The wonderful new movie "Hidden Figures" is based on the real lives of three black women who worked in the 1950s and ’60s as NASA “computers.” The term refers to women whose job it was to check by hand the accuracy of the complex equations used to propel space heroes such as John Glenn and Alan Shepard in and out of orbit during the Cold War “space race” between Russia and the United States (see “The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA," by Matt Blitz on popularmechanics.com).
Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were female computers and pioneers who did their jobs during a time of racial and gender discrimination while acting with dignity and humanity. As NASA’s historian Billy Barry explained in Blitz's article, “while they did the same work as their white counterparts, (they) were paid less and relegated to the segregated west section of the Langley campus, where they had to use separate dining and bathroom facilities.”
Even under such circumstances, “the women were meticulous and accurate” in their work. Their acute intellects, dignity, integrity and courage — as they strove to achieve, contribute and display their competence — in a field where they were often marginalized, is on grand display in the film.
Faith played an integral role in these women’s lives. They were churchgoers whose Christian faith, its precepts and principles, and the wide support network their biological and church family afforded them, provided the foundation upon which they built their lives.
Patience in adversity, fortitude, integrity and civility, in the face of discrimination and condescension, are hallmarks of Christian discipleship. Women today who strive to live Christ’s gospel can take powerful lessons from these women’s examples and also find strength to persevere and experience the peace and power made available to disciples of Jesus Christ.
Each of these women worked diligently to secure a quality education, strove to do their very best in all they did, and in doing so developed fortitude and a strong work ethic. In a recent interview with Amina Khan on latimes.com, 98-year-old Katherine Johnson was asked if she and others realized “they were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a mathematician, a scientist or an engineer.” She shared her practice of simply doing “what we were asked to do to the best of our ability.”
Mary Jackson overcame numerous barriers to become NASA’s first black female engineer when challenged to do so by senior aeronautical research engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki. Strength to persevere will be given to women who are confident in Jesus Christ and his ability to aid them.
Dorothy Vaughan supervised the west section computers — although initially denied the title of supervisor. When made aware of the introduction of IBM computers to NASA, she knew it would not be long until female computers would be replaced by machines. At that point, she did something extraordinary. She secured a copy of a book on FORTRAN programming and taught herself how to program computers. She worked diligently to stay ahead of the curve and succeeded brilliantly, becoming a supervisor and expert in FORTRAN programming for NASA. Perseverance, fortitude, foresight and lifelong spiritual and secular learning are characteristic of and integral to a life of faith and should be practiced by women of faith in all aspects of their lives.
One challenge, according to Octavia Spencer (who plays Vaughan in the film), that Vaughan articulated in Blitz's article was “the conflict of working outside of the home to provide the best life for your children and yet not physically being there.”
This push-pull is a notable feature in the lives of many women who work outside the home. They feel a longing to have more time with their children, to nurture and impress upon them ethical and moral values. Then and today, difficult decisions regarding parenting, such as the decision to work outside the home, can best be determined in a two- (if unmarried) or three-way (if married) partnership: worked out between oneself, one’s spouse and one’s God. Guidance and counsel from above will give faithful women confidence and ability to proceed correctly.
Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson never anticipated life in the limelight nor did they seek fame. Johnson explained in Khan's article, “The work was ‘secret’ and the public knew only that which was reported from NASA.”
They often worked long and lonely hours, unnoticed by others. Yet how critical their work proved to be to the U.S. space program. Women and mothers of faith today often labor long and lonely hours, their efforts unnoticed by others. Yet how critical and crucial their work will prove to be, and how blessed they will be as, day in and day out, they exemplify their devotion to the Savior and inspire others to do the same.
At age 97, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Accolades rained down upon her yet, but as Johnson stated in Blitz's article, “she was just doing her job and ‘it was another day’s work.’”
Hopefully this same lofty goal will be that of women of faith today whose devotion to Christ is on constant display. There can be no higher aspiration.
Kristine Frederickson writes on topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.