Women should not have to be extraordinary to earn respect

The women in Hidden Figures overcome prejudice with their genius. But what about women who aren't so

The women in Hidden Figures overcome prejudice with their genius. But what about women who aren't so able? Picture: PA - Credit: PA

It can be no coincidence that the BBC has chosen these current times to dramatise Len Deighton's 1978 novel SS-GB about an imagined Nazi occupation of Britain.

Deighton's dystopian vision requires us to stretch our imaginations to conceive of what life might be like in a world led by a starey-eyed, humourless ranter who views democratic debate as a challenge to his authority and has as much subtlety and intellect as the proverbial jackboot. (No, I can't imagine that at all either).

Another well timed drama is the film Hidden Figures, which I watched at the weekend. It tells of three brilliant women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who worked for NASA in the 1960s and made key contributions to the Space Race.

The film focuses predominantly on Katherine and the disgraceful indignities she experienced such as having to walk half a mile to the 'colored ladies' bathroom and having her coffee pot labelled 'colored', because the men in her office were apparently unable to stomach sharing the same jug as a woman whose intellect wiped the floor with theirs.

The message of the film seemed to be that with dignity, determination and intellectual superiority you can defeat prejudice. Dorothy became NASA's first black female supervisor because she taught herself to work the IBM computer which left her male colleagues baffled. Mary won a court fight to attend the all white classes she needed to become NASA's first black female engineer while Katherine was selected by John Glenn to 'check the numbers' which led to his historic orbiting of the Earth because time and again she proved to be far better at it than her male 'superiors'.

By the end, the men were making Katherine's coffee. Good.

Yet, the scenes where Katherine was the only woman in a room full of louder men, the fact that all the women had to battle to be taken seriously rather than their competence being taken as read (as it would be if they were white men) and the fact that they had to be twice as brilliant as their male counterparts to win any respect at all will have resonated with working women everywhere. As the first US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: 'There's plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.' As much now, as then, it is still true.

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