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Hidden Figures, Billie Jean King, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

HiddenfiguresUnfortunately, movie reviews are not my forté. (The Davisite looks forward to the time when our movie reviewer, G. Bruno Fischer, can resume writing his reviews again).  But three recent movies, all focused on women, have me reflecting on what they have in common. 

I've begun to think that all women are, in some sense, hidden figures. 

Hidden Figures is a dramatization of Black female mathematicians – highlighting the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson in particular – who worked at NASA during the Space Race.  The title is thus a double entendre in that the movie is about women who uncovered the unknown and needed figures to calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions, but the women themselves are also of course hidden figures, little known among the general public until the movie (and the book it was based on) were produced.  Even the multi-part miniseries, From the Earth the Moon gave them no mention (unless I am misremembering).  You would think that a movie about math would not be dramatic or exciting.  You would be wrong.  (See also The Imitation Game).

Battle of the Sexes is also a dramatization, focusing on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.  Even though I was pretty young at the time, I remember all the hype about the match.  It really was pitched as a battle of the sexes, and it felt like a lot hung on King winning, which she did, handily.  (Sorry if this is a spoiler!).  The event had a huge effect on me; it was part of a larger 1970s message that women could do anything they chose to do (a promise that has still not been delivered on).  But what I learned from the movie – and I bet I am not the only one who was ignorant of this – was all of the work that Billie Jean King did to establish women’s tennis and get women fair pay and fair treatment, both before the match and since, continuing today.  She is a hidden figure in plain view.

RBG is a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  If you’ve been paying attention, you know the punchline by now: even with the cult-like social media devotion aimed at RBG, I bet that many of her devotees are unaware of how much work she did to set legal precedent for equality for women, especially in the workplace, all before she became a judge and sat on the Supreme Court.  She deserves accolades not just for the last few years of stinging dissents (a position she was forced into, as the movie explains) but also for her decades of tireless and incisive legal social justice work.

So, what is the lesson here?  Well, women, especially women of color, have to fight extremely hard to achieve what they achieve (as all three movies amply demonstrate), and so you can pretty much count on what you know about a successful woman (or probably any woman) to be the tip of the iceberg.  She is a hidden figure. 

And then, I can’t help but be reminded of our Davis City Council race.  Although Gloria Partida was not my candidate of choice – her vision for Davis is not quite the same as mine – I never doubted her ability to do the job intelligently and diligently.  Unfortunately, some of the talk around town did not have the same view, despite her many accomplishments, among them, a career in neurobiology.  But maybe that was part of her “hidden figure,” even though it should have been in plain view.

So, look at the women around you.  What don’t you know about them and what they’ve done, what they believe in, what they fight for?  I bet there is a story there.

Oh, and I recommend all three movies highly.  So, if you haven’t seen them, seek them out!


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