“Hidden Figures” And The Importance Of Telling Stories About Women

In the prologue of Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly writes, “As a callow eighteen-year-old leaving for college, I’d seen my hometown as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the city’s hold on my identity, and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me.”  For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in the same house in York County surrounded by peers whose parents worked at NASA Langley Research Center, the Newport News Shipyard, Langley Air Force Base, and many other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) jobs available in the area.

I am, like Shetterly, a NASA kid, although I am white and grew up in York County. Still, the normalcy of a parent who worked at NASA and growing up with many other peers whose parents also worked there is a piece of my identity I’ve only come to recognize as different—maybe even special—since I’ve graduated high school and gone to college.

Recently, my dad and I attended a colloquium at NASA Langley where Shetterly spoke about her research, the book, and the movie. Christine Darden, one of the women featured in Shetterly’s book, introduced Shetterly and signed copies of Hidden Figures along with her. There was also an entire section of seating reserved for former human computers and their families. For a brief moment, I felt the emotional gravity of the little old ladies seated in the demarcated area. This was history living and breathing beside me.

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Here I am as a one-year-old in my father’s office at NASA Langley with two of my father’s co-workers and my mom. Photo Credit: Paul Stough

What resonated with me most was when Pearl Bassette’s son spoke during the Q&A and said that he didn’t know his mom had been a part of all of this, because what 6-year-old really cares what their parent does for work? As I wrack my brain for some sign of importance of the NASA engineers and researchers who frequented my house for dinners, birthdays, and Christmas parties, I can’t see them as anything other than the funny and personable colleagues of my father. Or as my friends’ parents.

In the movie adaptation of Hidden Figures, the home lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson get plenty of attention. We see Dorothy at the library with her sons, Katherine as a single mother, Mary conversing with her husband. We see the three of them together at church events or at Dorothy’s house drinking and dancing. To me, this part of their identity and lives is just as important as who they are and what they did at NASA Langley. So often, the astronauts, pilots, engineers, and scientists are seen solely for their great achievements that we forget that they are people just like the rest of us. Even more common is this stereotype that to be a great scientist you must lock yourself in a room and make great sacrifices in your social and personal life. It’s an unhealthy lie society has romanticized, akin to the mentally ill artist or writer. If I’ve learned anything from my visits to NASA, it’s that community and collaboration are at the heart of its successes.

Looking back, I wonder if maybe I was an ungrateful, ignorant child who didn’t properly revel in the wonder of NASA and the work being done there by my father and others, or the other aeronautic-centric experiences I was granted throughout my youth. But it’s hard to know that your experiences are unique and special until you’ve stepped outside of them and learned what others’ lives are like.

During Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year of college, my dad and I flew over our house on Lake Gaston to check on the construction process. Photo Credit: Paul Stough

As a child, this world was normal, even boring at times. Mom and I endured hours of “airplane talk” at events we attended with my dad, both in the area and several times abroad. Flying in commercial and small airplanes was something I quickly checked off the bucket list in my childhood as my dad had his pilot’s license and was a member of the Tidewater Flying Club. Airplanes have always been something my dad loves, but I have never shared that passion, and so the NASA aeronautics research part of my dad’s life has often seemed just like “work” to me, as common and unspectacular as any child would view their parent’s job.

When my dad and I drove over to the center for the speech, it felt like returning home. When we stopped at Badge & Pass to get our visitor’s badges, we didn’t have to take new photos for our badges. We were both in the system, the woman pulling up a seven-year-old photo of me from my mentorship days. Then we drove onto Langley’s campus, and I struggled to get my bearings as new buildings had cropped up since I’d last been there. In the cafeteria, I joked about the dorky themed names of the sandwiches, reminding me of university-themed sandwich names listed on the menu at one of the now former dining halls at my alma mater. Once again, the buildings felt familiar and no more awe-inspiring than when I was kid touring a wind tunnel, more excited by how cool my light-up sneakers looked as we were lead through the cavernous structure.

As a NASA kid, it’s common to be asked if you have any desire to follow in your parent’s footsteps. Even today, family friends ask me if I have any interest to learn how to fly or get a job at NASA Langley. And the answer to all those questions is that I’ve never really desired or been interested in any of those things. I’ve had fun times going flying with my dad, but I’m not gunning to be the next Amelia Earhart or Sally Ride. I think it’s awesome and admirable what NASA employees all over the country are doing, but that’s not where my passion lies.

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During my senior year of high school when I did a mentorship in NASA Langley’s Strategic Relations Office. This photo appeared in NASA Langley’s Researcher News alongside an article I wrote about my father. Photo Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Fortunately, my parents have never put any pressure on me to follow in either of their footsteps. Sometimes I do wonder if I wrongfully bypassed that career field, when so many of my peers pursued STEM jobs. The academic culture within the advanced classes track of my public education was full of parents pushing their kids to be the best and most brilliant, to pursue the university degrees and careers that were impressive.

Shetterly’s book and its film adaptation has been lauded for bringing awareness to the work of STEM women at NASA, particularly black women, and consequently, has increased the push for getting kids, particularly minorities and females, interested in careers in STEM. This influence was brought up at the Q&A session, and what struck me most was that she didn’t recognize her work as being solely influential to future engineers, but also to writers.

As a writer, I do find this book and the response it’s received to be inspiring. Shetterly’s presentation at the colloquium, for me, highlighted the importance of journalists, historians, and writers whose work is to capture these stories and accomplishments as they’re unfolding, to remember the faces and names of every person who played a part, not just the pilots and astronauts–everyone. And that felt incredibly important as I sat amongst so many STEM people in a country that has become very STEM-minded.

In high school, I took the aptitude exam for The Governor’s School for Science & Technology, and was accepted, but didn’t go to it because I had no interest in pursuing a career in that area. Likewise, I took AP Physics my senior year (there were four other females besides me in a class of twenty) for pretty much every reason other than that I wanted to go into engineering. My greatest contribution to that class was a typed up collection of funny quotes and conversations from the teacher and my classmates that I’d written in the margins of my notebook over the course of the year. When I presented it to the teacher on our final exam, he laughed so hard he wept. Already, I had become a historian amongst the scientists and engineers.

In some ways, perhaps it’s easier to play the historian than to be an outsider attempting to break into what can seem a daunting world. My high school physics class was overwhelmingly male and entirely white. The bullying from entitled, smart white boys probably doesn’t help either; the few black kids in my advanced classes were called “Oreos” (“black on the outside and white on the inside”); and I was berated by future-engineer-dudes-of-America for wanting to major in English. A guy who attended Gov School informed me that I wasn’t even learning “real” physics in my AP class as the curriculum didn’t involve calculus. Plenty of STEM kids weren’t cruel, but so many of them were so secure in their brilliance and aspirations as high schoolers. I don’t know if college ever karate-chopped their egos, but their Facebook profiles tell me they did achieve their goals.

Pushing through that intimidating STEM wall seems so foreign to many minorities, especially when you consider that it wasn’t until 2016 that a book like Hidden Figures took center stage and captivated audiences. How could we go so long not knowing all these wives and mothers were helping to push our nation forward in aeronautics, and later, the space race? Why aren’t these instances of pushing through racism’s barriers as famed as Rosa Parks’ act of defiance? Maybe that answer lies somewhere in the present-day discussion of A Day Without Women where women are encouraged to not participate in any paid or unpaid work or shop online. I struggle to see what can be achieved by not showing up, because even after all these years of showing up to work, we’ve hardly graced the pages of history. So maybe it’s more important that we keep showing up, working hard, and pushing boundaries. Even moreso, we must keep documenting it, whether a selfie, a tweet, a Facebook status, an email, a research paper or a newspaper article. Because that’s the only way these stories will stay around for others to continue to tell them, to notice their impact and importance long after the media and men have left.

I’m standing outside the Integrated Engineering Services Building at NASA Langley following Margot Lee Shetterly’s colloquium in the Reid Center and holding my freshly signed copy of Hidden Figures. Photo Credit: Paul Stough

As far as my own professional aspirations go, I’m hoping to get into book publishing and help these stories find their audiences, because the audiences do exist. For years, people have claimed there’s no interest in minority narratives, yet as I type this, Hidden Figures continues to soar in the box office, Moonlight beat out La La Land for best film at the Academy Awards, and The Hate U Give, a Young Adult novel authored by a black woman about racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement is currently garnering lots of acclaim and declarations of it being the next YA classic. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like this moment is anything close to significant when you turn on the news and the headlines still reveal our country’s issues with racism and sexism. But we have made progress, and it’s because we stand on the shoulders of those before us who worked hard to give us the opportunities to get closer to bursting through the glass ceiling or tearing down the walls racism and xenophobia have built and continue to try to build.

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