Women Role Models Are Transcendent

By Sara Grimes

When Hidden Figures came out earlier this year, I had my doubts.  What could a sanitized PG movie possibly offer about the messy nuances facing women scientists back before #STEM education was #trending?  As it turns out, a lot.  

The movie traces the journey of Katherine Johnson who works as a human computer, using analytical geometry to check the calculations of NASA’s Project Mercury as the first black woman on the Space Task Team. The shrill injustice of racism is felt viscerally from the indignity of having to drink from a segregated coffee pot to having the bigoted person who tried to segregate her from the team receive the credit for her work.  Yet Katherine Johnson uses her tenacity in the face of human cruelty and mathematical savvy to earn powerful allies and carve out a place for herself on the NASA team by leading the safe landing of Friendship 7, John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth.  

The resonant beauty of stories like Hidden Figures, is that they are powerful enough to change minds, hearts.  Why?  Because of the power of multiple stories.  We have always been told a single story about John Glenn being the first American man to orbit Earth. That story had the power to shape young hearts to aspire to go to space for decades and stuck in the collective psyche as a rare moment in human history that was transcendent.  

Yet when we simply tell one story about John Glenn as the first American man to orbit Earth, we rob ourselves of so many other stories of transcendence.  The story of Katherine Johnson is the story of a black woman who paved the way for many other black women scientists to follow in her footsteps.  Yet until now, it hasn’t been a story we’ve told our youth.  Children need more diverse scientific role models that shatter boundaries and break ground, that can inspire them to question stereotypes and rise above society’s injustices.  

Already, we are seeing the results of empowered women and girls. 70% of the March for Science’s organizing committee was comprised of women. We can no longer afford to settle for the same pop cultural, cinematic, and social tropes about  boys being more scientifically inclined than girls.  Black women don’t just need access to #STEM to “prove themselves.”  They are already rising above the hurdles of bigotry in science roles everyday.  What we need to do is circulate THEIR stories and allow THEIR narratives to shine forth and inspire us.  A single narrative about success is dangerous, but more importantly, diverse narratives are transcendent: they have the power to change our culture.

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Sara recently received her Master’s degree in Public Affairs at University of San Francisco.  She completed this while working full time as social media associate and program manager for  environmental education non-profits NatureBridge and Action for Nature. Sara has been a committed social justice advocate since her days writing cultural content pieces for the University of Washington’s student newspaper through her days serving in Americorps. She enjoys working in social entrepreneurship, since it allows her to invest in the cross section of innovation and active citizenship.Box content