March is National Women’s History Month in the United States, but this year, the observance started a bit early.
On the last Monday in February, women dominated the news. The actions of a brave group of women led to the conviction of a once-powerful Hollywood movie mogul on charges of rape and sexual assault. At the same time, we learned of the passing of a trailblazer who operated far from the media spotlight — an African-American woman whose mathematical calculations were crucial to the success of an American space program long dominated by white men.
Let us start by honoring her.
Katherine Johnson — still beautiful in mind and spirit — died peacefully on February 24th at the age of 101.
The New York TImes summed up her life so well in the first sentence of its obituary:
“They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.”
Long before the days of high-speed computers, Johnson used a pencil, a slide rule and a sharp mathematical mind to calculate and verify the exact trajectories that would enable the successful 1969 space mission to the moon.
Her handwritten numbers and graphs also helped plot the first U.S. manned space flight in 1961, and in 1962, made it possible for John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the earth.
In all, she spent 33 years at NASA — the US space agency — working in relative obscurity, known only to those directly involved in space fight. As agency historian Bill Barry put it in a 2017 interview with the Washington Post: “She had a singular intellect, curiosity and skill set in mathematics that enabled her to make many contributions, each of which might be considered worthy of a single lifetime.”
Decades passed and while we became familiar with the names of our pioneering astronauts, almost no one knew of Katherine Johnson — the black woman with a mind like a computer, whose love of math took her from a small town in West Virginia to a job as a school teacher and ultimately to NASA’s flight research division.
All that changed in 2015 when President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor. The formal citation read: “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
The next year, her life and times were celebrated in a book and a hit Hollywood film called “Hidden Figures” that told the story of the small group of brilliant African-American women who served as mathematicians in the early years of American space exploration.
They joined NASA in the days before the civil rights movement — and had to deal with segregated offices, and even bathrooms. But over time, their work — all those calculations conducted with basic tools — won them acceptance.
“NASA was a very professional organization,” Johnson told in interviewer in 2010, adding that they didn’t have time to be concerned about her race.
In her post-retirement years, she became an advocate for teaching kids about mathematics, and eventually — thanks in large part to “Hidden Figures” — an inspiration to countless young women and girls who through her example came to realize that they too could reach for the stars.
We don’t know what she thought of the #MeToo Movement against sexual abuse and harassment that came to life in her final years. But I can’t help but think this woman who overcame entrenched stereotypes of race and gender would understand and support the bravery of women who realized they could no longer stay silent about all they had suffered at the hands of powerful men.
They included men like Harvey Weinstein — the legendary Hollywood producer behind such films as “Pulp Fiction,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “The King’s Speech,” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
For decades, perhaps the worst kept secret in the movie business was his predilection for beautiful young women, and his habit of luring them for sex.
In 2017 — the same year “Hidden Figures” was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture — the wall of silence surrounding Weinstein came tumbling down.
One victim after another began to come forward, sharing their stories with reporters from the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine. When their allegations went public, other women in all walks of life found the courage to speak out about the abuse and harassment they had also endured. A movement was born as they turned to social media — a movement known by its Twitter hashtag #MeToo.
Charges were filed against Weinstein in New York and Los Angeles. The New York trial – marked by lurid and emotional testimony from 6 of his 90-plus accusers — went first. Finally — in a scene worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster — the jury of seven men and five women released its verdict.
The panel found Harvey Weinstein guilty on one count of rape and one count of committing a criminal sex act, which together could result in a sentence of up to 29 years in prison. He was acquitted on more severe charges of predatory sexual assault, which could have put him in jail for life.
It was a partial victory for his victims but a victory nonetheless.
Actress Ashley Judd — an accuser who was not directly involved in the New York trial— tweeted after the verdict: “For the women who testified in this case, and walked through traumatic hell, you did a public service to girls and women everywhere.”
And then there was this from Tarana Burke, who coined the MeToo hashtag on social media and then created an organization with the same name. In a written statement, she said:
“This case reminds us that sexual violence thrives on unchecked power and privilege. The implications reverberate far beyond Hollywood and into the daily lives of all of us in the rest of the world. Whether you are an office worker, a nanny, an assistant, a cook, a factory worker— we all have to deal with the specter of sexual violence derailing our lives. And, though today a man has been found guilty, we have to wonder whether anyone will care about the rest of us tomorrow. This is why we say MeToo.”
We honor the power of brave women to find their voice and make a difference — with a pencil and a slide rule or with the creation of a movement.
As America enters Women’s History Month, we celebrate them all— those who took America to the moon… and those who found the courage to say “Me Too.”