Editor’s Blog – remembering ALL the hidden women on International Women’s Day

Editor Lisa Baker shares her annual blog for International Women’s Day

Everyone has heard about Martin Luther King’s assassination – but few have heard of his Mother, Alberta Christine Williams King, who was also assassinated 6 years later.  I learned about her only 5 days ago, so I hope you too, will remember her now.  I wonder how many other women history has forgotten about.

Things in the workplace are now moving forwards – the #METOO campaign is marking the beginning of the end for sexism and harassment for women at work.  Gender Pay is slowly improving, too, and it’s great to see a new female CEO for the Co-Op start work this week in the UK.  There is still so much more to do, but on International Women’s Day I’d like to highlight some of the women who trailblazed their way into history.

History’s trailblazers

Elizabeth Garret Anderson – the UK’s first female doctor

In medicine, female doctors are common these days.  However, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the UK’s first female doctor to qualify in Britain, back in 1865.   When she presented her credentials to the Society of Apothecaries, they refused to administer the examination. Her father, Newson, threatened to sue so the apothecaries reversed their decision and Elizabeth obtained her licence to practice medicine and saw her name enrolled in the Medical Register one year later.

Ada Lovelace – the World’s first Computer Programmer

While Charles Babbage is credited with creating the concept for the world’s first computer back in the 1840’s (although he was unable to build his design in practice), his friend and colleague Ada Lovelace is often forgotten.  She worked with him on his machine design and even wrote the world’s first machine algorithm for his early computing machine that existed only on paper.  While barely mentioned by history, Lovelace is credited as the world’s first computer programmer.

Dorothy Vaughan – the first black supervisor and one of a few female supervisors at NASA

Math genius Dorothy Vaughan joined NASA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, during the height of World War II, leaving her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA to take what she believed would be a temporary war job.

Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians, who were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities. Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley. She became the first black supervisor and one of very few female supervisors within NASA.

In the early days of computing, Dorothy realised her skills as a mathemetician could become obsolete, so she taught herself, and her team the FORTRAN programming language – though she had to steal a book from the library to do it, because there were no programming books in the segregated black section of the library. Dorothy Vaughan became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and she also contributed to the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.  Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971.

Mary Jackson – NASA’s first black female engineer – “somebody has to be the first”

Mary Jackson worked under Dorothy Vaughan, the unofficial supervisor in the segregated West Area Computing Section, where she was assigned to work for for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Czarnecki was impressed and encouraged Jackson to undergo training so that she could be promoted to an engineer – not only unusual for women at that time, but unheard of among African-American women.

Mary was unable to take graduate-level courses in math and physics to qualify for the job, purely because the only program was run by the all-white University of Virginia.

Undeterred, Mary took her case to court and when asked why, as a woman, she wanted to be an engineer, she told the judge ‘somebody has to be the first’.  Mary was granted the right to attend the white only college – but only night classes. Mary was promoted to aerospace engineer in 1958, and became NASA’s first black female engineer, and achieved the most senior title within the engineering department. Mary’s work played a major part in NASA’s understanding of aerodynamics. Her ‘first’ carved the path for many other talented women who only needed the opportunity.

Katherine Johnson – the first woman to receive credit for a NASA research report (and ‘the girl’ John Glenn trusted more than a computer)

Katherine Johnson made her mark quickly on joining Dorothy Vaughan’s office, being assigned within 2 weeks to a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. She spent four years analyzing data from flight test, working on the investigation of a plane crash caused by wake turbulence.

In 1957, Katherine provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a compendium of a series of 1958 lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) and also did the trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight.  In 1960, she and engineer Ted Skopinski coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position. It was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division had received credit as an author of a research report.

Despite the prestige of her role, Katherine did not get equal treatment, as a black woman, there were no bathroom facilities for ‘coloureds’ and she had a half hour walk just to go to the toilet. Similarly, she could not use ‘white’ coffee facilities when she first started work. However, as time progressed segregation was eliminated from NASA.

In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, a vast computer network had been programmed with the orbital equations that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, from blast off to splashdown, but the astronauts did not trust the computers, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts.  As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.” Glenn’s flight was a success, and marked a turning point in the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in space.

Katherine worked on the calculations that helped synch Project Apollo’s Lunar Lander with the moon-orbiting Command and Service Module, also worked on the Space Shuttle and the Earth Resources Satellite, and authored or coauthored 26 research reports.  Katherine retired in 1986, after thirty-three years at Langley. “I loved going to work every single day,” she says.

In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her long list: President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

History’s hidden women

The three women at NASA were highlighted in a film called Hidden Figures – it’s an inspiring and very watchable true story that will now see these women get the memory and recognition they deserve.

Of course, as well as these historical figures, whose stories can be found on Wikipedia, we have a rich history that is hidden.  I wonder how many women whose historical contributions were simply forgotten by history?  The women who perhaps helped built towns, made scientific advances, took a stand, took strides forward and beat challenges in their own way?  There must be millions – a thought that makes me sad – but then I remember, we still forget about women today.  I want to remember them too.

Today’s Hidden Women

Unfortunately, we haven’t only forgotten women from history – and the case for gender equality is about so much more than ‘feminism’.  While we are debating whether it’s acceptable or politically correct to refer to a woman as a ‘bird’ or a ‘bitch’, two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone.  71% of modern slavery victims are women and children, nearly 30 million worldwide.  We won’t hear many of their stories either, and who knows what achievements society is potentially losing out on?   It’s worth mentioning too, that the gender pay gap is still expected to take 217 years to close.  These issues need to be addressed and are far more important than tackling banter in the office, while respect is important.

On International Women’s Day, while honouring those we do remember, let’s pledge to do more to help the women we forget – both from history and closer to home.

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