Acknowledging History: “Hidden Figures” NASA Employees Awarded Congressional Gold Medal

On Friday, November 8, the President signed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act into law. The legislation honors Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Dr. Christine Darden, and all of the women whose outsized contributions at NASA (or for some at the time, NACA) during the Space Race-era went unrecognized for decades.  

The legislation bears the same name as the 2017 movie, “Hidden Figures,” which made the women’s story widely known. The four women named in the legislation made critical contributions to the field of aeronautics and mathematics and were known as “human computers,” who completed (by hand) the complex calculations critical to the Voyager and Apollo missions, among others. 

The legislation was introduced and supported in a bipartisan manner by the chairwoman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and the ranking member Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK). The Senate companion bill was introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Kamala Harris (D-CA).  

Rep. Johnson initially introduced the legislation in the last Congress, where it failed to gain much traction due to a lack of Republican support while they were in the majority. However, during the 116th Congress, with the departure of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) as Chair, the House Science Committee has produced a number of bipartisan bills. 

Rep. Johnson’s chairwomanship of the House Science Committee is historic in its own right — she is the first woman and first African-American to serve as chair of the committee. In 1993, she was the first registered nurse elected to Congress and throughout her career she has made equitable access to STEM education a priority of her work. Rep. Johnson’s district includes the city of Dallas and the nearby area, and her background in Texas state politics also includes several historic “firsts” as woman of color serving the state. 

Why it Matters 

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions. Vaughan and Jackson, who have both passed away, are being awarded the honor posthumously. 

For decades the achievements of the women, and in particular Black women, went underappreciated and uncelebrated while they faced unequal wages, harassment, and segregation. Even today, the erasure of women’s contributions to science, technology, and innovation is rampant. This award not only honors these women’s invaluable contributions to science, but also acknowledges the discrimination they endured while changing history.  

What Next 

Check to see if your representatives or senators supported the bill. If they did, reach out to their office and thank them for recognizing the symbolic importance of this legislation. If they didn’t, reach out anyway to let them know you’re happy the bill passed, and that you hope they’ll support measures to recognize the achievements of women in STEM in the future. 

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