The black women of hidden figures and how they helped change a narrative for women of color.


history, Black women have faced the uphill battles of both racial and gender biases, especially in male-dominated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Even so, many overcome their adverse circumstances, making invaluable contributions to the scientific community, particularly in the United States Space Program. What helped the push to bring more women of color was President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a 1941 executive order into law that prohibited racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense injury, thus paving the way for these advancements. These helped ensure the war effort drew from all of American society after the United States entered World War II in 1942. With the enactment of the two Executive Orders, and with many men going into service, federal agencies such as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) also expanded their hiring and increased recruiting of women, including women of color, to support the war production of airplanes. In 1935, NACA had already established a section of women mathematicians, who performed complex calculations. Although due to Jim Crow laws that required newly hired African American women to work separately from their white women counterparts. They were also required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. So of course with the addition of new jobs, they were still subjected to the disadvantages of the time.

To begin I will be focusing on the career of Katherine johnson one of the women first brought on after the laws were set in place. Her passion for mathematics began at an early age. She skipped several grades and began college courses at West Virginia University when she was thirteen After receiving her doctorate, she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ West Area Computing group, a group of human computational experts (called “computers” before the advent of modern mechanical computers) composed entirely of African American women. Just weeks after Katherine Johnson began a position as one of Langley Research Center's human computers in 1952, supervisors transferred her from the African American computing pool to the flight research division. There, Johnson performed the NASA calculations that made possible the manned space missions of the early 1960s as well as the 1969 moon landing. Even astronaut John Glenn put his full faith in Johnson, requesting she re-do all-electronic computer calculations before he embarked on his 1962 Earth orbits.

Another woman I will be focusing on is Mary Jackson. Ms. Jackson began working under Vaughan's supervision in the segregated West Area Computing section as a computer in 1951. After two years in that role, the former teacher transitioned to working for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki on wind tunnel experiments. At Czarnecki's urging, she took engineering classes, and, after being promoted to aeronautical engineer in 1958, Jackson officially became NASA’s first black female engineer. She was an American mathematician and aerospace engineer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later in 1958 became part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She worked at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for most of her career. She started as a computer at the segregated West Area Computing division in 1951. She took advanced engineering classes and, in 1958, became NASA's first black female engineer. After 34 years at NASA, Jackson had earned the most senior engineering title available. After a time of not being able to attain further promotions without becoming a supervisor. She accepted a demotion to become a manager of both the Federal Women's Program, in the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs and of the Affirmative Action Program. In this role, she worked to influence the hiring and promotion of women in NASA's science, engineering, and mathematics careers. Jackson worked as an engineer in several NASA divisions: the Compressibility Research Division, Full-Scale Research Division, High-Speed Aerodynamics Division, and the Subsonic-Transonic Aerodynamics Division, She later went on to write or be part of 12 technical papers for NACA and NASA. She worked to help women and other minorities to advance their careers, including advising them how to study in order to qualify for promotions. By 1979, Jackson had achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. She decided to take a demotion in order to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field.

Another woman of this time I’m focusing on is Dorothy Vaughan. She was an American mathematician and human computer who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and NASA, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. In 1935, the NACA had established a section of women mathematicians, who performed complex calculations. Vaughan began work for NACA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in 1943. Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computing, a segregated unit, which consisted of only African Americans. In 1949, Vaughan was assigned as the acting head of the West Area Computers, taking over from a white woman who had died. She was the first black supervisor at NACA and one of few female supervisors. She led a group composed entirely of African-American women mathematicians, she also taught the women programming languages and other concepts to prepare them for the transition of new machine computers of the future. An expert in NASA's programming coding language known as FORTRAN, she worked on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program that put America’s first satellites into space. Before her retirement from NASA in 1971, she also worked closely with Johnson on the computations for Glenn's orbital space missions.

The last woman I’m focusing on is Mae Jemison, the first black woman astronaut in space. I’m focusing on her to show what the women back in the day endured to help women in the later years have better opportunities or be first in their own ways as well. Mae Jemison was a woman with many firsts herself. Prior to her career as an astronaut, she also acted as a Peace Corps medical officer for Sierra Leone and Liberia. She was working in the medical field as a General Practitioner and attending graduate engineering classes in Los Angeles when NASA admitted her to its astronaut training program in June 1987. She was part of the first group chosen after the Challenger explosion. She received her first mission on September 28, 1989, when she was selected to join the STS-47 crew as a Mission Specialist. After more than a year of training, she became the first African American woman astronaut, holding the title of science mission specialist. On September 12, 1992, Jemison, along with six other astronauts, launched into space aboard the Endeavour, and with that earned the distinction of being the first African American woman in space as well. During her eight-day mission, Jemison conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness. Jemison has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame.

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