Badass Women in History: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan- The Real Hidden Figures

The film (and the novel on which it was based) Hidden Figures, tells the story of three African American women working for NASA at a time when women –let alone BLACK women- working in the field was unheard of.



Beginning in WW2, women were hired (behind the scenes, of course) as “human computers,” performing calculations imperative to the war effort. The military began recruiting African American women after Pearl Harbor, because men were needed to fight in the war. These women were not only paid less than their white counterparts, they were also segregated to the “colored” sections of the facilities where they did their work. Even though these women all had advanced degrees, they were forced to retake college courses they had already passed, and they were almost always passed over for promotions.


Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan were three of these women who were called upon to work for NACA (precursor to NASA) during the Space Race.  They all had advanced degrees in the fields of mathematics, science, and engineering, and became known as the most meticulous –and therefore, the most accurate- “human computers.” They were responsible for computing complex mathematical and scientific equations to make sure that the astronauts would be able to make it to and from outer space safely, such as trajectory of the rocket into space and back.  John Glenn was the first astronaut to openly say that these women (Katherine Johnson, especially) were the only ones he trusted to make the correct calculations.  Johnson worked for NASA until 1986, Dorothy Vaughan retired in 1971, and Mary Jackson in 1985.

If you’ve never watched the film Hidden Figures, definitely check it out. It’s obviously more dramatized and is quite different than the source material, Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, but it’s definitely worth a watch. Octavia Spencer has been one of my faves since she played Minnie Jackson in The Help, so I kinda can’t help but be on board with pretty much anything she’s in.  I plan on picking up the book as soon as I’m done with my to-read list, because these women deserve to be recognized for their work, and their perseverance in the face of racial and gender discrimination.


Thanks for reading, and until next time!