Hidden Figures: Black Women in the History of Computing (by Sytze Van Herck)

As a source of inspiration, motivation, and recreation, my colleague Eva Andersen and I went to the screening of Hidden Figures in Kirchberg after our first full week of “being a PhD student”. As I will focus on 20th-Century Women in Computer Science and zoomed in on African-American women for my literature review, the film proved an ideal illustration of this particular group of women. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the concept of intersectionality when she studied violence against women of colour in 1991.[1] Even though she strictly treated the race-class-gender relationship, the term has evolved over the years now including “additional axes of difference including sexuality and ability.”[2] It specifically demonstrates the intersectionality of age, location, class, race, and gender, unavoidable in discussing such a large group of people. Now for the first question: what is the film about?


This blogpost is a summary of the full article which is available in PDF. You’re just one click away!



HIDDEN FIGURES is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.[3]

In order to understand underlying and at times clearly exposed tensions, four main themes arise: segregation and race, gender and class, American society, and finally the IT culture. Although these themes seem clearly defined, in reality and in the film they often intertwine into complex narratives and scenes with hidden messages. Therefore, it does not make sense to rigidly discuss each theme separately, but to embrace their intersection.

The exception: education past the eighth grade

In the opening scene we see a meeting of Katherine’s parents with the principal of her school and her teacher, urging them to accept a scholarship and some money for the trip to send her to the West Virginia Collegiate Institute. In a reaction to an insult, Katherine proudly responds, “I was the first Negro female student at West Virginia University Graduate School.” [4] Starting around the turn of the century, “growing numbers of Black women had the opportunity to enter college and the professions,” but “the masses of Black women were still relegated to domestic and menial work.”[5] By 1952 62.4% of degrees from Black colleges went to women.[6] However, “Black women were caught between the two functions they were expected to fulfill: enhancing the material quality of life for their families, and at the same time behaving like housewives.”[7] Another important remark here concerns the fact that the three protagonists were educated and belonged to the middle-classes.  Even though the film does not mention or show the poorer classes, it is necessary to note that the women in this film do not represent American Black women in the 1960s, and their position was an exception, rather than the rule.

The East Group vs. the West Group at NASA

When the three women arrive at NASA, they go to the West Group for coloured people where the toilets are not clean, the desks put closely together, and the building blocks exposed. This stands in stark contrast to the architectural details and finishes at the East Group for White people, who get a nicely decorated office and even an armchair in the bathroom. Furthermore, Dorothy has to fulfill the function of a supervisor for the Coloured group, but since they are not assigning a permanent supervisor, she does not get the title or the pay. When she finds out about the construction of an IBM mainframe computer which will eventually take over the function of human “Computers”, she decides to take matters into her own hands. At the library the book on FORTRAN does not belong to the Coloured section, but before the guards can turn her out, she manages to put the book in her purse. She then teaches herself and her division all the necessary skills to manage the machine in order to retain their jobs at NASA, since “somewhere down the line a human being is going to have to hit the buttons.”[8]

In the meantime she is able to assign Mary a permanent position, and she sends Katherine to the Space Task Computer group. Confronted with a group of White men, Katherine faces discrimination on several levels. When she first enters, someone hands her the dustbins assuming she is the custodian. When she puts the bin back down to go to her place, she is stared at as if she is an alien from outer space. I would like to insert a small personal experience: people stared at me the exact same way when I first entered the Computer Science Department of KU Leuven as a Digital Humanities student. Followed by that awkward entry, Katherine faces another challenge, since the bathroom for coloured women is 40 minutes away. After her boss confronts her about her constant absence, she bursts out:

Mr. Harris:          Now where the hell do you go every day?
Katherine:          To the bathroom, sir.
Mr. Harris:          The bathroom! To the damn bathroom! For 40 minutes a day!? What do you do in there!? We are T-minus zero here. I put a lot of faith in you.
Katherine:          There’s no bathroom for me here.
Mr. Harris:          What do you mean there’s no bathroom for you here?
Katherine:          There is no bathroom! There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus. Which is half a mile away! Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison? My uniform. Skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the coloreds enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living of coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me, if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day![9]

When it dawns on her boss that the racism and discrimination is hindering her work, he personally goes to the West Wing to break down the sign reading “colored bathroom”. In front of surprised Black women he shouts “There you have it! No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. Just plain old toilets. Go wherever you damn well please. Preferably closer to your desk. At NASA…We all pee the same color!”[10]

Hierarchical Structures: “Fast with rocket ships. Slow with advancement.”

At NASA, several hierarchies present themselves, not least in the form of Women of Colour being addressed by their first name, whereas White women and men were addressed by their last name. One finding I could not have made manually occurred to me after running the script in the Voyant tool.[11] Through textual analysis, it became clear that the most frequent words are Yes (71 instances) and sir (69 instances), often occurring together.[12] When talking to supervisors or other staff higher on the hierarchical ladder, others need to address them in the polite, but almost submissive “Yes Sir.”

Furthermore even middle-class and educated women were restricted to female fields, clearly demonstrated in two instances. Firstly, in the film all Computers were female, and all engineers were male, accompanied by a female secretary. The second example of this restriction reveals itself in the tension between Mr. Stafford and Katherine in two instances. When Katherine arrives, one of her first jobs is to double-check Mr. Stafford’s math, which he immediately perceives as an insult to his work. As a result, he hinders her by crossing out all classified information, thus effectively doubling her workload. Later, she has to type his reports and when she adds her name to the list of authors because she contributed, he viciously responds “Computers don’t author reports,” obliging her to retype the front page.[13]

To conclude, I would like to briefly explain why the concept of intersectionality and the context of Hidden Figures fits into my research. The reason it is important to consider intersectionality in research on women lies in the fact that “intersectionality resists binary logic, encourages complex analysis, and foregrounds difference.”[14] Instead of restricting myself to studying White Western-European women in the field of Computer Science, I want to involve women with different ethnic, racial, geographical, and religious backgrounds who belong to different classes and have different levels of education. The Women of Colour represented in this film and belonging to the educated Christian African-American middle-classes are therefore only part of the complex puzzle that creates the backdrop for my research.

Sytze Van Herck

Please click here to read the full article.



[1] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no.6 (1991): 1241-1299, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039.

[2] Roopika Risam, “Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities”, DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 9, no.2 (2015), http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/2/000208/000208.html.

[3] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox, accessed March 16, 2017, http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/hidden-figures.

[4] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[5] Paula J. Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (Harper Collins, 2009), 73-74.

[6] Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 235.

[7] Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 248.

[8] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[9] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[10] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[11] “Voyant Tools,” Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, last modified 2017, voyant-tools.org.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Hidden Figures,” 20th Century Fox.

[14] Risam, “Beyond the Margins”, DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly.



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