The recent film Hidden Figures is a story about the African-American women working as computers for NASA’s Aeronautical Laboratory. The story has left audiences inspired, but as a woman in STEM, I can’t help but find it odd that people are so surprised by the silent successes of female scientists. Haven’t these stories existed?
RISE OF THE ROCKET GIRLS by Nathalia Holt (Little, Brown, and Company, $16.99) is such a story. Set years before the events of Hidden Figures, Rocket Girls follows similar women working in meager scientific positions before the era of spaceflight. For these women, their roles in labs—which were precursors to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab—were linked, mostly, to the scientific pursuits of their husbands. (Of note, a few, like African-American whiz Janez Lawson, were computers.) Rockets hardly existed, much like respectable jobs for women who savored math, experiments, and the dream of space. This is something we take for granted now, the book reminds us: Spaceflight and female STEM work are no longer lofty dreams.
Uniquely, Holt’s non-fiction book tracks multiple women who played a role in JPL’s formation and eventual takeoff. Yet her approach—the use of non-linear storytelling over more than five characters—backfires at times, and it becomes difficult to store the details of every woman’s life story. No woman feels like the primary protagonist of the book, but maybe that’s the point. The exposure to so many interwoven tales drives home a major theme: The same struggle and story is written into each woman’s life. Most of the stories are half-science, half-womanhood. For instance, many of the women abandon science for marriage or children. The question of whether women can have it all is still relevant, it seems.
The timeline of NASA’s early scientific endeavors is told through the lens of each woman’s life, and by the end, the jet propulsion lab is gazing at planets. Tidbits on physics and planetary science are coupled with strong scene-building using the women’s wardrobe, hair, and feminine characteristics. Such details are great moves by Holt. Unlike The Martian, a fiction work lauded for its supposed adherence to scientific fact, Rocket Girls is a refreshing—and far more real—portrayal of day-to-day habits in science and in life.
For example, an exceptional chapter is one on the “Miss Guided Missile” pageant held by JPL. In this contest, women from different JPL departments would compete to be dubbed the most popular woman in the lab. Holt beautifully describes the dress chosen for wear by Barbara Lewis, a likeable computer, who must still appear smart while maintaining her femininity (e.g. What type of cookies should she bake for the contest?). Holt also uses this scenario to make an interesting point: While the work pageant might seem sexist by today’s standards, the ability to even hold a pageant for women was indicative of the progressive hiring standards of JPL at the time. Most scientific workplaces were male-only.
The meticulous research undergone to craft this book is evident, and each woman’s personal narrative is not just a story of ‘her,’ but a layperson’s guide to both history and science. Holt delivers the type of knowledge that makes me think she would claim victory at any type of trivia.
Holt’s intellect isn’t surprising—she herself is a female scientist. Her bio lists impressive credits of research at MIT and Harvard University. In the preface, we learn that Holt named her daughter after Eleanor Francis, one of the earliest computer programmers at NASA. This spurred the exploration culminating in Rocket Girls. Only some women would be so bold.
Rocket Girls is really a tale of boldness. The guts and sacrifices made to achieve success in the early rocket industry, let alone as a woman, are the reasons later stories like Hidden Figures can now be told.
It would be silly of me to pretend that reading this book wasn’t especially affirming for this young female scientist in a time of turmoil for both women and science. Holt’s book serves as a reminder that women (and scientists!) must fight for their roles in history. It is also a subtler reminder that even the dreams that still may seem reserved for men were, in fact, paved by brilliant women.
Gabrielle-Ann Torre is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.