The book Hidden Figure echos the image of gender inequality and racial discrimination during the 1930s to 1960s in the U.S. It was written by Margot Lee Shetterly and published in 2016. The book portrays the lives of three female mathematicians: Katherin Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, along with Christine Darden, and how they all stood up against discriminations as African-American women.
Before significant contributions were made from the minorities during World War II, gender and racial discriminations were major issues. According to the book, the science field was heavily dominant by white males during the mid 1900s. This is because of the perception of gender roles during that time when women were expected to do house chores and take care of children. Based on studies, up to 80% thought that it was wrong for wives to go to work. Katherine Jonhson was forced to drop out of school because she was expected to start a family.
Dorothy Vaughan, though was persistent in pursuing her dream of getting a master degree in mathematics at Howard University, had no other choice but to stop as well so she could support her sister to go to college. Because of this perception, “United States still struggled to find a place for women and Negroes in its science workplace, and in society at large” during this era. A part of which contributed to this was because of the lack of of education women received, especially the African-American population. Lower education received results in lower income, “Black counterparts might earn 50 percent less” than white males. This is why they had to take on more than one job to be able to support their family. In the book, Dorothy Vaughan had to work in the military laundry so she could make enough to send her children to school.
Having so many jobs prevented women and other minorities from being able to afford the time and money to access education. “In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earrned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers” proves the dominance of white males in the science field, as women with higher education were expected to become teachers. Any women who wished to chase after their dreams and career had to give up their future of getting married or else they would create conflicts with their partner within the household. This trend rather improved during World War II, where men were sent to war and job demand was high. Women and minorities had more job opportunities, however, it did not last long as men returned from the war.
Through the stories of the four African-American women in the book, the audience is taught that there were limitations for being born a certain gender or race during this time period in the U.S. It was long until black female mathematicians were welcomed to work, however there was still discrimination. This is portrayed through the fact that when black women were employed by white engineers, they were forced to work in segregated areas at the National Adviosry Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Areas showing clear discrimination includes “colored bathrooms” and “colored computers”, which the only things employees off color wwere allowed to use. As black mathematicians, these employees did not receive the credit they deserved. They would get double-checked on because others did not think as highly of their work as white men’s. It is significantly more difficultue for a woman of color to receive a promotion, even when they are more skilled than men. This is demonstrated through Dorothy Vaughan’s request for a promotino that was denied withouth any reasonable explanations.
After years of asking for a promotion, Dorothy Vaughan finally received what she deserved, “The idea of installing the first black manager in all of NACA’s expanding national empire caused them to demur, lest they stoke the racial anxieties among members of laboratory and in the town.” There was a bias towards male employees so women and minorities had to work many times harder to possibly receive similar treatments. Another instance of this inequality is shown through Katherine Johnson, when she entered a flight research division group and a white male got up instantly to stay far away from her. Along with that is Mary Jackson, who felt like she was being “demoted from professional mathematicians to a second-class human being” when her request of using the same bathroom with everyone else was rejected and laughed upon. At NACA, the attitude of “they were women after all” was very common.
The lives of the four African-American women in the book were clearly affected by the American Cold War. When Dorothy Vaughan was concerned about her position after World War II ended, President Eisenhower signed the treaty of The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) to encourage equality, securing her job. She remained at NASA and learned to program rocket launching herself. On the other side, Mary Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer. On October 4, 157, NACA began its new chapter of researching on space travel, which created an opportunity for Katherin Johnson to showcase her talents in helping send an American Astronaut to outerspace. Women population in the science field and specifically in NACA increased tremendously, which led to NACA’s announcement of ending double standard regarding race that existed in the country at the time. Katherine Johnson was able to bring her career to a new level: calculating rocket trajectories into space, preparing space technology, building spacecrafts and figuring out the safety of each project. The Lunar Landing Mission Apollo 11 and USA’s first orbital flight of John Glenn were successful with her contributins.
My perception of the present days or my understanding of the 20th century history did not change after reading this book. Even when there is an increase in female corporate leaders and world leaders today, there are still parts of our society that believes women or minorities do not fit to certain jobs and create stereotypes about them. There are still unfair and mistreatments in the workplace. Eliminating bias and objectively leveraging people based on their skills to create a better world for mankind will take a much longer time than we expect. Nevertheless, women and minorities have contributed significantly to American economy. In my opinion, the stories of the four women are of unsung heroes. If not for their hard work and drive for a change, the USA’s national ranking of science would not have been in top ten of the world.
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