97 years ago today, August 26, 1920 was a monumental step forward for all Americans. It was that day the nineteenth amendment, granting women the right to vote, went into effect. We honor this anniversary each August 26 by celebrating “Women’s Equality Day.”
Passage of the nineteenth amendment was a long, difficult struggle. There were well known leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, but there were also many other women and men who kept fighting and fighting until this battle was won. We owe them not only our gratitude, but the promise to keep pushing for equality for everyone. When all people are allowed to participate, contribute, and share their talents for the good of the world, everyone wins.
It is not us vs. them.
There is only us.
Few people exemplify the importance of equality more than Katherine Johnson, the brilliant African American mathematician who played an integral role in the success of the American space program. Today is her 99th birthday. Hers is a story that should be known by all.
Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. From her earliest days, she was infatuated with numbers. As a child, she was always counting. She recalls, “ I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes I washed. Anything that could be counted, I did.” Not only did she love math, she was brilliant. Katherine finished the eighth grade when she was ten. At that time, there were no High Schools in her area that admitted African Americans. Her father drove her 120 miles so she could continue her education. She graduated at 14. She then went to college at West Virginia State College. She took every math class offered. Several professors took her under their wing. In fact, they even created new classes just for her.
They saw she was special. They saw her talent, work ethic, brains, determination, and character. They realized those were the things that mattered, not her gender or skin color.
Katherine graduated from college at age 18, and began teaching. She stopped when she became a mother to focus on raising her family. In 1952, she learned that N.A.C.A. (national advisory committee for aeronautics), which was the predecessor to N.A.S.A. was hiring women. She got a job there as what were called “Computers”, where her job was essentially to record data. She performed very well, despite the fact that the segregation laws at the time forced her eat, work, and use restrooms separate from her white peers. In fact, the door to the office in which she worked had a sign on it: “Colored Computers.”
She did not allow any of this to deter her. She just kept going, kept working hard, and before long others recognized her immense gifts, and how they could be used to help the space program. In 1961, when Alan Shepard made the first flight by an American into space, the calculations were made by Ms. Johnson. In 1962, N.A.S.A. started using real computers. When John Glenn was about to make the first orbit of the earth by a human, he trusted Ms. Johnson’s calculations more than the computers. Before boarding, he went to her and asked her to double check the computer’s work. In 1969, it was Johnson who calculated mankind’s first trip to the moon and back. She continued to work at N.A.S.A. until 1986. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also has a research facility named after her on the campus of N.A.S.A. Katherine Johnson was faced with two major challenges, being female and being black. Through her determination and hard work, she was able to overcome these barriers.
America and the world got better because Katherine Johnson was allowed to shine. Think about the number of Doctors, Scientists, teachers, and leaders who would have never been allowed to share their talents with us 100 years ago because of things like skin color and gender. These are the things that shouldn’t matter at all. Think about how many other people like Katherine Johnson must have been out there, wanting to help the rest of us, but were never allowed to.
Bigotry and sexism hurt everyone. They are a theft from humanity, a theft from progress, and a theft from our future. Whether it for women or any other group, be on the side of equality. When everyone is allowed in the game, we all win.