Happy Thursday, everybody! We’re back with another list of iconic ladies, as part of our International Women’s Day celebration. So far we’ve covered the musicians, artists, actresses, politicians and lawmakers who help make the world a better place – today’s focus, however, is going to be all about the scientists and pioneers who we feel represent this year’s IWD focus of ‘balance for better’ in their own special way. Let’s kick off our list with a triple-whammy of extraordinary women…
Pioneers and Scientists
The Women of NASA
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson
Everybody knows NASA – otherwise known as the National Aeronautics Space Administration, the agency is known worldwide for its considerable efforts towards space exploration. There have been plenty of astronauts and important figures throughout NASA’s history, though few have been as instrumental – and, sadly, as overlooked – as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
Otherwise known as ‘the Women of NASA’, these three ladies might be considered household names today, but back in the early days of the famous space exploration agency, they were not exactly treated with the respect that their considerable intelligence and skill should command. Each employed by space agencies in the mid-20th century, the women were hired at a time of not only gender discrimination, but racial segregation, too. It’s an upsetting thought to consider that these remarkable individuals were ever deemed unlikely candidates for their position, but in the case of Katherine Johnson in particular, a dogged determination was not going to let racial and gender barriers hold her back. An oral history archived by the National Visionary Leadership Project captured a sense of Johnson’s attitudes towards work, in which she ‘made quick allies of male bosses and colleagues’ due to her knowledge of analytic geometry, and was always assertive in her request to join editorial meetings, ‘where no women had ever gone before’; ‘she had done the work…she belonged.’ Elsewhere, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were employees of NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), where they worked as mathematicians and engineers respectively. Vaughan was the first black supervise at NACA (and one of few female supervisors overall), whilst Jackson worked as part of her team.
The story of the women’s roles at NASA/NACA were documented in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win The Space Race; similarly, their lives are played out onscreen in a movie of a similar name (Hidden Figures) – an emotional watch from start to finish. Both are worth exploring, but what is also worth pointing out is the real-life ladies’ influence on other females around the world who wished to follow in their footsteps. Katherine Johnson has been cited by President Barack Obama as ‘a pioneering example of African-American women in STEM’, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and proving to girls – particularly those from a minority background – that the sky truly is the limit. Dorothy Vaughn worked at NASA-Langley for a total of twenty-eight years, teaching her staff the programming language of FORTRAN and offering opportunity to so many others who wished to work in the field. Mary Jackson, too, worked to help other women and minorities in advancing their careers, advising them on how to study in order to qualify for promotions and also taking on the roles of Federal Women’s Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programmes, and as the Affirmative Programme Manager, where she continued to aid and influence the career paths of women in science, engineering and mathematic positions at NASA. All three women have had phenomenal careers and have inspired countless others around the world to reach for the highest of heights – something the next lady in our list was certainly able to achieve!
Mae C Jemison
The first black woman in space
As a little girl, Mae Carol Jemison dreamed of touching the stars. She assumed, at the age of three years old, that 'going to space' would be as simple and straightforward as 'going to work'. What an accomplishment it must have been, then, when an adult Jemison actually made it into space, as part of NASA's Endeavour mission.
Mae's curiousity and thirst for knowledge remained with her throughout her childhood and into her teenage years, with a 16-year-old Jemison eventually heading to Stamford University. It was here that she noticed that who she was - an Afro-American female - often lead to mistreatment. During her classes (in which she worked towards a major in engineering), she would find that her teachers would treat her as if she were stupid whenever she asked a question; however, should a white male ask the same question later on, they would be praised for their 'astute observations'. However, she would not be deterred by the actions of others, and even went on to serve as the head of the Black Students Union, displaying keen interpersonal and leadership skills early on.
While Jemison would not go on to fulfill any other missions (she chose to depart NASA in 1993 as to pursue other interests), hers is a story which will no doubt have inspired, and will continue to inspire, countless young girls and women around the globe. And while she says that 'being the first black woman in space' was not her main aim ('I wouldn't have cared less if 2000 people had gone up before me...I would have still had my hand up, I want to do this'), her role most likely would have paved the way for many others who have gone after her. (Fun fact: did you know that in light of Women's History Month, NASA will be conducting their first-ever, all-female space walk? You can read more about that here!)
In 2019, astronaut Tim Peake revealed that a UK-assembled rover, destined to head to the Red Planet in 2020, would be named after the famous female pioneer. 'Rosalind Franklin' was selected after a public call for suggestions drew almost 40,000 responses, with her name being the most popular of the bunch. In addition to being a great honour for the Franklin family, the naming of the new rover seems like an excellent fit, as Rosalind's own life was one of discovery and scientific breakthrough. From discovering the molecular structure of DNA to her pioneering use of X-Ray diffraction, she was lightyears ahead of her contemporaries - what a joy it is, then, that her legacy shall continue for many more years to come.
Rosalind Franklin's life was a short one, but an important one indeed. Her 37 years on this earth provided us with the vital information to better understand numerous elements of science, though tragically many feel as if her works have been overlooked. You can read more about Franklin, her discoveries and her struggles (including those relating to sexism in the workplace) by clicking here, but for many of us, her efforts and her name will not be forgotten.
Join us again on Saturday for our final list of remarkable women - next time, we'll be focusing on activists! In the meanwhile, we're offering 10% off all items on our website in light of International Women's Day - the above designs are available for sale in our store across an array of items, such as t-shirts, posters and totes. We are also available for commission pieces - simply reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. Enjoy!