During World War II, women were called up to do “men’s jobs” because the men were off fighting the war. The best and brightest of these women were called into government service for the Manhattan Project and later for NASA, but most did not receive any recognition for their contributions. Even less likely to be in our school history books are the black women among them.
Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in a family of black scientists, engineers, technicians, and teachers. Her new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race goes on sale next month and is already a movie. She writes:
After the start of World War II, Federal agencies and defense contractors across the country coped with a shortage of male number crunchers by hiring women with math skills. America’s aeronautical think tank, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the “NACA”), headquartered at Langley Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, created a pool of female mathematicians who analyzed endless arrays of data from wind tunnel tests of airplane prototypes. Women were thought to be more detail-oriented, their smaller hands better suited for repetitive tasks on the Friden manual adding machines. A “girl” could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job. And male engineers, once freed from laborious math work, could focus on more “serious” conceptual and analytical projects.You can pre-order the book to be released September 6, and the film Hidden Figures will hit theaters in January. (via The Mary Sue)
The war also opened doors for African-Americans. In 1941, under pressure from labor and civil rights leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, and prohibited race-based discrimination in the country’s defense industry. Shortly thereafter, help wanted notices began appearing in Negro newspapers around the country, looking for blacks to fill positions at Federal agencies and defense contractors. Langley advertised in Norfolk, VA’s Journal and Guide, seeking machine shop workers, laborers, janitors—and African-American women with math degrees.
These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus-- thus the moniker, the West Computers. But despite the hardships of working under Virginia's Jim Crow laws, these women went on to make significant contributions to aeronautics, astronautics, and America's victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.