Over these last days, we have been hearing a lot in the media about Katherine Johnson, who recently died at the age of 101.
She was one of the women portrayed in the film Hidden Figures. She worked for NASA (the US space agency) as a human computer. Before the advent of the digital age, being a computer was a job, not a piece of equipment, and Katherine Johnson and her colleagues were the ones doing the computations involved to figure out trajectories for missions for satellites and manned spacecraft.
The women in Katherine Johnson’s computation department were, like her, African-American. And they were all women. Men, predominantly if not exclusively, worked in other departments where they were considered professional and paid more. The women who worked as human computers were not considered as professional by the government standards in place at the time and earned much less.
Katherine was a very accomplished mathematician. Her skills were noticed and she had the opportunity to work with the professional men on the first attempts to put astronauts into orbit. The work was going on in Virginia, which, at that time still had segregation laws in effect. One of the scenes in the movie that drove home what this meant was showing Katherine running across swaths of the NASA campus to get back to the building in which she had originally worked in order to use the “colored women” bathroom. She was eventually allowed to use a restroom close to her new workspace, but it was a stark reminder to me that this kind of discrimination was so overt during my lifetime.
Katherine encountered lots of sexist and racist discrimination, but persevered and triumphed. John Glenn trusted her work so much that he would not board his capsule for the first attempt at going into orbit by a US astronaut until she had personally verified all the figures.
After a long and distinguished career at NASA, Katherine Johnson was honored in a number of ways. There were NASA buildings named in her honor. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor in the country. At the time of the Hidden Figures movie, she appeared on stage with the stars of the film during the award season.
I’m grateful that her story has received more notice so that she is no longer a “hidden figure” but an inspiration to new generations of women and of people of color to reach for the stars in their own lives, despite the racist and sexist attitudes that still, unfortunately, plague us.
Rest in peace, Katherine Johnson.
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “figure.” Join us! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/03/06/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-7-2020