The Oscar nominated film Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the African-American women who computed for NASA. The film celebrates women and math, and examines the struggles of women in the workforce and race relations in the 1960s.

The history leading up to the events in the film can be traced back to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's class of 1930, and trailblazer Virginia Tucker. According to UNCG archivist Erin Lawrimore, Virginia Tucker's pioneering work in aeronautics and mechanical engineering led to her being one of the first women hired as a human computer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor of NASA.

"Her work as a human computer basically meant that she was doing most of the computation. She was taking huge amounts of data that were coming in from wind tunnels, and flight tests, and things like that, and she was using things like slide rules and charts, and to be honest, just her math knowledge to make these really intricate calculations that let the NACA engineers perfect and design their planes."

When Tucker was hired in 1935, there were just five women in the computer pool. By the time Tucker left in 1947 there were over 400 women doing computations for NASA.

Lawrimore says there were a few reasons that women dominated this field:

It was a combination of many things that today we probably would laugh at or be angry at. First of all, they were a whole lot cheaper to hire than men. They also had this interesting notion that the women could do the calculations faster because their hands were smaller. And then they also viewed women as detail oriented and having an ability to kind of stick to a task more. So they hired these women to come in and do these really detailed intricate calculations, leaving the male engineers to do more of the design work and hands-on work with machinery.

African-American women, like those celebrated in Hidden Figures, had many additional challenges as part of this workforce.

These women were actually physically segregated in an area apart from the white women who were working as human computers. Their lunch table was segregated, and their restrooms were segregated.  African-American women started working there in the 1940s when FDR basically desegregated the federal defense industry. But this was also in Virginia where you have Jim Crow laws that are mandating a lot of segregated facilities. So the African-American women had the added racial tension of Jim Crow era legislation, and all sorts of things that were keeping them from even being able to participate fully in the human computer pool.

For more on the contributions of African-American women to the space program, read Scientific American's article here.


*Correction: An earlier version stated that Virginia Tucker left NACA in the 1960s, when in fact she left in 1947. The story has since been altered to reflect this correction.

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