Yes, I’m an advocate of women’s empowerment – for both millennials and non-millennials alike — though I do believe that it’s important for millennial women in particular to empower women of all ages.
I’d never heard the story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson and their contributions to NASA prior to the United States’ first trip around the Earth, courtesy of John Glenn (one of the many notables who passed in 2016). I feel like an awful women’s libber for that, because their story is more than inspiring and worth sharing. It also tremendously lends itself to the Civil Rights movement and showcases tremendous bravery from WOC. At the same time, I’d like to write a letter to my high school and ask just why their story was redacted from my 11th grade U.S. History class.
Anyway, without further ado…
The film opens with a young Katherine Johnson – known as Katherine Coleman at the time – sitting in the admissions office of a school with her parents, with an administrator insisting that Katherine enroll in college-level courses out of state, at age 12. She quickly showed off her skills to a class filled with those many years her senior. And in the next shot, Katherine and her parents are off to the school that will be more suited to her exceptional intelligence.
Fast forward to Katherine’s (Taraji P. Henson) adult life, where we find her in a broken down car with two friends. We find out within minutes that the friends are Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, one of my favorites since The Help) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The racial tensions of the era are demonstrated immediately, as the women are concerned about the untimely arrival of a white, male cop driving up the road. Once the women prove to the cop that they are indeed headed to work at NASA, the cop is so stunned that he follows their car to work himself, serving as their own police escort. Mary sums up the situation – “Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down a highway in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle.”
So, what should millennials — men and women alike — get out of seeing what happens from this initial moment, especially considering we were not alive during the time period?
We should allow ourselves to be inspired. Without getting into too many of the narrative details of the film, we then have the privilege of watching the careers of these three women. And the best thing that I could have done while watching was to allow myself to be inspired by their obstacles.
They found themselves unable to advance to higher positions. For Dorothy it was a promotion to a supervisor position, for Mary it was a result of the educational requirements changing and for Katherine it was different treatment, or “othering,” by her co-workers in a new, more advanced department. They didn’t advance due to the sole fact that they were negro women working in a field highly dominated by white men.
But…the barriers did not stop them from chasing what they knew they deserved. Dorothy kept dropping not-so-subtle hints about the supervisor position. Mary researched what she needed to do to earn the course credits she needed to move up. And Katherine stayed late, but worked humbly and harder than anyone in the department that was working toward finding the necessary calculations to get John Glenn into space.
Once these initial tactics didn’t work, all three women took truly drastic measures for the time. Dorothy snuck into the room that housed NASA’s first IBM computer and figured out how to work it. Once she was discovered, she was initially reprimanded…but was later offered the supervisor position. Mary petitioned a court to allow her to attend an all-white school so that she could take the required courses for the position she desired.
Millennials, we can apply these situations to our own lives. You want that job? Ask for it. Show just how much you deserve it. Prove yourself. Make your supervisors (even those who may have negative notions about millennials) notice.
What’s another takeaway here? Empowerment. Katherine’s breakout moment was one of my highlights of the film. After weeks of grueling calculations and mistreatment by her white co-workers (involving their forcing her to drink coffee from a separate pot), she gave the department and her boss a speech they’d never forget, coming after her boss had discovered that she went missing for about 40 minutes at the same time every day. Why? Because there was no colored bathroom in the building where Katherine worked, so she left and walked a half-mile to the building that housed her old department…where she knew there was a bathroom for her.
The speech did the trick, at least from her boss’, Al Harris’ (played by the incomparable Kevin Costner) perspective. He took the “white ladies bathroom” sign down the very next day, proving that not only was Katherine empowered to give that speech, but that he was also empowered to make necessary change.
A REAL LIFE HAPPY ENDING
While every feel-good film needs a happy ending, this happy ending was based on true events. Thanks to their inspiring efforts to stand up for themselves and what is truly right, all three women made contributions to John Glenn’s tri-orbit flight. And Katherine, who was moved back to her original department, was called upon by John Glenn himself to verify the calculations needed for his flight.
Of course, women’s empowerment takes center stage here –-particularly for WOC—and empowerment for all people of color. While we’ve come a long way from having separate restrooms, water fountains, and coffee pots, as evidenced by many recent events, we still have a great deal to work toward. Hidden Figures is an excellent reminder to look back at what was and to hold ourselves accountable – we don’t want to regress back to the days pre-Civil Rights movement.
But let’s put that aside for a second and look at empowerment in general. Millennials, don’t forget to fight for yourself and for what’s right – no matter how large the barrier, how unfair the stereotype (sound familiar?) or how high the glass ceiling. These women surely had bad days and felt discouraged in their collective fight, and that’s okay –- they’re human. But they always picked themselves back up and continued to pursue what they knew they deserved. They had no self-doubt, no shame, and never let up. I too want to be more like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson when I grow up.
If any of the above constitutes a demonstration of values that you hold near and dear to your heart (and good on you if they are), Hidden Figures will have you leaving the movie theater ready to take on the world. To keep changing minds of those who don’t believe in what you do, To fight another day. To not let yourself be unfairly stereotyped. To never give up.