Wednesday, February 1, 2017

To Boldly Go Beyond Barriers

In the 1964 picture below, the computer is on the right, and her name is Melba Roy She went on to become Program Production Section Chief at Goddard Space Flight Center. The machine next to her was referred to as an IBM then.
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Melba Roy does not appear in the film Hidden Figures, which concentrates its attention on just three of the African-American women who worked as computers in the space program, though she is mentioned in Margot Lee Shetterly's book on which the movie is based. The book covers a much longer span of time and more characters than the main three: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.

One female of color who doesn't make it into either the film or the book is Janez Lawson. In fact, it's hard to find anything about her at all beyond what has already been unearthed by Nathalia Holt in her book The Rise of the Rocket Girls.  In truth, I found Shetterly's book a faster read, but there is more information in Holt's about women in the industry and how the role of computer became a sort of pink collar career.

In fact, though,, you need to go even further back in time to see women emplolyed as computers. And they were also focused on the stars. That's the topic of  Dava Sobel's book The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Sky . Working painstakingly through photographs of telescopic view of the heavens, these computers observed differences in spectra and worked out the classification system that shifts the alphabet around. The mnemoic device became "Oh be a fine girl, kiss me." New discoveries have contributed to new letter placement, leaving some question as to how to complete that famous mnemoic. I have to admit this book can be slow going, though it does have some nice photographs to illustrate the history, something that is also in Holt's book but missing in Shetterly's.

Another thing in those two books that Shetterly doesn't detail are some details about what the women were paid. One of the key women in the Observtory notes that she was only paid $1500 when men in comparable positions were paid $2500. Other women employed as computers were paid hourly, at the rate of 25 - 30 cents. This hourly rate must have remained the standard, as Holt says that's how the women working at NASA got paid. As a result, some of the women earned more than their husband because of the long hours they had to work. In contrast, Shetterly's book always states their earnings in yearly amounts, and the film indicates that Katherine would not have been paid any more for staying later at work. It is possible that her pay grade was changed even though she was still called a "computer."

As the Hidden Figures  book picks up the history of the computers in the 40s, it includes Miriam Mann, a contemporary of Vaughan who is described as a woman as petite and fearless. Mann repeatedly ripped down the paper sign designating a section of the cafeteria for the "colored" women. It would go back up, and she'd rip it down again until it stayed down.

Katherine Johnson with celestial Training Device
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 If you've seen the film, you'd realize how her defiance was translated into a somewhat different context with a great deal of dramatic license. For instance, Katherine Johnson achieved major recognition as the first female computer to get her name on a report as early as 1959 (published in 1960) that predates the movie. But as the center of the film, her character is subjected to Jim Crow practices in ways that didn't happen in real life. In the book, she is the "unflappable" Katherine who was never driven to an outburst about the bathrooms because  didn't question her own right to use the restroom in the building in which she worked. In light of the fact that Shetterly comments on the myths that have arisen about what Johnson encountered because the film ends up reinforcing some of them and inventing new ones.

In point of fact, it was Jackson who experienced that kind of humiliation. But she only put up with it once (Shetterly 108). Once was enough to get her to rant about her situation (not in a room full of people) in front of one man who offered that she work for him. She accepted. One really cool thing about Jackson's achievement as an engineer was not  breaking the color barrier at the school for her classes, but serving as an inspiration for her children. It's a pity the movie didn't include this episode in the book. When Jackson's son won the Virginia Peninsula Soap Box Derby, he declared, "'I want to be an engineer like my mother'" (200).

Dorothy Vaughan gets a lot more coverage in the book than in the film, as she began her computer career about two decades before the the movie opens. She actually did earn official recognition as head of the West Ara Computers unit" but lost it at the end of the decade when the unit was disbanded.  It's ironic to note that near the end of the book (264) Shetterly notes that Vaughan never learned to drive, making the carpooling scenes thrown in to show the closeness of the characters to have been historically impossible.  The library book event is not in the book either. FORTRAN was actually taught to the employees, and the on-site classes were open to all races (139). But again, that's dramatic license for you.

Dramatic license isn't necessarily bad, one just has to realize that events were a bit different in fact. On the plus side, the film is very engaging and actually presents the story in a way that works well as an introduction of the subject that can work even for young children. They would not be subjected to hearing racial epithets and they won't even see a single character smoke, though the sixties was a time when most people held a cigarette at some point during the work day.

BTW the title's Star Trek reference is deliberately placed because Shetterly refers to the popularity of the show with the NASA set as well as with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She refers to his encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stick with her role as Lt. Uhura  when she wanted to quite the show because he saw her as such a positive role model. That's somethine the actress recouted in her autobiography and even gets quoted the Wikipedia entry about her. Fictional characters can be inspiring, but sometimes real people prove equally impressive.

Additional online resource: 

 Interesting link about other women's roles in space:

On the Hidden Figures Exhibit

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