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Hidden Figures and the Ambitious Working Mother

Challenged at work, supported at home, the trio of NASA mathematicians are a bold representation of cooperative black domestic life.

Hopper Stone / Twentieth Century Fox

An early scene in Hidden Figures shows an exhausted Katherine Goble (Taraji Henson) returning to her well-appointed suburban house, hours after sundown. Her NASA colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) have dropped her off before continuing on to their own houses. All three women have multi-child families. Of the three, Katherine is the only widow; Dorothy and Mary have husbands anticipating their return. Katherine opens her door to find her mother waiting up for her at the dining room table. Raucous bickering wafts in from off-screen; Katherine’s three daughters are still awake. When she goes in to chastise them for staying up past their bedtime, they explain that they just wanted to see her and say goodnight.

In a film primarily focused on Katherine’s role in the 1962 leg of the Apollo mission, this intimate scene is long, its early placement intentional. We’re meant to understand the magnitude of what Katherine undertakes at work: We’ve just watched her endure a day of discrimination at NASA’s Langley Research Center as the first black employee in her new division, and now she has to settle a squabble between her girls, listening to their gentle chiding about how little of her time they receive, assuaging their fears of a possible Soviet attack, and finally, tucking them into bed. Hidden Figures has a few other scenes like this one—some provide glimpses into Dorothy and Mary’s lives alongside Katherine’s eventual courtship and remarriage—but all serve to drive home precisely how much more remarkable these black female mathematicians’ accomplishments were, in light of their equally rich and complex home lives.

Hidden Figures—both the film and the book on which it’s based—hold at their core the injustice of an untold, perhaps even suppressed, history. As a viewer, I never stopped feeling the weight of deprivation: I’d spent 37 years of my life unaware of a story that very well could’ve changed the course of it. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard countless other black women voice after viewing the film, and it’s one that has been compounded for me as I’ve started reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. But if the professional accomplishments of Katherine, Dorothy, Mary, and the dozens of other black female mathematicians are little-known, their family lives have been considered even less, though the support they received with homemaking and child-rearing made their amazing feats at NASA possible.

In the film, we see the women bringing their work worries into their off-the-clock lives. At a church picnic, Mary and her husband lightly bicker about her desire to obtain even more education through admission to a segregated engineering program. Her husband balks both at the loftiness of the goal and at the additional time she’d be spending away from home. He angrily spoons collard greens onto their son’s plate, as Mary stands her ground. She warns him not to cause a public scene—as she’d only wind up dressing down in front of his friends—but she also knows he has a point: If she wants his support, she can’t retreat further from the duties of home. When he relents, so does she, backing up his chiding of the children to eat their greens. Later, we see Mary’s husband presenting her with mechanical pencils for her first night class and vowing not to stand in the way of her ambitions again.

Dorothy’s husband has no speaking lines. We only see him twice: Applauding her and her NASA colleagues when the pastor announces their achievements to the congregation, and later, holding her closely at a house party, a beatific smile on his face. These subtle moments go as far to convey her family’s encouragement as a bigger scene with two of her sons at a segregated public library. They watch her attempt to borrow a book she needs to train herself in computer programming, as if interminably hanging in the mathematics stacks with one’s mom is the most natural pastime in the world for preteen boys. When she later reads to them from the book, they listen attentively.

It’s clear that these women needed and received full buy-in from their families as they rose through the ranks of their careers; it would’ve been impossible for them to enter such a rigorous field without it. The book drives this point home early, explaining that one of the first NASA ads target to women bore the tagline, “Reduce your domestic duties!” making clear to potential applicants that a job with Langley meant far less time for household maintenance.

This became a familiar refrain for women across race and class strata during World War II, as necessity for more women workers grew, but Shetterly asserts that black women were, at times, more qualified to fulfill that need, as they had juggled work outside the home and homemaking, far prior to the war. In the cases of the black female computers who gained employment at NASA, most had earned multiple certifications or advanced degrees prior to the war but had not been able to find work outside of teaching at segregated schools. Their families must have been all the more eager to finally see their long academic investment put to practical use.

In conversations about the importance of multicultural representation in media and popular culture, the adage, “you can’t be if you can’t see it,” has gained popularity. Shetterly herself exemplifies that. As the daughter of a pioneering NASA engineer herself, she—like all the children of the earliest black NASA employees—was privy to an insight quite rare to much of black America during the early-to-mid-twentieth century. She understood earlier than most that the potential for black achievement could be downright stratospheric. The film also illustrates this idea through its use of the children onscreen; they draw pictures of their mothers in space and finding themselves with an inside track on the progress of the space race.

Rare is the civil rights-era biopic that gives us this vantage of the black experience. Though discrimination is at play throughout, scholarship and tenacity are even more prominent. Though hushed household tensions do arise between men and women, they are quashed in favor of the family’s health and the woman’s upward mobility. Plenty of factors must have contributed to Hidden Figures winning the box office for its first two wide-release weekends, but the gifts it bestows and restores—a proud history, a beautiful representation of cooperative black families, an empowering pastiche of black womanhood—are what make it an invaluable viewing experience.