A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

December 16, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

When we think of STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — we tend to think of male-dominated worlds of startups and computers: Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs. So then where does Hidden Figures, the story of a group of African-American women mathematicians belong? These women answered a call to work for the government during World War II, doing the essential calculations to build aerodynamic fighter planes, then stayed to work at what became NASA — and eventually did the computations to put John Glenn on the moon. These women, with their human brain power alone, did the number crunching — they were called human “computers” — that today we give over and take for granted as being done by non-human machines.

coverEqually fascinating to me, and one of the reasons I pulled this book from my precarious towering pile, was that it didn’t haven any blurbs screaming MAJOR MOTION PICTURE COMING SOON! (which I found out later) — it had no blurbs at all. Indeed, in Hidden Figures, true to its quiet presentation, the historical narrative is straightforward, and gets the storytelling job done, much like Dorothy “Dot” Vaughn, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and the other women who spent their days and talents doing such reliably superb work that they were often favored over the male engineers and mathematicians. Math doesn’t care who does it: “In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong,” said Katherine Johnson.

To make good on Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory’s “Victory Through Airpower!” motto, there were a lot of calculations to be done; the first female computing pool made its debut in 1935 — to much objection from the male engineers. But when the need for human computational experts still far exceeded the number of people employed, Langley began reaching out to qualified African-American women; indeed applications no longer required photos — a mandate from the old Woodrow Wilson administration. A building, “West Computing,” was commissioned at Langley to house these workers sorely needed by a nation at war. But while people like Dorothy Vaughn (who later made it into management) were now working side by side with whites doing the same work, they would still have to face the discriminatory walk through labyrinthine corridors until they found the washroom with the sign COLORED GIRLS.

For hours a day, the human computers set about calculating angles of air resistance and drag, finding the best wing shapes and using equations such the Whitcomb area rule to engineer aircraft shapes able to reach transonic and supersonic speeds, developed and tested at Langley in the 1930s and ’40s. In the postwar period, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) began to look heavenward and became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — i.e., NASA — and many of the Langley computers were transferred there, as the mission in peacetime became to conquer space.

Even though this took place in a different century, this in some ways is a perfect book for our times. A desperate government was willing to override preconceived notions of gender and race for more overarching goals. Not to mention that, coincidentally, women were paid less for the same work, classified as entry-level “computers” rather then mathematicians and engineers, a title and salary that all the men with similar (or even lesser) credentials received automatically.

Today’s “we pick the most qualified people,” is code for keeping white men  in power. Here, when the government literally needed to hire the most talented people — they turned out to be women, not men, and African American, not white (or Asian — as anti-Asian immigration laws from the 1920s kept the Asian-American population low) — the urgencies of war and then the space race with the Russians set these exigencies on a collision course with segregation.

In 1941, to help fulfill the enormous labor needs of the military, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 — “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries and in Government, because of race, creed, color, or national origin” — the first Presidential directive on race since Reconstruction. However, Virginia, where Langley was based, was a segregationist state (the Loving v. Virginia miscegenation case would challenge the state two decades later) and the African-American women of the West Computing group had to sit at a cafeteria table designated for COLORED COMPUTERS. One computer, Miriam Mann, started her one-person resistance by disposing of the sign daily, hiding it in her purse. But the next day, a new sign would appear. “They are going to fire you over that sign, Miriam,” her husband said. But she kept on with her quiet fight until finally one day the sign was no longer replaced.

This book comes at a time when a U.S. election has seemingly fractured the populace beyond repair. For the black female computers, FDR’s directive provided an opportunity for these women to become breadwinners (with the social esteem they received from their meaningful work) and pull their families into the middle class. With unequal pay for women, and for African Americans, a job like this for the government was indeed appealing. How these women then navigated this workplace — especially with the space race coinciding with the efflorescence of the civil rights movement pushing against Jim Crow — shows that there are ways to fight injustice while also getting a man on the moon.

The story is engagingly told with a minimum of writerly embellishment, a perfect choice given how the history itself is substantial and full of quiet drama: from the women’s sometimes ambitious, sometimes witty resistance, to the humiliations of so-called “separate but equal,” to astronaut John Glenn’s warmth to his team and his coolness under the unimaginable pressure of attempting a feat no one was even sure was possible — while two Russian cosmonauts had already orbited the Earth multiple times (not to mention Sputnik slowly, unnervingly beeping in American skies), America was attempting to put a human into orbit for the first time.

Hidden Figures also tells a fascinating story of technology, as the first automated computers began to infiltrate the human workplace at this time — it could do in hours what took the most gifted mathematical savant days. For NASA, the stakes couldn’t have been higher: previously, the longest any American had been in space was for 15 minutes, in a sub-orbital flight. But before the launch, John Glenn insisted that the voluminous electronic computations be double-checked by none other than Katherine Vaughn. Human brain versus electronic computer: once she confirmed the numbers matched, Glenn proceeded onto the historic flight of the Friendship 7, which would put an American into deep space for the first time.

On an individual level, these women were part of the “talented tenth” wanting to ensure a solid future for their children — and to change the world. Collectively, the women pushed America forward even at the expense of their own burgeoning careers; Mary Jackson, achieving the coveted level of GS-12 Aeronautical Engineer as a black woman, didn’t do enough to help the advancement of others, she felt. So at age 58, she took a demotion to GS-11 to become the head of the Federal Women’s Program, committed to helping all women advance — a way, she felt, to naturally bridge racial differences.

While there has been scattered acknowledgement of this history — Katherine Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama last year, this collective story has, until now, indeed been that of “hidden figures.”

I think of how these women’s work touched even our tiny corner of northern Minnesota: my father, a Korean immigrant, helping my brother with his junior high science fair project — a scale recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently the Apollo 11 astronauts had been much less sure that they would succeed in getting to the moon. However one person, Katherine Johnson, had confidence: she knew her numbers putting them there were irrevocably right.

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is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her novel, The Evening Hero, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (May 2022). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.