As women, we are constantly working hard to make a statement in a world that is mostly dominated by men. But as black woman, we have to strive twice as hard to get the same amount of respect as everyone else. There are some great black women of our time who have pioneered their way into greatness and set the standard in certain fields of work.
Although a traditionalist at heart, Michelle Obama knew from a very young age that she was different than most girls. It was her industriousness, class, and hard-driven nature that set her apart. These traits followed her through her adulthood and eventually made her the first black First Lady of the United States. She had a very humble upbringing that prompted her to strive until striving became thriving! Of course, she faced insecurities and challenges, such as living in a rural community with little opportunity in education and personal inadequacy. She would constantly ask herself, “Am I good enough?” Despite achieving academic heights and graduating from Harvard and Princeton, she somehow felt that she wasn’t worth her accomplishments.
But Michelle had to catch up to her greatness. She would do this by meshing who she is and what she stood for with every job she took on in her life. Although her marriage to Barack Obama steadily pulled her away from the conventional life she’d always known, she had to overcome a major hurdle: to take on a life that had more control over her than she did. Michelle felt more comfortable being in control over every aspect of her life instead of living a spontaneous one as our former First Lady. It terrified her!
One thing that kept her grounded and motivated was incorporating some aspects of her old life into her new one: grocery shopping, gathering together with her old friends, practicing aerobics, and especially marrying her passions with her new role. Her passions included advocating for education and nutrition and planting a garden, all of which gave her abundant success and made her a living legend.
Fiercely intelligent and precociously gifted with numbers, Katherine Johnson was always led by her extreme curiosity and was driven to do her best. Her drive, curiosity, and talent took her far and made her one of the first black female computers for NASA.
Her journey as a legendary mathematician skyrocketed at a young age when her brilliance with numbers shot her several school grades ahead. By the time she was thirteen, she was already taking college-level courses. At eighteen, she enrolled in the historically black West Virginia State College and majored in mathematics. She graduated with the highest honors and devoted herself to a short-lived teaching career. When she heard about job openings at the West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Laboratory, she and her family moved to Newport News, Virginia, to pursue a new career.
Johnson had several breakthroughs during this career, one of which included the 1962 orbital mission of astronomer John Glenn for the Friendship 7 mission. Katherine was asked by Glenn to do the work that the most sophisticated IBM computers at the time would normally do – calculate the trajectory of the capsule from blast off to splashdown. Glenn did not want to risk technological malfunctions that would cause the IBM computers to shut down while he traveled, so he asked Katherine to perform the calculations by hand. “If [the numbers] are good, then I’m ready to go,” said Glenn. Because of Katherine’s impeccable ability with numbers and computations, Glenn’s flight was a success! It’s believable that Katherine only wanted to get her job done right at the time instead of focusing on whether or not she would become legendary.
It’s not about trying to break the mold; it’s about actually doing it. These women probably didn’t even know they would become pioneers, but somewhere along their journey and in the midst of their breakthroughs and accomplishments, perhaps they felt they had the capacity to shake the world.
Part 2 will explore the lives of Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, the other black women who were NASA pioneers.