Last week I participated in an Into Film (North) organised screening of Hidden Figures with a women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) post-screening panel discussion at the historic and beautiful Manchester Central Library. I chaired a post-screening discussion of the movie with two phenomenal women engineers – electrical engineer Dr Ozak Esu and software engineer Jessica Wong – and a room full of teenagers. It was great to see the positivity, enthusiasm, and honesty of the speakers responding to questions about workplace inequality, institutionalised discrimination, and pathways for young women into STEM.
One of the questions we got from the students really got me thinking. One student asked: “If you could go back in time, what would you say to [the women in Hidden Figures]? What would you tell them about the future of women in science?” Ozak answered “I would tell them to keep going!” she also noted that without trailblazing women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan she may not have been able to be engineer today as a woman from an ethnic minority. Women like these were firsts and fought through institutional and casual racism and misogyny just for the opportunity to practice their expertise.
In one of the most moving and inspiring scenes from Hidden Figures Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) fights to attend college credit classes at a local segregated high school – the only school at which she can take the course she needs in order to train to be a NASA engineer. She remarks “I have no choice but to be the first” – because someone has to go first, not just because they might (eventually) be remembered but because others will follow, and change will (eventually) happen.
The black women computers in Hidden Figures were all firsts and their stories are no longer ‘missing’ from NASA’s history. Hidden Figures in both is not just the story of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan but rather all of the women of colour who were part of this era of NASA’s history. Hidden Figures forms part of an emergent Hollywood revolution that has begun to redress the representational imbalance of the industry both in front of and behind the camera. The stories and vitally the people telling those stories are starting to become more diverse but there is, of course, a long way to go. Hidden Figures is a semi-biographical film that uses the cinematic form and fiction to explore a history that had been lost to stories of great white men and the overarching institutional narrative.
As I thought about the question of travelling back in time to speak to the women of Hidden Figures I also thought about the time travel TV series Timeless. A show that has unfortunately been cancelled after only two seasons. The premise of the series is quite straightforward – an evil secret organisation called Rittenhouse steals a time machine (created by a black engineering genius) and the US government employs a historian, Lucy (Abigail Spencer); a scientist, Rufus (Malcolm Barrett); and a soldier, Wyatt (Matt Lanter) to use an earlier edition of the machine (yes, two time machines) to stop Rittenhouse from changing history for their own benefit. The series uses the time travel format to explore what it would be like to go back in time and talk to those historical figures, whilst maintaining history even though they know what happens and how certain groups or individuals will suffer. As the black engineer Rufus remarks “We’re saving rich white guys’ history, a lot of my history sucks” – he understandably struggles with travelling to periods where their mission saves white American history but retains the enslavement and continued abuse of ethnic minorities.
My favourite episode from Timeless‘ first season (Space Race, S1:Ep.8) features Katherine Johnson as the time team travel to 20 July 1962 to stop the disruption of the Apollo 11 mission. The enemy infect the mid-20th century IBM mainframe with a 21st century computer virus and Lucy and Rufus get help from Johnson to access the mainframe and save the launch. It is through Lucy’s knowledge of this hidden figure and Rufus’ work with Katherine that allows for the story and the success. The people often removed from or overlooked by the official accepted histories are essential and Timeless uses its format to subtly explore a US history that is often excluded from the classroom curriculum.
Across the two seasons, Timeless includes not one but four women of science as characters. The show works with the stories of mathematician, Katherine Johnson; actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr, and physicist, Marie Curie and her daughter, nurse Irène Joliot-Curie (who later became a chemist). The episode featuring Hedy Lamarr (Hollywoodland, S2:Ep3), explores her invention of the frequency hopping spread spectrum, a technology that is still used for WIFI and Bluetooth. Katherine Johnson is now more recognisable thanks to Hidden Figures, but Hedy’s story is often still unknown. The 2017 documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story by Alexandra Dean tells the actress/inventor’s fascinating life story and how she came to her scientific discoveries. The creators of Timeless use this star, the way she is often underestimated, and her generally unknown/hidden history as a scientist for their story – as they do with Katherine Johnson – and it is the woman historian’s knowledge of these little-known women’s histories that quite literally save the day.
As I have argued previously, not only do we need to see narratives of exceptional individual women of science – as important as they are – but also stories that do not frame women scientists as the exception or anomalies but rather as part of a diverse community of scientists. Normalising women scientists is as important as celebrating and promoting those who have made major discoveries. Discussions of women scientists in the media are in some senses about changing the cultural perception of science both in the workplace and in general.
Representation matters, because as The Representation Project notes “You can’t be what you can’t see” – so, by moving beyond the limiting stereotypes of what a scientist is and looks like we can not only inspire young people from a range of backgrounds to pursue STEM careers but also potentially change the culture surrounding science. The issue is not with getting young women interested in STEM but rather keeping them by mentoring, encouraging, supporting, and promoting them (the leaky pipeline). Changing media representation (in both fiction and non-fiction) is only one way of affecting change, but it is an important part of long term project to change the sciences in a that way stops constraining people by their race, sexuality, and gender.
Timeless also includes visits with other women who play central roles in major historical moments: Abiah Franklin (mother of Benjamin) at the Salem Witch Trials; US suffragist, Alice Paul and the first the first female United States Attorney, Grace Humiston; Judith Exner who claimed to be the mistress of JFK and several Mafia bosses; Bonnie Parker of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde; and abolitionist and Union Civil War spy Harriet Tubman.