamics, there were still many things out of their control. And they chose to work hard instead of give up.
“Mary didn’t have the power to remove the limits that society imposed on her girls, but it was her duty, she felt, to help pry off the restrictions they might place on themselves. Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status – none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions. You can do better – we can do better, she told them with every word and every deed. For Mary Jackson, life was a long process of raising one’s expectations.”
Have you read Hidden Figures or seen the movie? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.